Red Hook Lobster Pound

People are always asking me how they can start a food truck business.  Right now, NYC is not the most hospitable place to open a food truck, but there are places friendlier climes, such as Washington DC.  Many cities are grappling with this question, and some are even coming down on the side of food trucks.

Earlier this year, Entrepeneur Magazine ran an article entitled “How To Start A Food Truck Business”.  Many of these types of articles can be very basic and not very helpful, but this one had eight tips, some of which were pretty good.

This article centered on two food trucks in Washington DC, Red Hook Lobster Pound (who also opened a NYC truck in May) and the Fojol Brothers of Merlindia, who we tried on a trip to DC last October.  However, the ideas in the article are applicable to just about all food trucks.

Click through for some of the suggestions in the article, such as Budget For Bad Weather and Prepare For Equipment Malfunctions, although they also throw in an occasional duh! like Use Social Media To Attract The Crowds.  We don’t know how they possibly came up with that idea.

Know the code
First stop, City Hall. Research whether your local regulations accommodate your company’s business plan. “Food safety codes, laws and regulations can vary substantially depending on where you are,” says National Restaurant Association’s Hudson Riehle, a senior vice president of research.

Washington, D.C., for example, is one of the more food-truck friendly cities. Officials there held a series of meetings last summer called “You Don’t Have to Sell Hot Dogs,” to encourage street vendors to broaden their offerings.

Keep the menu simple
Choose a specialty item that can be assembled easily and quickly at an affordable price. For instance, Korbel says he and Vitarello chose to serve curries with basmati rice because they could easily make and keep it in large batches. “You only have one serving window, so you have to be extremely fast,” Korbel says.

Only 4 items on the Fojol Bros menu

Fellow D.C.-based food truck Red Hook Lobster Pound offers just a few variations on two products — a lobster roll and a shrimp roll. It serves between 150 and 350 customers in a two-hour timeframe, co-owner Doug Povich says.

Prepare for equipment malfunctions
Keeping perishables cold and griddles sizzling is essential, but can be challenging. Povich had to scramble one afternoon after the truck’s generator failed with 50 customers in line and no other power source. Since then, he installed a backup inverter that runs off the truck’s engine.

“Some people put in two generators, others use a backup that’s battery-based,” Povich says. “No matter how you handle it, that’s an important component to consider.”

Budget for bad weather
A blustery day, for example, can spell a drop-off in foot traffic. On average, Korbel and Vitarello say business can drop by as much as 40 percent on days when temperatures fall below freezing. “The model isn’t based on serving 365 days per year, but instead roughly 10 months per year,” Korbel says.

Pick a prime location
“As with most retail, this is about … the ability to move from location to location,” says Mark Loschiavo, executive director of Drexel University’s Baiada Center for Entrepeneurship.

Parking at tried-and-true “hot spots” can help guarantee a crowd, you’ll likely be competing with other food trucks for customers and space. Povich opts to park in less-tested, underserved neighborhoods. “We have the view that if a market is not lucrative now, we may be able to develop it into one,” he says.

Use social media to attract the crowds
Fojol Bros. and Red Hook Lobster Pound often have hundreds of customers already waiting by the time they arrive curbside, thanks to location alerts they post for customers on Facebook and Twitter. Buzz generated by social media “absolutely translates into our bottom line and lets you create these cult followings,” Korbel says.

Think beyond the truck
Loschiavo says Pennsylvania-based Insomnia Cookies, which peddles gourmet cookies on college campuses, has expanded its food truck operation by catering business meetings and selling gift cards. Fojol Bros. also offers catering, which it expects to eventually comprise almost half of overall revenues.

“It’s a really lucrative revenue stream, but you don’t want it to take your truck off the street, where it’s not only selling your product, but advertising itself,” Korbel says.

Offer an experience
For Red Hook Lobster Pound, Povich’s wife Robyn (commonly referred to as the “lobster lady”) always chats with customers, and remembers regulars by name. Similarly, Korbel says the Fojol Bros.’ neon-painted truck, and the fake moustaches they wear, keep customers coming back.

“I guess you can just sell good food, but we feel what sets us apart is that we offer them a traveling culinary adventure,” he says. [Enterpeneur Magazine]