Making the Leap From Food Truck to Brick and Mortar RestaurantWhen you're ready to put down roots, follow the lead of trendy trucks that have successfully made the transition.
Opening a restaurant isn’t easy or cheap. As an alternative, many restaurant-preneurs decide to try their luck in the food truck world, with its lower startup and overhead costs. But if your food truck business is booming, you may at some point decide to give your devoted clientele a place to sit and be served — in other words, a restaurant.
Plenty of successful food trucks have made the leap from mobile cuisine to sit-down dining destination. If you’re considering following suit, heed the advice of those who’ve blazed the trail.
Listen to your customers
Since The Halal Guys opened their first cart on the streets of New York City in 1990, the company has grown into a full-fledged franchise, with a massive fleet of street carts and 39 brick-and-mortar locations worldwide, reaching as far as the Philippines, South Korea and Indonesia.
Their advice for truck owners contemplating expansion to a permanent location: “Really and truly listen to your customers.” Andrew Eck, director of marketing, said having customers who will follow you throughout your transition is critical. “It’s just really and truly understanding if that’s what your customer is asking for. If there’s truly a demand, it can be a fantastic next step in the evolution of any brand.”
Consider the effect on your brand
Consider how your brand would need to evolve to support a different service model.
Seattle-based Skillet began by bringing high-end restaurant food to the streets in a beautiful vintage Airstream truck. The truck allowed them to turn an upscale dining experience casual. To keep the casual atmosphere at its restaurants, one decision the brand landed on was having the servers wear plaid, “so that the demeanor of the service seemed to be underwhelmed, but the food overwhelmed,” said spokesperson Ani Pendergast.
Find a space that works for your budget
A major consideration is the significant investment required for building out a restaurant space. Brett Chiavari, founder of BC Tacos in Davie, Florida, suggested owners take plenty of time to do their research and wait for the right location at the right price.
Within the first six months of opening his truck, Chiavari said he knew a permanent location would be his next step, but it wasn’t until much later that the right opportunity presented itself. “We looked at a lot of places in a lot of different cities. It wasn’t until about two years in that we finally found the spot where we’re at now.”
How do you know what rent you can afford? Because you’ve (hopefully) written a solid restaurant business plan that includes costs and sales projections.
Chiavari recommended finding an existing restaurant space to lease. It can save you a lot of money and effort. “We went into a second generation space, so we had a lot of the big things — prep tables, sinks, the hood — and they were in really good shape, so we didn’t have to do any construction. Really, the only things we were buying was cooking equipment, refrigeration and tables and chairs.”
Learn a new operational model
Running a brick-and-mortar restaurant is very different from running a food truck, noted Eric Silverstein, founder of The Peached Tortilla in Austin, Texas.
Transitioning from the fast-casual service model of a truck to a full-service restaurant and bar required learning an entirely new service sequence, he said. It’s not as simple as just taking an order and delivering it out the next window. In a restaurant, timing is a lot more critical and there are far more systems in place that have to be considered, such as when to fire tickets, when to take drink and appetizer orders and more.
Operational tasks such as restaurant inventory also become must-dos.
The good news, said Silverstein: “Once you get it down, it’s easier to run a restaurant than a food truck.”
Leverage the synergy
Consider the impact a permanent location may have on your food truck business — and vice versa.
Many truck owners decide to scale back the truck side of the business to focus on the restaurant, using their vehicle as a marketing tool or for catering special events rather than as a regular source of revenue.
But it’s not always an either-or scenario. Skillet leverages its food truck commissary as a prep kitchen for both the food truck and the restaurants. By having the commissary prep food for all four kitchens, they’ve been able to maintain a great deal of control over their product, Pendergast said. “We do all of our sauces from scratch, so instead of allowing one chef to add a little bit more sugar, our commissary cooks it all, so it’s the same recipe every time.”
Organize your processes — and your people
When you decide you are ready to make the move, “Make sure you have all your ducks in a row,” advised Chiavari.
As your empire expands, the number of variables that must be controlled grows. “You’re adding more staff and more responsibilities,” he said.
“Definitely make sure you have the right people and processes in place to help you move forward and keep everything running smoothly.” -Brett Chiavari
For example, Chiavari has an executive chef who runs the kitchen and handles 95 percent of the prep work for the two food trucks. The restaurant kitchen preps everything so the truck managers can come in, grab what’s on the shelves and hit the road after doing a requisition sheet.
“I’m learning every day on how we can do better and how we can improve and keep our customers coming back for more.”