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Food trucks: Good route to opening a restaurant?

Mobile eateries can be useful in marketing products

The food-truck phenomenon is taking over, from Food Network programs to weekly gatherings of food trucks of all kinds here in Phoenix.
But the trucks, which dish up everything from exotic fare to American staples, are expensive, and whether or not the investment ultimately pays off from a business standpoint depends on the restaurateur.

For aspiring restaurateurs, food trucks can serve as a marketing tool, a revenue generator, or both. Some, like Laryn Blok, are able to turn successful food trucks into permanent locations.

Blok and her husband recently sold one of their two mobile espresso bars to finance a permanent Shine Coffee location in downtown Phoenix. The Bloks’ followers wanted a stationary place to get their coffee, and that demand was what pushed them to open a permanent spot.
Blok said that food trucks are a big investment and take a lot of money to operate, but with the right product and brand, they can be useful in growing a business.

“You really have to understand that product differentiation is the name of the game, that is what will make or break you,” Blok said. Food-truck operators need to distinguish themselves from other vendors, especially when they sell fairly mainstream products like pizza and coffee.
MaryBeth Scanlon, meanwhile, said that while the revenue generated by her food truck did not play a role in helping establish a permanent downtown location for her pizza business, the opportunity to test the market was invaluable.
“People don’t realize the overhead of a food truck, yet in comparison to owning a restaurant the overhead is probably half for a food truck, and it is a great way to test your product and build a following before you open,” Scanlon said. “You have to get into a food truck with eyes wide open that you will be spending a minimum of $50,000 to get started.”

Scanlon’s Pizza People now operates a food truck and a restaurant through separate entities that work together using the same preparation space and labor. If the food truck doesn’t use all the ingredients for the day, it goes back to the restaurant, basically eliminating any waste.
From a financial standpoint, opening a food truck may not be the best way to test products and the market because the investment is much larger than people imagine. However, from a branding standpoint, it is the perfect opportunity to know if your product is in demand and if customers would support a permanent location, local food-truck operators said.

Cynthia Dunne of FleurComGroup PR, who works with Salt River Fields for their annual Streets Eats food-truck festival, sees many advertising benefits to owning a food truck. And though historically many chefs have used food trucks to test a concept before launching a full-scale restaurant, Dunne is seeing more existing restaurants get food trucks to go out and spread the word about their businesses.
“A restaurant is stationary, and these are people that have had success in the restaurant business,” Dunne said. “they want to tie it to their location and take it to the streets.”

Most food trucks travel to different locations each day to sell freshly prepared food, providing a different experience from traditional fast food.
“These restaurants have to decide to want to use it as a marketing tool or as a revenue generator, but the brilliant people make both work,” Dunne said.

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