How food trucks 'roll' global flavors forward, tease chains with new opportunities
The growing number of food trucks and the caliber of the food that is delivered off the mobile kitchens are making it easier for consumers' interests in global cuisine to get piqued. In Las Vegas, the celebrity-status Fuku Burger Food Truck arrives at lively destinations outside The Strip to dish out Asian-American fusion creations like the Tamago and Buta Burger. Its use of eggs to perk up and complement the flavors on its menu is well-established, says Kevin Higar, Director of Research & Consulting for food industry research firm Technomic, Inc.
The Tamago is made with a Fuku-Patty (burger) with Furikake, topped with a fried egg, Wasabi Mayo, Teriyaki and Fried Onion Rings. The Buta Burger will fuse an American topping favorite – Applewood-Smoked Bacon – with more exotic favorites like Red Ginger, Wasabi Mayo and Japanese BBQ Sauce.
In Sin City, the destinations match the wild atmosphere. This week, the Fuku Burger food truck will make stops at the Red Handed Tattoo Gallery and at the Sand Dollar Lounge AKA Bikini Bar, among other destinations.
Emotions and access drive popularity and appeal of trucks
Food trucks might become more popular as they become pervasive but the reasons for the popularity and the ability of these trucks to promote different types of cuisine go far beyond that. Customers are looking for an emotional connection with their food and with those that are cooking it. The food-forward trend of today's cuisine, exemplified by open kitchens and even tableside preparation of foods, like guacamole in upscale Mexican eateries, is creating a different expectation for diners.
Consumers view food trucks much like they viewed the start of the fast casual segment and its burgeoning popularity in the 90's ─ like a rebel faction of foodservice ─ says Higar. Therefore, when customers are looking to explore new cuisine, food trucks are often sought out. Food trucks also offer a price point that is convenient, he notes. With prices ranging from $4-$6 for snacks and $5-$11 for a meal, the kitchens on wheels are the playground for experimental diners, including ethnic cuisine.
In New York City, the Rickshaw Dumpling Truck delivers bite-sized creations with a variety of exotic sauces with which to pair the morsels, and they are very portable, says Higar. Standard fare may include Pork and Chinese Chive or Vegetarian Edamame Dumplings. For the more adventurous, there's Chicken & Thai Basil (paired with a Spicy Peanut Sauté Dip).
Another appeal of food trucks is the ease with which customers can connect with the chef. "I'm [the customer] going to try these foods here because I think there's someone here that can make these foods and do them well - there are only a few items on that truck," says Higar. The Food Network, Bravo, the Travel Channel and other food and lifestyle cable networks have elevated the status of chefs, and the willingness of those that eat out to pay more for cuisine.
So with food trucks, the chef is now someone that can chat up a customer with good conversation about the origins of food and his experiences, and also bring prices down so consumers are willing to eat more, provide sharp contrast in bringing a "rock star" experience to a personal and affordable level.
Seeing how food is prepared and being able to connect personally with "the experts" of the food that you are eating treats the emotional sensibilities of diners, much like the chef in an upscale restaurant coming around to check on customers and talk about the plates that have just be experienced, says Higar.
Of the Fuku Burger Food Truck, he says "They [the owners] were really young when they started, and now they're very popular. Unless there's a big line, you can talk to the owner. And once you've spent some time with the owner, you'll find he's a very passionate guy, and understands all the Asian ingredients and what they would do to the taste of the hot dogs and other flavors."
Fuku Burgers' owners, Colin Fukunaga and Robert Magsalin, teamed up with restaurateur Harry Morton of Pink Taco Restaurant and Bar and Viper Room fame to go brick-and-mortar in Hollywood last October, according to LA Weekly. They opened a restaurant in October with seating for 60 that was well received by most customers, earning it a four-star rating on Yelp.
Fukunaga tells Quick Serve Leader that the excitement of the brand that was amplified on social media channels is a big driver of the appeal of the brand, in conjunction with number of high-level media mentions during the first six months of operations. This is one of the enticements that the brand brought to Morton.
The food truck is a "hometown" operation, says Fukunaga. Now, the brick-and-mortar operation will be in bright lights of Hollywood. "Fusion won't go away," he says. For him, it's a natural evolution of the mixing of generations and cultures that are part of family and social life for the different ethnic groups in the United States.
Food Trucks offer new opportunities for chains
The publicized battles of brick-and-mortar restaurants or municipalities with chains were hot topics in the press just a year ago, but have dissipated to a large extent. While changes in local laws in Washington, D.C., have the food truck association there up in arms, food trucks and brick-and-mortar restaurants seem to have learned to co-exist and even learn from each other.
This is especially true for chains that are strategizing how to use food trucks to amplify the value and reach of their brands. The strategy that emerges is multi-pronged, says Higar.
"When we look at food trucks from the consumer perspective ─ the brick-and-mortar ─ when they move into the food truck arena in the right way, they can be very approachable. Then they can be right there for everyone to walk up to. They're [chain food truck operators] very accessible."
Chains that move into the space, consider the following, according to Higar:
- Strategize to connect locally with the consumer. By operating a food truck, you are able to be more approachable and can enter local venues, like high school football games, town festivals, food truck parking spots and private events, creating catering channel opportunities.
- Find new markets and opportunities. With low costs and barriers to entry in many markets, food trucks remain a very appealing choice to gauge consumer acceptance in new territories.
- Gain competitive intelligence. Use food trucks to determine what the competition is doing and learn from other independent food truck operations.
"In many cases, this is an opportunity to find out what type of competition is in places where they [those operators] are not at, or penetrate other areas, where [chain operators] may not have been before," says Higar.
“New people can find about what I'm about and it can help you find attractive markets,” he goes on to say. “Strategically, there are different reasons these chains are being involved.”
But the food truck scene is not an automatic path to glory. Be warned: consumers expect the social aspect of food truck operations. Engaging with a chain-originated food truck shouldn't leave them with a "chain-feel." Chain operations execs are wise to craft a customer service and guest interaction plan to leverage the local and "hometown" aspects of buying from a food truck.
For Fukanaga, capturing the essence of Las Vegas, since he's lived there since 1995, was natural. Emulating that feel will be a harder task for chains, but is more essential than when they compete against indepedent brick-and-mortar operations.
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Photos: courtesy of Fuku Burger
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