It’s difficult to discuss food trucks without resorting to adjectives as earthy as the diesel in their portable power generators. Try it. It always comes out as “the humble, authentic, grounded food truck.” Or “the simple comforts of genuine, hand-made grub.” And so on.
But the entrepreneurs behind thousands of successful food trucks are more than just home-spun, self-taught combinators of fat, salt, and carbs.
In fact, they’ve built an estimated $1.2 billion market with a lot of clever behind-the-scenes technology. And as food trucks grow from solo operations to multisite enterprises, they’re going to look less like 19th century throwbacks, and more like a cutting-edge mobile service fleet.
Here are some of the ways that food trucks are already taking their level of technological sophistication to levels higher than you would ever expect from the outside.
Startup MOVE Systems is reinventing the food truck and running a pilot program in New York City, one of the nation’s culinary epicenters. The company’s new trailer is ergonomically engineered to be a safer and more suitable workspace for cooks. And instead of noisy (and often dirty) generators, they run on a hybrid energy system fueled by solar, natural gas, and rechargeable batteries.
The rise of the food truck and the success of social media are closely linked. Some of the most successful food trucks, indeed, have built their business models around constant streams of Facebook and Twitter updates. (The latter is particularly well-suited to alert a large, hungry crowd right around lunchtime of the day’s specials.) Mobile operators who can set up shop on various street corners, rather than using a fixed location day-in and day-out, can leverage the morning’s trending traffic to identify a city’s hotspot for the day, drive over, and set up shop to capitalize on, say, a huge (and hungry) crowd gathered for a parade.
Because the barriers to entry in the food truck business are lower than many storefront retail and restaurant options, this necessity is sometimes overlooked. Even if a second-hand food truck or cart is a small capital expense, the overhead to keep the truck on the road is a significant expense which quickly adds up. At best a truck can be expected to net 12 miles to the gallon, often less. Travel between kitchen, service, and storage areas affects the bottom line, which means mileage tracking is of particular importance to food truck operators.
Location-based revenue tracking
It costs plenty when food trucks don’t move around, not only to take advantage of shifting tastes, but to promote a greater sense of novelty and immediacy. A detailed research paper on the food truck industry by Elliot Anenberg and Edward Kung found that food trucks sacrifice 38% of potential profits when they visit the same location day after day. You can bet that truck operators were aware of this well before the researchers were. The leaders know which carts are operating in which neighborhoods, and who’s bringing in the highest volume. That data informs not just where to set up shop tomorrow, but whether it’s time to add another truck to the fleet.
The leaps in technology that make it possible to get accurate weather forecasts down to the 15-minute interval make a huge difference to food truck operators. Anenberg and Kung’s paper found that cold weather cuts profits by 19%, and precipitation (rain or snow) knocks out more than one-quarter of a truck’s expected daily profit. A truck operator who isn’t religiously checking those precise forecasts risks a very sluggish day at the office.
Digital customer relationships
Food trucks may move around to promote greater novelty and keep their appeal fresh, but they’re definitely looking to settle down into long-term relationships with customers, exactly as brick-and-mortar restaurants always have. New enterprise platforms like Truckily provide a mobile app that lets food trucks push targeted offers, publish schedules, and build loyalty programs.
Speaking of food trucks and the abuse of language, it would be a hideous mistake to end this story with an awful pun about how food trucks are “driving innovation.” So we’re going to quit right here before anything like that happens.