« January 2011 Table of Contents
Business Trends: Street food
Mobile seafood restaurants keep business in drive
By Joanne Friedrick
January 01, 2011
The Chicago-based foodservice research and consulting firm Technomic predicts that food trucks will proliferate nationwide in its "11 for '11" restaurant tr ends report.
Sometimes the offshoot of a successful brick-and-mortar restaurant and almost always a unique food experience on wheels, these movable feasts are catching on as dining options. And for some of them, seafood is the chief menu item.
One of the primary appeals of launching a mobile restaurant versus a traditional land-based dining establishment is the cost savings.
Neil Macleod, owner and operator of Shrimp Pimp, which hit the road in Los Angeles in September, says he watched the food-truck trend and decided he wanted to be a part of it. An experienced restaurateur who worked in New York for Mario Batali, Jean Georges Vongerichten and the gourmet seafood retailer Wild Edibles, Macleod also has an "in" with the seafood industry through his wife, Chandra, who has worked for Contessa Premium Foods for 20 years. Macleod had opened his own restaurant, Indigo, in New York, so he knew about the cost of entry. For a 50-seat restaurant in New York or Los Angeles, he says, startup costs would be $250,000. With a leased food truck, the cost is just $50,000.
"It's radically different," he says, "from the money, to finding a location, to construction and approvals. None of that was required [with the truck]."
Of course the flip side is that conventional restaurants also don't have to get up at
6 a.m. to find the perfect parking spot.
Shrimp Pimp's menu offers six specialties, four "small bites" and the side
option of homemade fries. All the entrées feature haddock, shrimp, tuna or salmon, or a combination thereof. For the winter months, Macleod planned to feature more hearty fare such as chowders and some Spanish-style dishes.
While he strives to combine healthful options, like a seared sashimi salad featuring ahi tuna, with traditional ones, he says most diners opt for the fish and chips, featuring beer-battered haddock, or the po-boy, made with tempura-battered shrimp.
For anyone wanting to get into the food-truck
business, Macleod says there are definitely some challenges to be faced, chief among them space.
"Refrigeration is limited, so that limits how much I can sell," he says. The kitchen is also small and that helps define what is on the menu. In the Shrimp Pimp truck, there is a double fryer, flat top and steam table. Macleod typically does the cooking, with a second person on board to work as cashier.
Operators not only have to think about what they are serving, but where they will be each day. "One of the pitfalls of inexperience is parking in the wrong location and not hitting the right demographic," concedes Macleod.
Now that his business is better known, having received nationwide coverage during a feature on the "Rachael Ray" TV show, Macleod gets invitations to serve different clients, such as the corporate campuses for Yahoo!, hulu and BET. He has also started catering special events, such as the recent anniversary party for Hello Kitty.
During the day, Macleod usually makes three stops: one at lunch, another for dinner and then a late night location. And he's on the road seven days a week. "Like any restaurant, you have to work hard to get established," he says.
Customers can find his truck by following him on Twitter or Facebook or on his website, shrimppimp.com.
Coping with the social media aspect may have been one of Macleod's biggest challenges, he says. "I'm a 44-year-old man, so this is my first experience with Twitter." To help him maximize the medium, he employed someone who is a social media professional, and since then they have
increased his Twitter followers to more than 1,000.
"It's an amazing way to let people know where we are," he says.
Up the highway near San Francisco, Sam's Chowder House, an established restaurant in Half Moon Bay, Calif., has taken its food on the road via Sam's
Launched about one and a half years ago, co-owner Julie Shenkman and her husband have taken what is popular at the restaurant and brought it to people throughout the Bay area, wherever they are. Paul Shenkman was honored as 2010 restaurateur of the year by restaurant trade magazine Santé . In addition to Sam's, he also operates Osteria Coppa in San Mateo, Calif.
A Maine lobster roll, which is one of the best
sellers at Sam's Chowder House, is the top seller on the road, says Shenkman. Other offerings include New England-style clam chowder, fish and chips and fish tacos.
The truck features at least one meat dish, such as pork or roast beef, for non-seafood lovers. Recently, she says, they added a shrimp po-boy to the permanent menu, upgrading it from a special because of its popularity.
Because the restaurant deals in volume purchases, Shenkman says there is never an issue with freshness.
The idea to expand this way, rather than adding another traditional restaurant, was inspired by their customers, she says. "We had customers who wanted this type of restaurant near them, but our model was to go to the businesses versus putting another restaurant on the street."
Like Macleod, Shenkman says launching a truck-based restaurant is more economical. The truck they found was almost new and then was remodeled to their specifications. Labor costs are another savings, with just two or three people working a truck compared with a restaurant filled with servers and kitchen staff. The truck can serve up to 2,500 people when fully stocked.
There are challenges on the front end, she says, such as knowing where to park and getting the proper permits from each city in which the truck does business. To find the best places, Shenkman says they reached out to local businesses. Now they regularly serve corporate customers such as Skype, Google, Oracle and Old Navy. "We also do private events - it can be a party at a business or a home," she says, such as a lobster or clam bake.
Both Shenkman and Macleod say their businesses are expanding via another truck or two. The new Sam's Chowderhouse truck, expected to rev up in the first half of this year, will cover more of the greater Bay area. Macleod says he will target Orange County next, and then move on to San Francisco and Las Vegas.
"It [the food truck concept] has the potential to make fantastic money," says Macleod. And, he adds, it has staying power. "It's not a fad, it's just a difference in the way things are done."
Contributing Editor Joanne Friedrick lives in Portland, Maine.