Food trucks are the most visible illustration of how operators are expanding intercept marketing efforts to tap customer traffic that's on the move.
No matter how ideal your main eatery is in every state-of-the-art way, chances are it's “out of the way” for some customers. Operators in every sector aim to satisfy those outlying folks, capture their sales potential and perhaps even grow the business by intercepting them en route.
But plunking any old hot dog stand down in the middle of the path just won't do. Keeping “location, location, location” top of mind, today's operators are crafting unique and non-traditional solutions to put a variety of food and beverage choices in front of customers who are on the move.
The latest and greatest of these mobile platforms are home-grown food trucks — those in-your-face, attention grabbing food venues that typically are found parked “downtown” or in fairground parking lots. More and more often, they're being created by onsite operators.
Case in point: the UC-Davis campus — the largest in the University of California system — has an enrollment of about 33,000 undergrad and graduate students, plus many thousands more potential foodservice customers among staff, faculty and others. The Silo Union serves as its primary retail venue, but having additional outlets close by could help its dining services department capture some of the sales that now go off campus.
That certainly was the thinking of James Boushka, Sodexo's marketing director at the school. Working in collaboration with Star Ginger concept creator/celebrity chef Mai Pham, UC Davis became home to the first Star Ginger Asian Grill & Noodle Bar based in a food truck. It's bright orange and hard to miss, stationed as it is near the main library and the administration building just outside the Silo Union — with easy access to the Union's main kitchen for backup supplies.
The concept, which debuted in October, features authentic dishes inspired by Asian street foods like Pham's Vietnamese toasted banh mi sandwiches, plus salad rolls, wok-fried rice noodles, and aromatic curries. A license agreement between Sodexo and Mai Pham grants the management company the right to open and operate the Star Ginger concept (in any format) across its various managed locations for the next 10 years.
Open from 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., the unit's orders are ready in under five minutes with sandwiches selling for $6, rice bowls for $7, and with sides or options such as Asian slaw, coconut water, etc., tagged at $1.50. Though it's still early on, sales have been incremental and business is consistently growing.
Seattle sleek fleet
Move up the West Coast to Seattle and you'll find five new trucks in the food fleet at University of Washington. They include an 18-ft. step van, two 22-ft. trailers (that can be driven if need be), and two 10 ft. by 6 ft. enclosed food carts (each with a trailer hitch). Each has its own menu concept and offers great food every day, delivered in one to two minutes per customer.
“The number-one key to their success has been their location in the two highest volume areas on campus,” asserts Micheal Meyering, project and sustainability manager for U of W's housing and food services.
Meyering is one of the members of the leadership group directed by Storm Hodge, assistant director of food service. Meyering helped manage the plan to purchase, set up and install these units and also interfaces with the campus sanitarian while serving as “caretaker of the investment.”
One of these primary locations is near the five large buildings that comprise the school's College of Engineering; the other is on the campus “Square” near the Husky Den student union that is now undergoing a complete renovation. Both were selected for their high traffic potential, and, in the case of the Husky Den, the fact that its existing food court would be shut down for two years, until the summer of 2012. The trucks provide a trendy way to service the Den's 6,400 displaced daily customers until the Den re-opens. “Then, we'll move the trucks to another area,” Meyering says.
Concepts offered include: Motosurf (the trailer), with a selection of Hawaiian, Korean and Pacific Island items; Sigarios (the step truck) boasts Tex/Mex favorites; “Hot Dawgs,” a food cart menuing kosher franks, chicken and vegan sausage from a local processor; the “Curb Side 8,” a food cart extension sited outside of McMahon 8, a resident dining hall, which featuring American and global comfort food. The second 22 ft. trailer — Red Square BBQ — dishes out sandwiches and sliders.
'Khush Roti' to you
Call it a “cart,” a “trailer,” or “kiosk.” Ken Botts, special projects manager for the dining department at University of North Texas in Denton, won't argue the point. He does know that the custom manufactured 20 ft. by 8 ft. solid steel unit UNT Dining had installed near its commuter student parking lots is tapping business the department didn't have before.
Hard-wired and connected to the sewer and water systems, the unit has its own foundation, its own address (so it can get mail) and its own very distinctive name, Khush Roti, which is Urdu for “Happy Bread.”
The team Botts heads up designed the trailer by working closely with UNT's culinary team and a bread vendor to develop an “International Sandwich Cart.” The Khush Roti menu boasts a dozen sandwich choices and received one of Food Management's 2011 Best Concept Awards (you can read more about its menu at food-management.com). While the main idea was to create a destination option for commuter students, Botts says that by broadening available campus options, it also helped the department sell more meal plans.
“The trailer wrap for Khush Roti — an award winner — was designed in-house by our lead graphic designer Byant Canzoneri,” says Botts. “The branding was done so well that we've been approached by people who wanted to purchase a 'franchise.'
The concept, its menu and the department's ongoing sustainability efforts “have brought attention to our campus dining program we probably wouldn't have had otherwise,” Botts contends. “When prospectve students visit the UNT campus, the next thing they want to see after evaluating the course programming is the food — and we've been getting rave reviews.”
17,000 free meals in 20 days
In New Haven, Public Schools Executive Director of Food Services Tim Cipriano is taking free reimbursable meals to the streets. Literally.
This past summer, the district fielded a new food truck that delivers free meals each day to children in underserved neighborhoods in the interim between the end of the district's summer meals program and the beginning of school. It served about 17,000 meals in the 20 days it operated last August.
The truck operates through a partnership between New Haven Public Schools and the United Way of Greater New Haven, with additional support from the Connecticut No Kid Hungry campaign. It was purchased thanks to a $35,000 grant and deployed to three sites on a set schedule each day. The sites were advertised through local media, fliers, posters and even door-to-door solicitation by student and staff volunteers.
The truck menu consists of milk, salad, deli sandwiches and fresh fruit. To encourage participation, each child who received a meal was entered into a raffle for prizes that included iPods, bikes and a computer.
Next summer, the truck will be upgraded with a generator, propane tanks and coolers. Cipriano also hopes to add additional vehicles over time. “We intend to feed every child in New Haven who has no access to food otherwise,” he adds.
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Tips for Better Customer Intercept Results
A few givens: Locate where the traffic/need is. Set operating hours based on demand patterns. Staff with smiling people.
• Offer as many items as possible to increase sales
• Keep variety ever-changing
• Since providing great convenience, you can up-charge (in the kiosk/cart)
• Some customer rewards (coffee card) o.k. (but don't over do it).
• Survey customer preferences (UC-Davis students said they appreciated 'authentic Asian' concepts)
• Set up where stock can easily be replenished (from central kitchen, etc.)
• Devise simple customer ordering system
• Provide service in a minute or less
• Match prices to those on the street and/or to customers' budgets
• Publicity typically posted on social media channels within campus or workplace; also posters on-site
• Create a festive atmosphere
• Keep multiple concepts as distinct from each other as possible
• Design venues remembering that speed of service is paramount)
• Create a distinctive name and look for the concept (e.g., award-winning wrap design)
• Again, form follows function: Start with the menu
• Provide sufficient staffing
• Where meal plans exist, aim to include this venue
• Don't crowd concepts too close to one another
• Cooperative Carts Programs help student organizations but also help foodservice by feeding additional students
• Adult supervision (of each and every cart) is a 'must;' inventory, stocking, teaching basic food sanitation, etc.
• Canvas enclosures around carts ideal to roll down in rain and to secure cart at night
• Menu as much variety from carts as is possible
• Mix of low-cost, high-margin specialty beverages is key to profits
• Utilize a familiar in-house brand from your cafeteria at the kiosk for immediate customer acceptance
• Consider that given their added convenience, ancillary venues may not need to offer staff discounts.
It's All Happening at the Zoo
A tiny kiosk — ideally placed — pays off.
When the talking giraffe wasn't looking, Tony Almeida went behind its back — and stole the footprint for some much needed intercept marketing space in a high-traffic corridor of Robert Wood Johnson's Bristol-Myers Squibb Children's Hospital.
That cramped 8 ft. by 8 ft. space space is now the Safari Café — a gourmet coffee bar kiosk near the hospital's lobby and “Interactive Gallery” — a corridor with large animated, talking jungle animals (the giraffe helps children measure their own height!). Over time it's also grown, and now occupies about 160 square feet, thanks to Almeida's ongoing creative efforts.
As director of food and nutrition services for the New Brunswick, NJ-based facility, his objective was to provide convenient lobby-level food service for staff and visitors who otherwise would have to take an elevator to the main cafeteria on the second floor.
In the beginning, it wasn't easy. “We had the 'location, location, location' all right, but we had no storage or display space,” recalls Almeida, a past IFMA Silver Plate winner. “Over the years, we added lockable display shelving, a refrigerated case and other merchandising options,” at a total cost of about $20,000. The first year, the café did about $22,000 in sales; today it rings up about $1100-1200 a day wth gourmet coffee, sandwiches, salads and snack items; it also features a breakfast menu and made-to-order smoothies.
The operation — open from 6:30 a.m. until 4 p.m. with two personable, full time employees holding down the fort — runs at about a 30% food cost. “It's phenomenal,” Almeida grins. “And it's all incremental revenue.”