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Food follies

Food trucks have gone from grease wagon status to uber-cool, next-gen frontier almost overnight. Sure, they've been around a long time and in markets like Portland, Oregon, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, and Austin, Texas, they're a well-entrenched part of the local food scene. But over the past two years—in sync with both the recession and the rise of social media—food trucks have caught the fancy of a whole new group of operators and customers, alike.

In her new book Food Trucks—Dispatches and Recipes from the Best Kitchens on Wheels, author Heather Shouse writes, "Favoring quirk over pomp, talented cooks and critically acclaimed chefs are ditching the brick-and-mortar standard for kitchens on wheels, churning out incredible food for a new breed of diners more interested in flavor than fuss." The NRA Show in Chicago now features Food Truck Spot, a designated section of the floor dedicated to exhibiting kitchens on wheels. Cities from Boston to Chicago to Seattle are putting officials and agencies in place to handle growing demand for food truck permits and expanded operations. Consultancies have sprung up to help food truck wannabes hit the road running, some offering slick turnkey branded packages.

But while the food truck engine may be roaring, and hitting the road might seem an appealing, low-cost way to extend a brand or set up shop, it's clearly not for everyone. Just as with brick-and-mortar restaurants, succeeding in that space takes a lot more than just a great idea for the next twist on tacos. It also takes avoiding what veterans of the space say are some of the most common mobile-eats missteps.

Thinking of hitting the road? Besides heading out without a fully inflated spare or the extra propane tank, here are a few more things to add to your what-not-to-do checklist.

Don't go cheap

This one's a biggie, and is all-too common, particularly when it comes to the "build out," or outfitting kitchen equipment into a truck or trailer, says Jeff Kelley, owner of the popular Eat Wonky food truck in Washington, D.C., and founder of Food Truck Advisors, a consulting service that helps others interested in entering the segment. "You're building a kitchen inside of a truck and, generally speaking, kitchen components aren't meant to be mobile," he says. "It has to be done in a way that's both safe and functionally effective."

While a lot of people think they can just stick a piece of equipment in and start selling food, Kelley recommends "working with someone who knows what they're doing, who has a lot of experience building food truck kitchens, and who comes with good references from other food truck owners."

Josh Henderson, owner of Seattle's Skillet, an Airstream food trailer specializing in burgers, bacon jam and poutin, did most of his "build out" work himself out of necessity and agrees that the low cost of entry can tempt people to cobble together mobile kitchens on the cheap. "But you soon realize that simply being mobile really takes a toll on operations," he says. "Just the things like propane going down, or a flat tire, or a hood not working, you hit pot holes, tree branches, you're operating out in the elements—the list goes on and on. You can go in super-cheap and duct tape everything together, but you'll definitely pay for it on the back end. Or you can spend money on the right equipment and create the right infrastructure as far as whatever you're serving out of and it'll save you money and headaches in the long run."

Don't get carried away

Food trucks that specialize in one or two core items and execute them consistently seem to have the greatest odds of success, says Kevin Higar, a director at Technomic, Inc., who spent several months traveling the country to compile a new research report on the food truck segment. "The biggest mistake I saw was operators who got carried away, who started letting their menus expand too much and tried to be all things to all people. Their food quality and their quality of execution invariably suffered," he says.

Over two years traveling the country to research food trucks for her book, Shouse came to the same conclusion. "It's crucial to find something that you do really well and specialize in that, be known for that," she says. "Incorporate it into your name, your branding, make sure everyone knows that's what you do. You can offer variations on that theme, but stick to a core offering."

Don't get too fussy

By its nature, street food is meant to be really tasty, simple, filling and affordable. Chefs trying to fancy it up as the trend gets hotter risk crossing a line, Kelley suggests. "A lot of people want to serve food that they'd want to eat, with high-end ingredients, lots of local products and complex preparations that take time to produce. When you let it get too complicated, you risk not being able to supply yourself in a way that's logistically efficient. You also risk not being
able to actually serve efficiently or affordably."

Don't rip off someone else's idea

When Kogi, a food truck specializing in Korean-Mexican fusion street food, appeared on the scene and created a giant buzz among Los Angeles foodies, countless imitators appeared overnight hawking Korean barbecue tacos.

"All of a sudden everyone and their mom wanted to cash in on Kogi's success," Shouse says. "If you can't be original, you have to at least be better." Most of the wannabes weren't and were gone within a year. "The public's smarter than that and won't support obvious ripoffs," Shouse contends.

Don't poach someone's spot 

In addition to abiding by health department and city regulations, food truck operators have to keep certain rules of etiquette in mind. Top among them is to not infringe upon other operators' spots. "If you do, you're likely to be met with hostility," Shouse says. "You just don't do it."

Likewise, if you're serving food that's comparable to another truck's or you're doing pulled pork and there's a good spot open next to a truck selling halal foods, keep your distance, says Kelley. "Good business sense would tell you to go to a different spot—not because you're not allowed to set up there, because in most places you probably are, but why create an irritant if you don't need to?"

Don't slack on social media

The new food truck generation depends heavily, if not exclusively on social media to get the word out about where they'll be, when they'll be there and what they'll be serving. "It's a big mistake to not stay on top of all of the social media stuff," says Heather Falconer Behm, a partner in the Hummingbird Kitchen food truck and related brick-and-mortar restaurants (Campagnola and Union Pizzeria) in Evanston, Illinois. "When you open a restaurant, if they like it they'll come and they know where to find you every day. With the food truck, we have to stay on top of all of the Tweeting and the Facebooking so people know every day where we'll be and what the menu's going to be. It's a different dynamic because it's constantly changing."

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