Earlier this week, Jackalope Mobile Kitchen, Dallas' first vegan food truck posted a message on their Facebook page that alluded to the possibility that they would be closing down, after only 30 days on the streets. I sent an email to owner Alex Salas and received an immediate reply that indicated that a decision would be made that evening but that the customer base that they had hoped for was not there. Alex also indicated that if they were to close they were considering reopening as a Tex-Mex, meat serving truck. Since that time there have been other reports of various conversations with the truck owners and then confirmation that yes, the truck was closing.
This blog post is not about Jackalope or any truck in general but is about my personal observations of expectations associated with the food truck culture in DFW. When I started this blog, in July, I found several trucks that had already closed down, in both Dallas and Fort Worth, Jackalope isn't the first and I am comfortable saying it will not be the last truck to close. As sad as it is to see any business close, its especially sad when it is a small business, where we feel like we know the owner and have an vested interest in the business. But, from my months of watching the food trucks, both those who were in around back in July and those that have come out since, I am seeing some patterns emerge and areas where everyone has some opportunities to make the food truck culture a success.
For those thinking of opening a truck:
Over the last two months, DFW has averaged one new truck launch every week. This is a very exciting time for all of us! What is interesting, to me, is the process of launch that each truck takes. Some trucks have been working a business plan and making contacts, both from a marketing and a distribution chain process for months; some seemingly pop-up over night. Some spend months marketing themselves and still have not rolled out on the streets, some quietly set up websites and Facebook pages, get a feel for the market and launch once they have dotted every i and crossed every t, multiple times over. I am not judging any of these styles as right or wrong; obviously what works for one person probably won't work for everyone. But there seems to be some things that need to happen before a truck rolls out, if they are going to have long-term success.
1. Have the expectations and finances to allow for rough going the first few months. I've talked to several trucks that were out early this summer, before things took off and they have all said that the first few weeks were rough and they often questioned if they had done the right thing. These are trucks that today anyone would consider a success, but it took time and a lot of hard work to get there.
2. Start working your contacts long before you hit the streets. Every truck needs multiple locations in which to set up a route. The only way to find those locations is to start making contacts with business owners. Along these same lines, you cannot rely on stops where other trucks are already setting up. There have been several situations where trucks felt like they had an exclusive agreement with a business owner and then find that the property owner was open to other trucks setting up in that location. This ends up with everyone having bad feelings and customer confusion.
3. Make the truck exterior look as professional as possible. Yes, I understand that wraps are expensive but the exterior is the first impression a truck makes. Your truck is a mobile billboard. I'm surprised at how often someone will stop me and say, "I saw a black food truck, is that one good?" or "I saw a van with cupcakes on it, where do they serve?". No one has ever said," I saw a plain truck. Can you tell me who it was so I can go there?"
4. Know the laws of the city in which you plan to operate. I'm especially talking about the laws that cover what kinds of trucks are allowed to be permitted in each city. If you plan to operate out of a trailer, in Dallas, you should know going in what Dallas will allow and what they won't. There's size limits and structure requirements. I've talked to several people who have already shelled out the money for trailers only to find out that they will not be permitted in Dallas. I wish they had known that going in.
Once the trucks roll out, some thoughts for the customers:
1. Support the food trucks. Visit them! Don't take it for granted they will be there. Especially with winter coming, if you aren't visiting them, there is a good chance that neither is the next person. Yes, it may be cold but most of the trucks are planning new menu items that will warm you back up. If the thought crosses your mind that you wish you could to to a truck, GO, don't wait for another day.
2. Tell others about your truck experience. If you enjoyed it, tell a friend, post a review on Yelp, Foodspotting and other restaurant rating sites. Word of mouth marketing is critical for any small business. In today's social media world, your comments about a food truck can be seen by hundreds, if not thousands of peoples within hours.
3. Get to know the owners. Every single one of them is open to suggestions. Whether you contact them in person or by social media, they want to hear what you want from them. They may not always be able to make it happen quickly, especially when it comes to locations but they are always listening and considering options.
4. Understand that at times its easier for you to go the truck than it is for them to come to you. I live in one of the suburbs that has said unconditionally that they will not allow trucks in the town. While I may not like it, I have to accept the limitations. And if I am considering the logistics of it all, my town is probably outside of the area that makes economical sense for the trucks. I'm a long way from any of the commissaries so to even get to my town, the cost of gas would make it expensive to drive a truck to get to my area. In the long run, its more cost efficient for me to travel to the trucks, see a part of town I wouldn't have otherwise seen and still have an inexpensive, delicious meal.
These are just my observations, I haven't talked to any of the trucks about this particular post or the ideas I'm throwing out. It is a credit to the existing trucks that they have made it all look easy. However, once you start following the trucks and seeing what they are doing, you realize there is a lot of pieces that have to fit together in order to be a success. Hopefully each new truck that comes out will have realistic expectations and every customer that visits a truck has a positive experience that they share with many, many others.