Not so very long ago, “going out to eat” meant partaking in a sit-down meal at a restaurant, cafeteria or QSR. But nowadays, food has to keep up with the fast-paced lifestyles of time-crunched consumers. To meet that demand, operators from all industry segments now take food outside the traditional brick-and-mortar operations and bring it right to the patron, whether it’s via food trucks, kiosks, pop-up restaurants or myriad other delivery methods.
Surrender, Inc., a Dallas-based restaurant consulting firm, believes the newfound popularity of offsite dining stems from the desire of customers to have more options in general. “I think everything in our consumer society has expanded,” he says. “Go to the grocery store. There used to be five salad dressings; now there are a hundred. I think it’s the same in dining. People are naturally drawn to having more options.” But time pressures might not be the only factor driving these nontraditional foodservice operations. Matthew Mabel, president of
At this point, these nontraditional foodservice operations still constitute a comparatively small part of the overall foodservice industry. But the timeworn image of “food on the go” as being less than top quality is changing. A 2013 Technomic study on takeout found that a full 68 percent of consumers surveyed claimed that food to go “tastes just as good as when dining in.” And food needs to be fresh.
Of course, preparing and serving food away from the traditional back-of-house kitchen takes some rethinking on the part of operators in terms of design, equipment and marketing.
Over the past few years, the image of the food truck has transformed from the “roach coach” hanging out at a construction site to an on-trend, cuisine-driven way to grab a quick lunch or late-night nosh. And it holds particular appeal to younger diners. Another Technomic report, a 2014 study on generational consumer trends, found that only 17 percent of consumers overall said they ordered from a food truck once a month or more. However, among the Gen Z and Millennial crowds, that figure was closer to 25 percent.
But is setting up a food truck simply a matter of taking some used equipment and installing it in a truck? Jason Tipton, vice president of operations for East Coast Custom Coaches, a food truck outfitter in Manassas,Virginia., compares the abuse that equipment takes in a food truck to an “entire kitchen rolling through an earthquake for an hour and a half a day.” Because of that, “I wouldn’t [recommend] used equipment for anyone because it doesn’t have a manufacturer’s warranty,” he says. “When you’re making this kind of investment, you want to make sure that they’ll send out a tech to fix it if your condenser breaks down or your icemaker gets plugged up. For that reason, we recommend new.” Even with new equipment, Tipton cautions that a careful reading of the warranty is necessary, relating the story of an operator who installed a custom-built smoker in his food truck. After a few months, the operator encountered a problem with the smoker’s pilot. Upon contacting the manufacturer, Tipton says, “he was told, ‘It’s void. This is a truck. We don’t build them to stand up to that.’”
As owner of the Dirty South Deli food truck in Washington, D.C., Jason Hunter has first-hand experience with the trials and tribulations of running a food truck. The biggest hurdle Hunter found in setting up his truck was “timing. Things take a little more time to build out on a truck. One of our pieces [of equipment] was discontinued, so we were waiting for that piece to come in.”
Operators who try to do too much in terms of menu offerings on a truck are going to run into problems, says Mabel. “Food trucks are about items,” he says, and claims that he would never advise a client doing high-end food to get into the food truck business. “A plate with a protein and a vegetable and a starch is not going to work because there’s a lot of assembly involved and it’s hard to eat. You need an item you can pretty much eat standing up or walking.”
Think Tank Hospitality Group, a Washington-based consulting firm. “And the menu should have a little more flair and pop,” he adds. “Road food in the past did not want to offend anyone, so it was pretty bland. But even wraps today are of much higher quality than in the past. We are very ingredient centric these days.”Indeed, having a focused menu represents a key element of success for food trucks or any other small footprint foodservice operators, agrees AJ Barker, a partner with
A typical menu for the Dirty South Deli truck features a variety of sandwiches like brisket, turkey and braised pork. But even a fairly limited menu like that one demands quite a number of pieces of equipment. Hunter’s truck has a lidded nine-pan sandwich unit, six-pan steam well, flattop, cheese melter, mini deep fryer and refrigerator. Fitting all that equipment in a food truck, as well as allowing for manageable work areas for staff, means that every inch of space must be carefully utilized. Tipton claims that one often-overlooked consideration is height. In the design stage, operators frequently try to combine equipment in impractical combinations. “They’ll try to have a low-boy cooler with a flattop on top,” he says. “What does that actually look like once we put it in the truck? Does that mean your cooking surface is four feet off the ground? How does that work for a cook?”
Power represents a critically important consideration when setting up a food truck. To a chef like Hunter, it defines “how much cool equipment you can get” in the truck. Tipton is a bit more practical about power, pointing out how equipment can affect the amount of power needed and final costs. “We can get you a new, 7,000-watt gas generator for about $4,500,” he says. “If you want to have a couple of Panini presses and other things on the truck that require a different kind of voltage (like a 220 circuit), you have to get a diesel generator, which will increase the cost of the generator by more than $4,000.”
When it comes to specifying equipment for a food truck, two key considerations top the list, according to AJ Barker. The first is rapid recovery. “We like
to think of machinery as being pretty consistent but when you put fries into a fryer, there’s still a temp drop, whether they are fresh or frozen,” Barker says.
“So you want something that’s durable and won’t have the temp dip too much. You want to be able to kick food out on a consistent basis. You may pay a premium for something like this but you can’t cut corners. And when you eliminate décor and other expenses, you can invest more in this equipment.”
The second consideration, according to Barker, is a small utility load. “Your utility load gets split between your water, electric systems and gas,” he says. “What kind of water system are you running? Are you tied into a grid or self-supporting? You don’t want to use too much water but need to operate a food-safe business. Menu type will dictate whether you cook or prepare food at the commissary or all on the truck. You have to mesh your trailer with what you are trying to do on the front end. In a regular building, you can always add more firepower but that’s not always the case here.”
In a world of flash mobs and overnight YouTube stars, it was probably only a matter of time before a “here today, gone tomorrow” concept should hit the restaurant world, and so the pop-up was born. The idea of an exclusive, limited-time-only restaurant holds an appeal to customers, says Marjorie Meek-Bradley, executive chef of Ripple and Roofers Union restaurants, both in Washington, D.C. “They’re surprisingly popular,” she says. “People like to be the first to try something and get to tell people about it before others do.”
Before opening the restaurant, Meek-Bradley did a pop-up at Ripple to test drive the Roofers Union menu and concept in a real-world environment. It also helped her determine what equipment she would need in her new restaurant. “Anyone can make two dishes under no pressure in testing,” she says. “But when you’re cooking 30 pieces of fish and you realize, ‘I used five sauté pans to make this dish,’ you realize it’s not going to work.” The pop-up also helped her get a handle on her major equipment needs. “We ended up buying a smoker. At Ripple, I did a lot of things on the stovetop but I realized that if I was going to be smoking a large amount of sausages that we should have an actual smoker in the kitchen” at Roofers Union, she says.
A remote operation — particularly when it’s a brand extension of an existing restaurant — has its own unique set of challenges. Dirty South Deli has a stationary sandwich stand, called D.S. Deli, at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in D.C. Hunter’s problem was how to equip and convert an existing operation into something that could produce the kind of food he wanted to serve.
“We came in using what the previous people had set up,” he says. For example, there’s no gas connection, so he has to make do with an electric convection oven. “We have little electric griddles if we need to make a grilled cheese or something, but we use the oven to toast our bread. I would love a grill; I would love a flattop. But we figured out a way to do it. You make it work.” Overall, Hunter claims the results have been positive, with sales at the museum increasing so much he has had to bring on two new employees to staff the operation.
One of the most overlooked segments of “food on the move” is the grab-and-go segment. While it’s often thought of as being relegated only to convenience stores and airports, a few restaurants, such as the Slanted Door in San Francisco, have set up satellite operations featuring takeout versions of their specialties. Out The Door Ferry Building is a five-seat counter adjacent to the original Slanted Door, and offers ready-to-eat, individual-serving food to go. Its menu includes such Vietnamese-influenced dishes as a Saigon roast pork sandwich, green papaya salad and chicken rice porridge. Even in a small space like this, a considerable amount of planning went into the design, says Charles Phan, chef/owner of the Slanted Door. Before starting, “we looked at the menu items we offer, the space we have and the regulations of the Ferry Building.” Fortunately, Phan has had to make few changes in equipment since opening Out The Door, with only one major alteration. “The open fridge unit that housed bottled drinks was removed and a drink refrigerator unit with sliding doors was put in place,” he says. To other operators considering a takeout annex, he advises them “to consider the flow of service and how to move the food from the cook station to packaging to customers in the most efficient way.”
Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas, accomplishes this through an upgrade of his food, display equipment and packaging. Texas State has grab-and-go coolers situated in eight retail locations across its campus, and although the grab-and-go program had been in place for a while, students were demanding newer, fresher choices so it was time to revitalize it.For the most part, though, grab-and-go still remains mainly in noncommercial locations with “captive” audiences, such as colleges and healthcare. In these locations, operators have to be competitive with C-stores and QSRs in order to keep customers on campus. Jonathan Mitchell, director of dining services for Chartwells at
The first step was to redo the menu. Mitchell got his executive chef of catering, Alberto Trujillo, involved in a redesign of menu items. The menu “used to consist of turkey subs and hummus and carrots,” says Mitchell. Now it features more upscale items, such as roast beef on ciabatta and chipotle-lime nuts, with an emphasis on fresh ingredients. Coolers in “healthier” locations, such as the student workout center, feature products such as salads, seasonal fruits and nuts.
Previously, grab-and-go item production was “scattered between each department to make their own,” says Trujillo. It was decided that “if the chef took it over, it would be more consistent, more appealing and taste better,” so a commissary-style production system was implemented. The next step was to upgrade the graphics on the coolers with food-related graphic images and the program name, On The Go.
“When you see a cooler, that’s one thing, but when you put a banner next to it, it catches your eye a little better,” Mitchell says. Finally, the product packaging itself was upgraded to a biodegradable material. Chef Trujillo calls it “eco-friendly and more trendy. Our labeling has also changed.” Labels that feature the green On The Go logo help reinforce the “better for you” concept. “We added nutritional facts so [students] know what they’re eating,” Trujillo says.
Few foodservice professionals would disagree with the notion that food will remain on the move for the foreseeable future. So as operators determine their plan of attack, Barker offers some sage advice. “Don’t bite off more than you can chew,” he says. “This is more of a retail-oriented business. Everything is on display. People can see where the care is in your business. Customers can see who is making an effort. So let them see the care.”