Last month I sat in my Atlanta hotel room staring at my Blackberry in the early morning when my twitter account lit up. @technosailor, a loyal customer of ours, had tweeted a link to an article written about food trucks on salon.com. I read it. And then I re-read it. I agreed and I disagreed. Regardless, the article, carefully but not always accurately drafted by Aviva Shen, deserves a response.
Although you can read the article for yourself, I’ll quickly brief you on it (if Ms. Shen is going to point out the lawyer in me, then I will employ my legalese to the best of my knowledge). Ms. Shen writes that in the food truck world, a new owner-operator is at the helm all across the country. Former white collar workers – lawyers, Wall-Street analysts, whomever – are now dipping their hands into the restaurant world by launching these modern day food trucks. While they have little to no culinary experience according to Ms. Shen, what they do have is experience in the business world. Under this “umbrella” of experience falls significant marketing and branding knowledge in addition to perhaps even an education in finance, accounting, etc. The premise of Ms. Shen’s article is simple: these modern day food trucks can survive largely on the brand they create and product they promote, rather than on the quality of the actual product itself.
I’ll give Ms. Shen this much – she’s right with respect to the creative branding and marketing that has been put out by the modern day food truck. Have you seen Komodo Food’s truck/website ? And don’t tell me the Lime Truck’s bright green truck wrap doesn’t look appetizing. What Ms. Shen strikes out on is simple: without a great product, food trucks will not survive, marketing be damned. Food trucks are not always accessible. Customers travel from near and far to sample the creative morsels being whipped up in commissary kitchens. A lot of the times, people go out of their way to hunt down a food truck. You think they do this because of creative marketing? Yea, I didn’t think so. Food trucks are held to the same standards that apply to any business in America: fail to put a product out that people want to purchase – in our case a product that tastes good – and your business will collapse. Not many businesses thrive in the modern landscape solely based on the ploys of their marketing department.
Since this isn’t a trial brief, I’m going to make a couple more points and then leave it to you to form your own opinion. There’s an implication in Ms. Shen’s article that anybody with business savvy and some capital banked from a previous high paying gig can murder it in the food truck world. In fact, it may even be dare I say it, easy, to do it. It’s not that easy. Owning a food truck is incredibly grueling work. Don’t believe me? Check out this Q&A and this Behind the Scenes look at Manila Machine, a recently shuttered truck in Los Angeles. I don’t care how much capital you have to start with – if you are long on capital but short on work ethic, you will fail in this business. And you will fail within weeks, not years. It’s a 6-7 day a week job, with constant attention to detail. Perhaps, Ms. Shen, those food trucks you cited are successful because of the work ethic adopted by the owners in those white collar industries – in addition to the business savvy and marketing/branding prowess which carried over.
Finally, is it wrong that certain truck owners didn’t pay their dues in the restaurant industry before they launched their own trucks? In case you didn’t get the memo, business school, law school, working at an i-bank, whatever, are all grueling tasks which can at times eat the life out of you. Moreover, if owner/operators didn’t pay their dues in their previous career, I can guarantee you that they are paying them now.