By Kaitlin Ohlinger, Foodable Contributor
The food truck trend doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Now in its seventh consistent year of straight growth, this wildly popular- and fairly accessible, by food and beverage standards- model continues to attract new and talented faces year in and out. Many chefs and owners that start out the old fashioned way — without wheels — express occasional chagrin over food truck hype. A brick-and-mortar restaurant doesn’t have the luxury of driving away when they run out of something, or when something breaks. Those things have to be dealt with, with the looming threat of irritated diners on your premises. Few things are more frustrating than watching people swarm to the newest, most hyped food truck while you’re dealing with a broken dishwasher, a clogged ice machine, or a host of other incredibly mundane issues that food trucks get to opt out of.
Be that as it may, it seems the smartest aspect of starting a food truck is using it as one giant market research and branding tool, in preparation for opening a restaurant with doors and windows. Food truck guru Ludo Lefebvre, in a recent CNBC article, stated, "The food truck is a great test market for a restaurant concept. Not unlike a pop-up, it gives you the flexibility to try things without a huge financial investment that a traditional brick-and-mortar would require." So if a food truck is more a “means to an end” than just a whimsical way to cruise around, cook and serve food until it’s gone, can the trend be viewed with a bit more seriousness?
For Burrasca’s Paolo Calamai and Elizabeth Petrosian, their journey from food cart to brick-and-mortar restaurant began in Southeast Portland in August of 2013. Says Elizabeth, “Our goal was always to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant, but we wanted to start small, test the market (as well as ourselves), build a clientele, and create/develop relationships that would lead to eventual crowdfunding supporters as well as our very small group of private investors.”
Portland proved a serendipitous choice. “Portland provides a very unique and welcoming sort of ‘laboratory’ for this kind of experiment. Portlanders go out of their way to support local businesses, and they have an affection for mom-and-pop shops and underdogs. Not to mention that the food cart scene here is amazing, highly diversified and developed. Couple that with a pretty sophisticated dining public and you've got a great environment for growing a business. Also, in Portland, running a successful food cart gives you a certain amount of ‘street cred.’ It's hard work and everyone knows it.”
With Elizabeth handling admin and social media and Paolo, a native Florentine, manning back of the house, the duo ran a lean yet successful operation. “We only accepted cash payment, had only one part-time summer employee, had a low overhead, and excellent food cost ratios. Thus we were profitable from the very beginning. Summer income was leaps and bounds better than winter income. Our goal was profitability, of course, but we knew a family of four couldn't survive on just the food cart income. Nor was it sustainable in terms of Paolo's hours or the fact that he was doing absolutely everything that had to do with the food/cooking himself. It was a way for us to reach our eventual goal of opening a restaurant.”
Social media and local press seem to play considerable roles in a food truck’s early success or failure. Since your main goal is to build a following, the time you’re not spending fixing the dishwasher or dealing with a server who called in sick can be spent drawing people into your story and your brand. Portland has exceptional local interest in anything to do with food that’s new, and the community took interest in Burrasca from the start.
“We were fortunate to make it onto people's radar pretty early on — I'd say within the first month of business. And then we started getting a lot of great local press. The fact that simultaneously we had all of our social media platforms in place, website included, made it easy for curious folks and those first customers to connect with us and learn our story. Things really surged during the winter of 2014 when we had some really wonderful press: 'Food Cart of the Year' and such. Even though it was traditionally a slow time for carts, we began to sell out of food before the end of the day. This trend carried forward. And the following summer was explosive — we knew that folks would love it if we could offer them more.”
Burrasca delved into the world of crowdfunding once they felt the “tipping point” had been reached, and it was go time. They used a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for their permanent location. A total of 148 backers pledged $13,733.00 — exceeding their $12,000.00 goal — to create Burrasca’s new home in Southeast Portland, which opened its doors on July 14th of this year. The Kickstarter enabled them to purchase necessities such as a pressure cooker, a pasta cooker, pasta cutter and drying rack, deep fryer, griddle, various utensils, glassware, plates and artwork. Backers were given unique and personal rewards that ranged from a Burrasca t-shirt, a prized recipe, a birthday phone call from Paolo, “singing ‘Happy Birthday’ in the exuberant Italian of an exuberant Italian,” to several other one-of-a-kind experiences with varying degrees of appropriateness.
Sounds fun and easy, right? Elizabeth says, “Crowdfunding is a great thing but it is a LOT of work. I'd do it again, but not enter into it lightly. It's a total project and you need to have a comprehensive strategy, as well as backup plans and tricks up your sleeve if things seem to be slowing down. And you need to have the persistence and willingness to swallow your own distaste at constantly asking for money from everybody — not an easy thing to do. But it's incredible to see how supportive people can be, and that in itself engenders its own momentum. I would recommend crowdfunding to other food truck entrepreneurs, but only if they already have all their social media platforms in place and have an established way of connecting to and building up their supporters — that's key. I'd also recommend researching what other similar food trucks have managed to raise by crowdfunding efforts and set your goals accordingly.”