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we want to hear from you

We have recently received a number of emails from food truck owners that want to get their customers involved in what they offer on their food truck menu. It’s a great topic and one we’ll cover today.

Marketing strategies are consistently evolving and food trucks seem to be taking the lead in this evolution. As many of you already know engaging your customers in a two-way conversation is a smart way to create loyal supporters and brand ambassadors for your mobile food businesses.

Since it has become increasingly simple to solicit customer ideas through social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and even by email…it should be part of your food truck’s brand strategy. Not only will this give your customers a voice but it can also generate a lot of local media buzz about your truck.

So, how do you get your customers involved in creating items for your menu? Here are 5 ideas. For each of these, ideas can be submitted at your food truck on a contest form (via suggestion box), social media, or on your website. Heck, for that matter, why not all three?

  • Recipe contest – Create a contest for a menu item where customers submit ideas and either a panel judges the winner or the winner is selected by a vote.
  • Beverage contest - If you want to serve more than just the typical soda or water options create a form that collects information for beverage suggestions.
  • Returning favorite – Ask customers if they would like to see a discontinued menu item make a comeback.
  • Seasonal item – Create a contest for a seasonal item (try Spring since it’s right around the corner) that will be a limited time offer.
  • A day in the kitchen – Develop a contest where the winner can co-create a dish with your food truck’s chef at your commercial kitchen.

Whatever avenue you choose to involve your customers in designing menu items, make sure that you actually follow through on the idea. Ask questions, listen and act. By opening up a conversation with your customers about your menu, you could learn a lot about your food truck. With an increased level of engagement, your customers may come up with ideas about other facets of your business, what they like and don’t like.

And don’t forget, any of these ideas can be leveraged as news items too. Depending on your market and the details of the contest it could be looked at as a great story for a blogger or the local newspaper’s food or business sections.

So have you already created menu items based on your food truck customer ideas? We’d love to hear about them in the comment section below.

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Menu engineering is the study of the profitability and popularity of menu items and how these two factors influence the placement of these items on a menu.

The concept of menu engineering is not based on random decision making; the idea was brought to the restaurant industry roughly a decade later by Professor Donald Smith of Michigan State University.

Food Truck Menu Engineering

While menu engineering is most often mentioned relating to traditional paper restaurant menus, however the concept is equally applicable to a food truck’s menu board.

To engineer your food truck menu, you will need to do a little math to determine the contribution margin and popularity of each item.

Contribution Margin = Menu price – food cost. If a menu item’s contribution margin is greater than the average contribution margin for the entire menu, it receives a rating of “H” indicating that it has an above average contribution margin.

Example: Take the sum of CMs on your menu, for our example we’ll use $30. Now take the number items on the menu (our example is 10). Now divide 30 by 10 to get an average CM of $3.

If a menu item has a contribution margin of $4.00 it is given an “H.” If a menu item had a contribution margin of $2.00 it would receive a “L.”

Demand = Number of items sold of a particular menu item/total number of menu items sold. If a menu item’s percentage of sales is greater than the average sales percentage for the entire menu, it receives a rating of “H” indicating that particular item has a higher sales percentage than the demand mix.

Example: If there are 10 items on the menu, the demand mix would equal 1/10 X .70= .7 or 7%. Any menu item with a sales percentage equal to or greater than 7% would receive a rating of “H.” Any item with a sales percentage less than 7% would receive a rating of “L.”

Now it’s time to classify each item on your menu. All menu items can now be classified into four types using the H&L they’ve received for CM and D.

HH = Stars

These are premier items of the menu. They are relatively popular and generate above average profits per sale. Some strategies:

  • Give high menu visibility. The menu can be a great sales tool. Customers tend to order items which “stand out”. Make sure your gold items present themselves well on your menu.
  • Test for price elasticity. Be proud of gold items. If the customer is willing to pay more without affecting your total demand, logic says, increase the price.
  • Have the service window staff suggest these items when asked by customers.
HL = Plow Horses

These items provide a large number of sales while actually doing very little in helping your profit compared to the Stars. They are good candidates for inventory control. Some strategies:

  • Don’t offer these items as a special.
  • Maintain low menu visibility. Try to hide these items on the menu.
  • Reduce portion sizes slightly. This will reduce food cost, and in turn help to increase contribution margin. This can sometimes turn a plow horse into a star.
  • Find alternative ingredients. See if less expensive ingredients can be utilized without sacrificing quality.
  • Test for price elasticity. Will raising the price significantly reduce demand?
LH = Puzzles

These are the most misunderstood items on your menu. They manage to make above average contribution margin, but are weak in demand. So why aren’t they selling well and how can you increase demand without sacrificing the high profitability? Some strategies:

  • Offer as daily specials. A quick and easy way to attract consumer attention and increase demand is to offer an item as a “Special.”
  • Give the item high menu visibility. Make it “stand out” on your food truck menu.
  • Reduce the price. The item may be overpriced.
  • Drop from the menu if it is difficult to prepare.
LL = Dogs

These items are your poorest performers and may need to be dropped from the menu entirely. Some strategies:

  • Drop from the menu. These items may be nothing more than dead space on the menu and in the truck. By dropping them you can free space, reduce clutter, and concentrate on more profit bearing items.
  • Rename and describe to make more attractive. A catchy name and description may be all it takes to increase demand and turn a Dog into a Plow Horse or even a Star.

How did your food truck’s menu fair?

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Over the years we’ve touched on topics crucial to running a successful mobile food business such as type of cuisine, parking locations, commissaries and selecting the right platform (truck, cart, trailer etc…) to serve your food from. In this article we’ll cover aspects that delve beyond those obvious concerns.

key ingredients

The key ingredients that matter most to creating an awesome mobile food business are your food, your staff and you. If done the right way, your food truck, food cart or trailer will thrive in the industry and stay on top.

Here are three factors that will propel your mobile food business to the next level above the competition:

Food Identity

Your food is your business’ identity. You first must portray yourself in a very definable way to your customers so they can equate you as the go to spot for your cuisine. Failure to define yourself is a huge mistake when trying to separate yourself from your competition. For example, let’s say that there are a bunch of burger trucks in your area, which means there has to be something about your food that makes it stand out if you too will be serving burgers.

How To Make Your Food Awesome

  • Uniqueness. Get your customer’s attention with original dishes. If you plan to serve common dishes, add some flair and make them just 10 percent better, you’ll have an inspiring and stimulating menu your customers will get excited about.
  • Go local. Get some local farm fresh produce. Not only are you bringing in very fresh ingredients, you are supporting the local economy. Today’s customers do take notice of this fact.
Supreme Staffing

You need to hire people who have a passion for the mobile food industry, a sense of urgency when handling customers and a willingness to be part of your team. The service experience is right up there with food when it comes to the top two elements to a great dining experience.

Your staff needs to work in sync because if they don’t, you could end up with reviews that minimally praise the food but ruthlessly criticize the service. Customers want to eat great food but at the same time, they want to be treated like royalty.

How To Build An Awesome Staff

  • Processes. Create employee manuals containing your processes and procedures, and ensure they are updated regularly. This gives your staff a way to succeed as a unified team moving in the same direction. There is nothing worse than attempting to manage a bunch of individuals trying to do the same thing, each in their own way.
  • Outstanding training. Your food truck staff has to know their job. Ensure your staff gets thorough book training on procedures along with on-the-job training complete with food tasting and menu education. Basic training should also include job shadowing a veteran staff member. Don’t stop there. Expose the staff member to the other job roles within your food truck. This will allow for position flexibility in case someone can’t show up for work and leaves you hanging.
  • Solicit feedback. Always communicate with them and more importantly, don’t stop listening. Give real-time feedback and think of yourself as a coach to your team. You don’t have to portray yourself as almighty. Look beyond your ego and start putting your people first.
Personality Plus

Food trucks don’t fail, people fail. As the owner, you are the people. Whatever happens under your watch is on you. This could be hiring a truck manager who under-performs or not training your staff to prepare your awesome recipes consistently awesome. Ultimately, the responsibility rests on your shoulders.

How You Can Become Awesome

  • Self-reflect regularly. The toughest thing for anyone to do is critique themselves. It is not in our nature to tell ourselves we are wrong. As a leader, it’s okay to be vulnerable and allow yourself to be exposed. That doesn’t make you weak; it actually makes you more authentic and respectable.
  • Ask for feedback. Ask your staff for honest feedback. Let it be known that honesty is the only way for you to improve as an owner. Don’t forget your staff extends further than just managers and service window staff. You should be listening to your line cooks just as anyone else. Customer feedback is also very important to the growth and development of your food truck. Let it be known that you want to know what customers think to make their experience better.
  • Keep growing. Food truck owners can always improve. What’s more, your staff has great ideas, so ask them. Your mobile food business needs to keep growing to thrive and it’s vitally important you grow with it.

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When you offer your food truck customers the right choices, you create memorable experiences that increase the value of your mobile food business brand.

customer choices

Offering the wrong choices can keep customers away from your service window. So, the challenge is determining which are the right choices for your customers.

It turns out the best choices you can offer your customers are those that allow them to personalize their experience with your business in a small way.

Why Up-selling May Be The Wrong Direction – Customers Want a Choice

Food service providers have historically used choice to bundle their menu products. This is known as up-selling.

The value in this approach is a better price for the consumer, and thus is exactly why up-selling discount packages is a poor choice. Bundling conditions your customers to be price sensitive.

Offering incentives for bundling can actually devalue your food truck menu if there is not a logical reason for it.

Most consumers recognize bundling as an approach that favors the business. The classic example is the super-sized combo meal.

Bundling conditions your customers to focus on the lowest common denominator – price.

Will that get your customers talking up their experience with your food truck? Don’t count on it.

Small Choices Allow Your Customers to Personalize Their Experience

At most food trucks, you choose your meal from selected offerings – what they do well. As an example, let’s look at trucks that sell burgers. For most of them, the choices are usually two:  regular and large – and with or without cheese.

This model provides customers with a simple first choice. Then the fun begins.

You get to personalize your order by choosing from extra toppings that are all FREE. This ranges from lettuce and tomato to fresh jalapenos and various sauces.

Now don’t worry about the customer that piles on all of the items…those costs become minimal. The net result is that the customer appreciates the added value and feels great about getting just what they wanted. The truck is now on its way to building personal relationships with their customers.

When you have your customers make easy choices you engage them in a collaboration – one that is interactive, inherently personal – and therefore, memorable.

Contrast that with the how fast food restaurants operate. If a customer asks nicely, they allow the order to be customized – mostly by deleting ingredients you do not like.

Isn’t it better to offer positive choices to the consumer that add value than permitting choices that devalue your menu items? Should a customer pay the same when it gets less? The key is making it their choice – then its ok.

So what is the burger and bun on your food truck menu? Once you have that figured out, now just add the right choices for your customers to customize their order –little ones that add big value for your customer.

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tip of the dayMaking specials a regular part of your food truck menu is a good idea for a lot of reasons. Not only do they keep things interesting for your cooking staff, servers and customers; but they are a great way to use product that might otherwise go to waste. Specials can also provide your servers a way to start conversations and establish rapport with customers.

Depending on your kitchen crew, you might open up the creation of specials to staff other than your chef. Any opportunity to help your food truck staff members feel pride in their work should be taken.

Whoever comes up with the dish can explain it to the window server as they sample it (yes, your window servers need to taste the food they are selling), this should hopefully increase their interest and enthusiasm.

Ideas for specials can come from many sources:

  • One is when you need to figure out what to do with food that didn’t sell well in its original intent. If too many roasted chickens were made on Tuesday, how about running a chicken taco special on Wednesday?
  • The seasons will always be a source of inspiration. The first chilly day of the year would be a great time to make a pot of warm soup, especially if you happen to have some beef trimmings left over.
  • US regional and the various ethnic cuisine food trucks should have a myriad of ideas that can be used to add specials.
  • Your kitchen staff, especially when they get into the swing of it, is bound to be a source of new ideas.

Be sure you take the time to cost the specials out, so you’ll know how to price them. And don’t underestimate the importance of making sure your serving staff are familiar with the new dishes and how good they are. Nothing sells itself.

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The new year is upon us and with it come millions of resolutions to eat healthier, lose weight, and get in shape. A great way to attract new customers to your food truck is to make sure your menu contains resolution-friendly items. Even if they wind up ordering your more decadent dishes, diners with good intentions to eat more healthfully are likely to decide where to take their business based on the options you make available.

new years resolution

 To get you started, here are a few ideas for adding healthy items to your menu while keeping your food costs in check and your restaurant’s personality front and center:

Consider alternative proteins

You don’t have to start serving up tofu if you don’t already – there are plenty of non-animal protein options that convey healthfulness without screaming “vegetarian”.  Ethnic cuisines are great sources for inspiration –  Mexican bean dishes, Indian dal, or even Portobello burgers are good places to start.

Why do this? Offering meatless dishes makes your food truck an option for parties that include vegetarian or vegan diners, which is important because that audience is growing. Ten years ago, it might have seemed like a fad, with just a small population, but it’s been constantly increasing.

Focus on freshness

Let’s face it: if burgers and fries are staples at your food truck, your customers probably won’t be excited to see quinoa pilaf show up on the menu. But they might be interested to know that your beef is cooked to order, your French fries are hand-cut on the truck, or your buns are baked fresh daily. Details like these assure customers that you are serving them handcrafted, minimally processed foods, and that’s important even if it doesn’t mean a lower calorie count.

Again… why bother adding healthy items to your menu in the first place? According to the Hudson Institute, it’s good for business! In a 2013 study they found that increasing the number of lower-calorie options significantly increased traffic.

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How much should you charge for your the items on your food truck’s menu?  How do you know if that price is right?  If your prices are too low, you’ll be working really hard for low profit margins.  If they’re too high, many of your customers may seek out alternatives.

food truck menu pricing mistakes

Because pricing is one of the most important drivers of a food truck’s profitability, getting your menu prices wrong can cause a significant dent in your bottom line, and it can make the difference between remaining profitable or having to shut down your mobile food business.

The most common mistakes food truck vendors make when it comes to pricing are usually due to a disconnect between price and value.  When you undervalue your menu products, you set prices that are too low.  On the other hand, over-pricing is a sign that your customers do not perceive the value of your food as indicated by your prices.

Here are the two biggest menu pricing strategy mistakes:

Cost Alone

It goes without saying that you should know exactly how much it costs you to plate a dish from your food truck menu.  However, this number should only serve as a price floor, not as an overall strategy.  While taking your cost and adding a markup may seem like a good idea, this often isn’t the case.  The main reason is because this approach completely leaves the customer out of the equation.  In all honesty, they don’t care about your internal costs.  Just because something is expensive to serve doesn’t mean it is perceived as valuable.  On the other hand, something that is inexpensive to make may be extremely valuable to a hungry consumer.  When it comes to pricing, customers think in terms of whether something is “worth it” to them.  If it is, they’ll buy it; if not, they’ll pass.  Aligning price with the perception of value is the key to getting it right.

The Competition

The easiest way to set prices is to look at all your competitors’ prices and set your number somewhere between the highest and the lowest.  After all, it may seem logical to sit right in the middle.  There are several problems with this approach.  For one, very few food service establishment menus are exactly identical.  You need to know exactly how your products are different or better than your competition, and price based on the unique benefits you provide your customers.  You also need to clearly communicate those benefits to the customers waiting in line to be served, so they understand what they’re getting for the price they’re paying.  Last but not least, it is highly possible that your competitors are not pricing their products correctly in the first place, so following their lead can wreak havoc on your profitability.

While there is no real test to determine whether your prices are set correctly, knowing and understanding the way your customers think and make decisions will go a long way towards pricing for value.  Using a strategic approach when it comes to pricing will help your food truck remain profitable over the long term.

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Food truck owners are consistently looking for a ways to get their customers to spend a little bit more cash with each of their orders. A study by Technomic suggests that adding soup to your food truck menu, or, if you already have it on your menu, promoting it more is the way to accomplish this task. According to the study, the percentage of respondents who occasionally order soup is up to 62% from 43% just two years ago.

soup to nuts orlando soup

A bowl of warm soup from The Soup to Nuts Truck in Orlando, FL

Need more convincing? Here are four more reasons to add soup to your food truck menu:

  • Consumers also report that they will be looking for healthier options in 2013, so providing soup as a possible substitute for a side can be very profitable and also satisfy their demands.
  • Soup is cheap to produce and a good way to reuse ingredients that you already stock in your kitchen.
  • Soup is a versatile dish that can range in flavor from the more traditional and comforting to new, exotic and daring.
  • Soup can increase guest checks by up to 15%.

Winter is the perfect time to add soup. Colder weather means everyone is trying to warm up and it is time to innovate and try to cater to customers’ tastes even more.

Wondering how to market your new soup items? Here are some tips:

Go local. Making your soups from local, in-season vegetables will not only make them taste better, it will be better for the environment AND force you to get creative.

Make it from scratch. Making your soups without the help of bouillon or boxed broth will ensure that it has a depth of flavor as well as your food truck’s own unique taste.

Try unique garnishes. Garnishes can be an easy and inexpensive way to upgrade your soup from a traditional staple to that unusual dish your customer has been craving.

Goto the next page to find a full list of traditional regional soup varieties any food truck can use to find a fit for their concept and warm their customers during the coldest times of the year.

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Food trucks have become some of the most-searched types of businesses across the internet. Because of this, search engines such as Google look for specific types of content for their rankings for mobile food businesses.

Food Truck Website Menu

The number one content topic for mobile food industry websites is your menu. Menus are so important for food truck websites that you need to optimize yours so these search engines can use this content to improve your rankings.

For the few food truck sites that don’t have menus available, these mobile food vendors are missing out on their best way to get higher rankings in local searches. Beside getting hurt in your search ranking even if your website is found, since most consumers are seeking a menu on a truck’s site, you’re letting them down before they even have a chance to find your next location.

So now that we’ve determined that your food truck’s website needs a menu…how do you format it to maximize your ranking?

Here are a few tips:

Homepage Link

This part is simple, name it “Menu.” This should be a simple HTML link in your navigation bar directly to your menu page.

Avoid Flash

Having a Flash animated website may seem cool, but it creates issues for search engines to find you.

Display Prices

Failure to display menu prices can make some potential customers run from your website. We’ve heard some food truck owners are concerned about changing prices, however this can be remedied by adding a notice that online prices should not be considered always up-to-date. Google Maps and other local search engines provide rough price ranges for food truck profiles, and they might even consider it less-optimal if they can’t locate price values.

Avoid Small Fonts

Use 16 to 24 point fonts for your item names and a standard 12-14 point font for your menu item descriptions. Just like offline menus, fine print or small fonts make for a bad user experience.

Use English

Even if you’re food truck’s concept is Asian or Latin based, if you’re operating in an American city, you should provide English in addition to the country of origin menu names for entrees or it will not be as effective for both search engines and consumers.

Avoid Image Only Menus

Even though Google has improved their technology to index text in images, some search engines are not as effective so all of the text may not be made available for keyword searches.

Your food truck website has plenty of room to provide multiple menu pages so don’t worry if you get wordy in your menu descriptions.

Providing more detailed information can only help you. If you focus on locally-grown food, organics, special diets and more, provide this info in your online menu. By publishing this information, you have provided more information for search engines to index and will expand the number of keyword terms interested foodies might come to find your website and your food truck.

Use these tips we’ve provided to give you a leg up on your competition, and should help you expand your visibility for the foodies who are trying to find you.

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The rise in knowledgeable food consumers has grown leaps and bounds since the increase of food related television programming. Because of this growth, it should be no surprise that the the mobile food industry has benefited from the new foodies in the world.

These foodies tend to be consumers who enjoy sharing information about their last, best meal through word of mouth and social media. A great way for a food truck to give these share happy customers a reason spread the word about their mobile business is to provide them with a signature dish to talk about.

kogi short rib taco

Kogi BBQ’s signature short rib taco

Classic cuisine dishes have always connected diners with their roots or the history of the regions where they have lived or traveled. Your food truck’s signature dish can be a modified or elevated version of a popular dish from the cuisine your concept is built on.  By promoting these signature menu items, food truck vendors can take advantage of these customer emotions or memories and create committed fans and followers.

Creating Buzz About Your Signature Dish

People show tremendous loyalty and enthusiasm for their favorite foods, and signature dishes give you the ability to find a way of sharing your culinary self-expression. In fact, many food trucks have started operations based partly on the culinary appeal of their signature dishes.

  • Signature dishes often incorporate local produce, seafood, game or condiments.
  • Most mobile food vendors specialize in cooking national, regional or local dishes that are popular with people from particular ethnic backgrounds.
  • Brand image and food consistency often have their roots in distinctive signature dishes.
  • Emphasizing history, preparation techniques or sustainable local ingredients provides rich marketing possibilities for food trucks.

Signature dishes could include appetizers, soups, salads, streaks, entrees or desserts. Regional favorites include barbecue dishes, Cajun and Creole specialties, crab cakes, chili and even Philly cheese steaks.

The cooking methods can range from simple and healthy to complicated dishes, it really depends on the technical skills of your staff to consistently recreate the dish. Not only can your signature items draw in local consumers, it can serve as tourist attraction if your market has a high flow of out of town foodie visitors.

The Benefits

An important point about a signature dish is that they can capture the imagination of foodies who can influence others to visit your food truck’s service window. Other promotional ideas to consider:

  • People who visit food trucks to enjoy their favorite foods often try other menu items and spend additional money on sides and beverages.
  • Window Servers can up sell signature dishes by explaining their history.
  • Food trucks can link their cuisines with local or regional foods, ethnic specialties and sustainable local sources.
  • Signature dishes can generate social and traditional media attention for your mobile food business, which will increase local market followers, and online visibility.

Food trucks often change their menus to keep pace with culinary trends, but your signature dishes have the power to serve as menu anchors for loyal customers and evolve to reflect new culinary trends and healthier eating habits.

Does your food truck already have a signature dish? Tell us about it in the comment section below.

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