Whether it’s an entrée into the retail baking market or a way to skirt the overhead and labor costs associated with launching a bricks and mortar shop, mobile dessert vendors are rolling out in cities across the United States.
The reception from consumers has been especially warm. Recent data from Technomic reveals that 91 percent of consumers polled who are familiar with food trucks think the trend is here to stay, and just 7 percent who use food trucks expect to make fewer visits in the coming year.
“Consumers’ infatuation with food trucks is the convergence of a couple of things–some food-related and some not,” says Kevin Higar, director of Technomic, who recently surveyed 100 food truck vendors and their customers across nine U.S. cities. Amid a budding foodie culture, down economy and the novelty of buying handheld meals from a cart, the environment is just right for food trucks. “You have the social element, the culinary elements, the accessibility and vendors’ genuine excitement for having the customer there.”
Focus on mobile
Like many retail bakers, mobile vendors come from a diverse range of backgrounds. Some had bricks and mortar shops prior to starting a food truck; some plan to expand to a retail location; and others have no genuine plans to open a retail bakery. But all saw a unique opportunity in desserts on the go.
Husband and wife team Sam and Kristi Whitfield left their respective jobs as lawyer and consultant to launch their mobile cupcake delivery truck, Curbside Cupcakes, in Washington, D.C., because “cupcakes should come to the people,” Kristi Whitfield says. It took six months from inception to operation of their first Mercedes Benz Sprinter van in November 2009–they now have three. All the cupcakes are prepared in a rented commercial kitchen, and the majority of sales are directly off the truck.
“People always ask us to open a bricks and mortar shop,” Whitfield says. “We might one day, but right now we are focused on being mobile. Real estate in the city is so high, who has any money left? There is still plenty of opportunity to expand and diversify what we offer on the truck.”
More Cupcakes opened in Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood three years ago, and owner Patty Rothman debuted More Mobile in September 2010 with the goal of extending her brand’s reach and testing More’s salability in different neighborhoods without having to shoulder another building lease.
“The idea was partly the novelty factor, but also the idea of being able to go into any market–taking the truck on the road in different places and seeing where our next place should be, based on demand,” Rothman says.
More’s Mercedes Sprinter van is outfitted to match the retail location’s AIA award-winning design with the same lighting, a miniature version of the display case and a replication of the bakery’s product label on the outside. “There’s a certain design element to our store,” she says. “We are known for being a luxury, upscale brand, and we wanted our brand to carry through to our truck, so we had the same architects that designed the bakery do our truck.”
More likely will expand with additional trucks before bricks and mortar because the concept is easy and cheaper to replicate. “We may put a second truck in another city for a few months.”
Though consumer demand for food trucks remains high, not everyone has welcomed them with open arms. In addition to the unique challenges of being mobile, food trucks face a patchwork of regulations that vary not only by state, but also by municipality.
Higar says this is due in part to complaints from bricks and mortar competitors. “In many places when either existing legislation regarding where food trucks can be, or if new legislation was introduced, it was often instigated or brought to the municipality’s attention by traditional restaurants,” he says. “In other cases, there really was no other competition in the area–perhaps at all or during certain dayparts, such as evenings–and that’s why the trucks were being so openly and enthusiastically received when they first showed up in that area.” As the trend has gained steam, so have limitations on food trucks’ freedoms.
Some cities have a limited number of permits to give out–often delegated through an annual lottery–and some permits have to be renewed every year or two. Others issue multiple health department inspections each year. In cities like Chicago, health department laws only allow food trucks to sell prepared and packaged items–nothing can be baked or prepped on the vehicle.
But vendors find ways to adapt. When Rothman launched More Mobile, she learned the hard way that packaging for individual sale to appease the health department is the most time-consuming part of having a truck. “The hardest part isn’t baking the additional 1,500 cupcakes a day, but boxing and labeling them. We’ve actually talked about pricing them higher than our retail store because of the cost of packaging and labeling.” She now has one to two employees dedicated to individually boxing the cupcakes daily.
When Denver laws began forbidding food trucks from partnering with (or parking near) other food trucks, or parking within 200 feet of an existing food establishment on private property, The Denver Cupcake Truck leaned heavily on deliveries and feedback from customers of owner Denon Moore’s retail bakery, Cake Crumbs.
“We can be mobile outside the 12- to 20-block radius of downtown, but unfortunately that’s the best place to be for foot traffic,” says Moore, who co-owns the business with her husband Sean Moore. The truck sells up to 1,000 cupcakes for a big corporate event or private party. In addition, Moore asks the bakery’s Facebook fans where they’d like the truck to go. “We are booked several months out for private events. We also move around based on fan requests and where it’s popular.”
To avoid the permit and parking issues plaguing New York City food trucks, Derek Hunt, co-owner with Gina Ojile of Cake & Shake, opted to launch one of the city’s first mobile cupcake carts. “Here in New York, there are many more cart permits than truck permits, so that makes the concept more viable,” he says. “There are also high-traffic places that a truck can’t go but a cart can.”
Hunt adds that it lowered their overall investment; the overhead to outfit a cart is about 40 to 50 percent less than a truck. Because he preps all the cupcakes at a commissary, he was able to acquire a second cart, which will roll out next spring. He also is able to focus on quality, using only organic ingredients. Cake & Shake sells between 1,000 and 3,000 cupcakes per week, depending on the weather, with 85 to 90 percent of sales from the cart.
Assessing the competition
Like food truck regulation, competition in the food truck market isn’t easily defined, and the space is becoming increasingly crowded.
The Denver market now has a handful of mobile dessert vendors, which is why social media plays such a significant role in the business, Moore says. “We were the first truck to launch that was social media-driven. When we started developing the truck, I said we need to use the customer base at the bakery to grow excitement and gain a following,” she says. “For 2012, I see us switching up the menu and developing a new truck concept. We want to keep our customers intrigued and involved.”
Cake & Shake’s Hunt continues to think outside the box–or bakery–in terms of growth. “Some days are tremendous, and we’ll have one or more refills on the cart,” he says, noting that the cart holds 400 cupcakes. “Other days can be dead because of weather or certain holidays. My goal by the end of summer is to have a major client who we are selling wholesale to. Now that we have reached peak for the season and are stabilized, I can pay attention to getting into grocery stores or coffee houses.”
Carla Saunders, who owns the 3 Babes and a Baker truck in Columbus, Ohio, says her main competition is retail bakeries and in-store bakeries with low price points, though she is most worried about bricks and mortar shops launching mobile concepts of their own.
“There are a lot of restaurants going mobile now that this trend has picked up,” she says. “It worries me because the mobile truck was my way to get started in the business. They have more money, more of a following.” She has always done deliveries and events to ensure a steady flow of business. Roughly 70 percent of her business comes from corporate events.
Molly Taylor adopted a fresh approach to the mobile bakery business model when she founded The Sweets Truck in 2009 in Los Angeles. She created a “best of” product line offering a rotating menu of cakes, cookies, cupcakes and sweets from area bakeries.
“I did not want to bake on the truck–I did not want to make any compromises when it came to quality, and therefore we built a business model that was totally unique to the bakery world: pairing with local bakeries to promote and cross-promote their brands,” she says.
Taylor’s current menu features six different bakeries, including cakes from Jenny Rae’s, Madam Chocolat cookies and cupcakes from Auntie Em’s Kitchen. It took awhile for consumers to warm up to the idea since she wasn’t preparing everything herself.
“Our business model was not an idea that people took kindly to initially; many people did not understand why we did not want to bake on the truck or have our own full-time Sweets Truck kitchen,” she says. “However, it’s now a business model that I see being used more and one that now people really appreciate. It has been fantastic to grow our mobile business while helping bricks and mortar businesses grow their business and brand recognition.”
Whether or not they decide to play nice with retail and other mobile competitors, it appears food trucks are far from reaching their peak. More’s Rothman says that bakery owners looking to launch a food truck should believe in their idea and not get too hung up on the unknowns.
“What I would say to everybody is just do it,” she says. “We always tend to estimate conservatively, and we’ve learned that our capacity has just continued to grow. There are days we are very stressed, but I have been amazed by what we’re able to pull off. You have to believe in yourself to prepare for the fact that you are going to be successful.
“One more thing,” she adds. “Practice parking.” MB
Tips from top operators
After surveying more than 100 food truck operators and their customers across nine United States cities, Technomic compiled a list of nine best practices for mobile vendors.
1. Choose locations wisely