I am NOT against food trucks from a business stand point.
I think they are the epitome of the entrepreneurial spirit. Food trucks and trailers go way back in our Texas food lore and deserve all respect that they are getting. (One of my favorite restaurants, The Salt Lick, in Driftwood, started out as a little trailer in the middle of nowhere and they have risen to legendary empire status.) Food trucks take investment, time, creativity and hard, hard work.
I have a number of friends who own them and I have been inside a few and they are as clean as most restaurants I have visited. Food safety and sanitation standards have to actually be higher, given the mobile nature of the setup. (This doesn’t mean that there aren’t roach coaches out there, and it also doesn’t mean that there aren’t terrible restaurants either.) Some of the most creative and loved food concepts in the world come from the streets and I respect a chef that is a total geek for what they are making. You would have to be to work long hours in the cramped, hot, crowded environment of a food truck.
As an event professional I am against food trucks as a replacement for catering.
I went to a great event recently (as a guest for the first time in years.) Everything was well thought out and there were lots of activities. They had firetrucks and water jumpy things to escape the heat of a hot August afternoon; inside activities (with lots of A/C, yeah!) and even snow cone vendors and slushies. From all standpoints a success, except on one front: the food. There were three food trucks plus a pizza trailer and a couple slushie/snow cone guys; apparently a couple of the trucks didn’t show up (typical for anyone that’s planned an event like this.) It was 100 degrees, in a concrete parking lot with no shade, and barely a breath of air: the worst case scenario for a food truck setup- why? Because for all their food-awesomeness, food trucks are notoriously slow under a heavy load scenario. My experience was to wait in line for 30 minute in the blazing sun, order, then wait 20 minutes for my food. (I ordered from a churrasco truck and it was amazing.) This was 80% of my time at the event; waiting, either on line to place my order, or waiting for the order. By the time I got my food & found a place to eat, I was sweaty, sapped from the heat and grumpy from standing on line and really just wanted to go home.
Food trucks are also not very cheap. By the time you get your sandwich, side & drink, you are hitting $15-20. This works well for the host because they are able to shift that cost burden to the guest, but not necessarily great for the out of work guy with a family of 5, or the economically challenged. And don’t think you are going to be able to negotiate their prices down. They are a small business and need to make money, just like everyone else. The problem with bringing food trucks in and letting them fight it out is that they have no idea how many of anything they are going to sell. If they give you a 20% discount and end up selling only half of the amount that they thought they would, they are going to lose money and that’s not good for anyone.
Food trucks can be inconsistent. Just the nature of the mobile equipment they use causes inconsistencies, as opposed to a restaurant setting. My experience today was fantastic from the churrasco truck, but the lady in front of me was served almost raw beef because they were running behind and tried to make up for the pressure coming from a long line by pulling the meat off too early. Long lines and complaining customers can make folks cut corners to keep the client happy.
Food trucks are loud and not environmentally friendly. Well, not so much the truck as their ever-present generators. A generator running all day is first and foremost LOUD and secondly has a large carbon footprint, especially if there are multiple trucks at the event.
Food trucks are outside. For a street festival under the trees in the spring or fall, food trucks are great. But they are decidedly weather sensitive and there is really no “plan b” if your event is inside and the food is outside. Also, it pulls people away from other activities for long lengths of time.
For the right event food trucks are an attractive option for the following reasons:
- They are cool.
- They offer a variety of cuisines.
- They transfer a big chunk of the event cost onto the guest, freeing resources for other event elements (like more jumpy-things!)
But for all the reasons I stated above they are, in many cases, not the right choice for a successful event. I have fed hundreds of thousands of people during my time as a caterer and I will tell you that people don’t want to stand in lines, especially if they are on a schedule or if the weather is anything but perfect.
The Case For Hiring A Caterer
Caterers know how to feed large groups of people efficiently, consistently and on schedule. Food trucks are great at what they do, but speed and efficiency is not their hallmark. And if your event has a timetable, food trucks are certainly not the way to go. Most caterers can get everyone fed in less than 30 minutes, not something food trucks can manage. (We did a fajita event for 2500 people and had everyone back in their seats in 25 minutes.)
Caterers are invested in the success of the event. I have a friend who had a food truck event that got off to a slow start and one of the food truck operators got impatient and left. Once the bulk of the crowd arrived, the other trucks couldn’t keep up, making everyone look bad. Most food trucks are run by artists, people who are passionate about the cuisine they are selling. Caterers are event professionals that can be a resource from the planning stage all the way through the clean up of the event.
Caterers can offer a variety of cuisines. We did an event similar to the one above a few years ago and had a barbecue booth, grill booth, wrap booth, funnel cake booth as well as snow cones. The organizer only had one contact to deal with for all the food and beverage and was able to focus on other aspects of the event.
If you still feel that food trucks are the way to go for your event, consider the following ideas:
- Have them pare down their menus to 3 or 4 items that they can get ahead on and serve as people order. Having too wide of a menu means that they may or may not sell that item and wont take the risk of making it up ahead of time.
- To reduce the expense to the guest, offer a coupon system. Have them check in when they get to the event and give each person a ticket worth, say $5. At the end of the day, have the food truck operators turn in their tickets for payment. This way you are only out the cost of what was actually spent. The coupon system can have many variations depending on the type of event you are sponsoring and the group involved. (If you are collecting the money, definitely sign up for a SQUARE or PAYPAL account to take credit cards, you will thank me later.)
- As a condition of entry have the food truck operators develop one menu item that equals your coupon price. This way when people get up they can order the $5 special (easily could be a hotdog, chips & canned drink) or use that coupon towards more interesting items. Using this system makes sure that no one is excluded from the event just because they don’t have the money.
- Do NOT compete against your food trucks. I actually was invited as a vendor at a large school event where the booster club operated a concession stand that undercut all the vendors. It was devastating because we had all prepared for a group of a few thousand people and 90% of them went to the concession stand, and the remaining 10% was divided up amongst the vendors.
- Create an environment where everyone can succeed. Most food trucks will need to feed around 150 people to make the event worth their while. (Remember, they are not non-profit organizations.) So if your event has 600 people coming, and 20% of those that attend won’t eat from the trucks, then booking any more than 3 trucks could wind up a loser for the operators. From a planning standpoint you have to fight the urge to over book trucks because if they lose money, you will never get them to come back. Moreover, they have an uncanny ability to smell a loser event and will just not show up. If more than one pulls out, you could be left under provisioned.
In the end, whether or not food trucks are right for your event is something that needs to be considered carefully, weighing not only the needs or your organization, but your guests’ as well as the food truck operators. Food trucks can offer variety and hipness, but also a whole lot of headaches as well.John Homrighausen is a nationally recognized chef, caterer, speaker and consultant.