Historically food trucks and tents presented an entree for up-and-coming entrepreneurs to dip their toes into the food business. But now we’re seeing the movement come full circle: more and more, established brick-and-mortar restaurants are seeing opportunities in the world of mobile food.
As the restaurant landscape has become more competitive, restaurateurs are looking for new ways to increase their exposure. Food trucks and tents offer a low-stakes way to explore new, interesting opportunities — especially when compared to to the costs and resources required for opening a new restaurant.
“Restaurants have become an important part of the mix for us,” says Matt Cohen, founder and CEO of Off the Grid, an organization that operates more than 50 weekly street food events throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. In San Francisco, restaurants like A16 and Nopalito have joined Off the Grid events at the Fort Mason Center and the Presidio, finding a creative way to grow their reach. Now Matt and his team are doing more than ever to reach restaurants, supporting them with infrastructure like tents, banners, and signage to help attract those businesses.
We spoke to Matt about why restaurants should consider going mobile and learned his top tips for making it work. (And Bay Area restaurants, take note! Off the Grid is accepting applications for the Fort Mason Center, California’s largest food market, through Friday, January 20th — apply here.)
Why go mobile?
Reach a broader audience. On any given night at Off the Grid’s Fort Mason market, you’ll find between 6,000 and 8,000 people coming out to eat and drink street food. That’s valuable exposure of your brand to a new customer base, says Matt. Typically, about a third of attendees are local to San Francisco, a third are from the Bay Area, and the final third are tourists, so you’re casting a wide net.
Grow your catering business. Street food environments give restaurants the opportunity to show off what they can do outside the restaurant. You can educate customers about your catering operations while wining and dining them in a fun, vibrant atmosphere, and maybe they’ll consider you for their next event. For example, Matt says A16 was interested in participating because they bought an outdoor pizza oven that they wanted to use for catering, and Off the Grid was a way for them to prove the concept.
Give your staff growth opportunities. Restaurant owners who want to retain good employees often think about expanding their business and giving their people room to grow and lead. “That’s a pretty high-stakes proposition now,” says Matt, given the costs associated with opening and running a restaurant. “But the idea of being able to let someone explore their creativity where it’s not necessarily investing in a brand new restaurant is pretty interesting.”
Earn profits. This one’s a no-brainer, but street food events are also a way to boost profits. On average, Matt says tents make around $1,500 on a given Friday night, weather depending — $600 to $800 on the low end, and $3,500 to $4,000 on the high end. “If you’re considering opening a new restaurant but don’t necessarily want to make the financial commitment, you get the opportunity to bring close to six figures in revenue with a very modest infrastructure commitment. You can serve between 150 and 200 new customers that you likely wouldn’t be exposed to in a given day.”
Tips for Success
Focus your menu. This goes for all street food vendors, but is particularly important for restaurants accustomed to a large menu. Narrow your offerings down to two to three items that can be customized a few different ways (think vegetarian option, different sauces, etc.) “Precious food in a street food environment doesn’t really work that well,” says Matt. “Think really straightforward, bold flavors, and a menu format that’s relatively limited.”
Shout your message. When it comes to signage and the overall experience, street food markets are not subtle environments. Communicate what you’re serving and how delicious it is! “If you’re doing amazing pirozhki, you want to let people know that you’re serving pirozhki from a distance so that people can shop with their eyes.”
Collect information about your guests. These days you can collect email addresses through your POS system, or through giveaways or online channels. Take advantage of that information and use it to build your guest database on OpenTable or elsewhere. Then you can follow up and invite them into the brick-and-mortar restaurant — maybe offer a special perk or beer on the house as an incentive. “The ideas is to capture more value than simple the value of the transaction in the marketplace,” says Matt.
Engage on social media. To get the most out of your presence, think beyond food porn, says Matt. Instead, use your social channels to tell a story about the experience guests will have when they visit the restaurant or stand. Humanize the business and invite your audience to join you on your new journey. “That’s really compelling, and it’s something people pay attention to.”