Food trucks make great marketing tools for brick-and-mortar restaurants.
|Partners Danny Caplinger (left) and Si Mendoza check in with restaurant manager Eno Ichara.|
Il Primo Pizza & Wings in Richmond, Texas is one of many restaurants to discover this truism, having recently launched a food truck offering most of the restaurants' menu items. But like every other step in this company's evolution over the past several years, the truck launch was the result of a careful planning process.
The food truck marks the most recent addition to the business that partners Si Mendoza and Danny Caplinger founded nearly 10 years ago when they struck out on their own in the pizza business.
Once their brick-and-mortar restaurant was established, Mendoza spent a year planning the food truck, which made its official debut in February.
The truck has brought in an average $10,000 a week serving customers three to four days per week. More importantly, the truck creates awareness for the restaurant, a benefit that has not been fully quantified, but which the partners believe is significant.
An early beginning
Mendoza, 36, began his work life as a teenager working in the automotive repair business in South Florida. By the time he was 21, he was a shop manager, a position that gave him a good business foundation.
"You learn about sales, you learn about numbers and you learn about how to talk to people," he said.
In 2006, the auto repair business was declining along with other sectors of the South Florida economy. Mendoza decided the food business had better prospects, so he took a job managing restaurants for Il Primo Pizza & Wings, which had five Southwest Florida locations.
After a year and a half, Mendoza and Caplinger, a part owner of Il Primo Pizza & Wings, wanted to strike out on their own. They decided to move to the Houston, Texas area since it was a growing market. Their plan was to replicate the successful Il Primo Pizza & Wings concept in a new market.
"Houston during the bad time was just thriving," Mendoza said.
The founder and majority owner of Il Primo Pizza & Wings, the late Paul Conti, had no problem with allowing Mendoza and Caplinger to use the company name and concept in another state.
|The food truck readies for the lunch crowd at a work site.|
A new chapter begins
In 2008, the partners broke ground on their 3,800-square-foot restaurant on a leased piece of land in Richmond, Texas. The two men were able to build the restaurant themselves. They invested $450,000 in the building, using savings and a commercial loan.
Il Primo Pizza & Wings opened for business in Texas in 2009 with 12 employees, including the owners.
Business was good from the get-go, as the greater Houston area continued its growth mode. In 2012, Mendoza got the idea for a food truck as a way to promote the restaurant. He found a 1994 food truck on Craigslist for $3,500.
His goal was to sell food to the construction crews working at various sites within a two-mile radius of the restaurant.
"My intention was to tap into the clientele that was out there during lunch every single day, working and building around this area," Mendoza said. "You need to guide them into the restaurant."
The truck, with only one employee, sold reheated pizza and cold beverages.
First food truck helps the restaurant
The impact on the restaurant business was noticeable. The restaurant's lunch business nearly doubled on certain days after deploying the truck to construction sites. There was a 5 to 7 percent increase in the restaurant's total sales.
The truck was profitable, but Mendoza realized a larger truck serving freshly prepared pizza would be even more profitable. Freshly-prepared pizza was what the restaurant was known for, and he wanted to make it available to people on the truck as well as at the restaurant. Cooking pizza on a truck required a larger truck.
"After about three months, I said, ‘the only way to make some good money off of these trucks is to go full and big,'" he said.
Plans take shape for a bigger truck
Because of the investment needed to purchase and build a larger food truck, Mendoza spent about a year planning the truck.
"If I was going to do it, I was going to do it 100 percent," he said. "There were so many different angles."
He eventually found a used 20-foot U-Haul truck for $8,000 at an independent U-Haul dealership with the U-Haul graphics removed. He purchased the truck and hired a job shop to modify a stainless steel canopy, which he installed himself. He also installed electrical fans to remove the exhaust, and a pair of coolers for beverages.
It was around this time the partners decided to discontinue a second restaurant they had established, which gave them a pizza oven, a Middleby Marshall Wow oven, for the truck.
In addition to the oven, the truck has a fryer, a refrigerator, a beverage cooler and a three-compartment handwashing sink.
The total investment was $45,000, not including the oven. The biggest saving was in labor, since Mendoza built the kitchen himself.
By February, the truck was ready to go.
The truck launches
Mendoza drives the truck and has a full-time employee to help prepare food and serve customers. For larger events, there is a third person.
He takes the truck as far as 20 minutes away from the restaurant. He has certain favorite spots, including some residential developments and retail businesses. He also participates in food truck festivals.
The new food truck, with its expanded menu, has been better able to capitalize on the restaurant's reputation than the first truck, which the restaurant now uses for customer deliveries.
"We're already established," Mendoza said. "That has really helped me out to get my foot in the door to a lot of these events."
|The food truck serves oven fresh pizza.|
The only difference in the truck's menu is there is only one pizza size. The truck sells a 10-inch pizza where the restaurant offers 8-, 12-, 14- and 16-inch pizzas. Mendoza believes having multiple pizza sizes would be hard to manage on the truck.
The salads are prepared from fresh produce on the truck, just like the restaurant. Salads are highly profitable – the cost to make it can be $3.50 and the truck can sell it for $9.00.
Cold beverages have also been an especially profitable item.
"I love to sell drinks," Mendoza said. He pays 20 cents a bottle of water (considering all costs involved, including labor) and he sells it for $2.00.
"You have to be open eyed and aggressive," he said.
Restaurant and truck synergies
While the restaurant familiarizes customers with the truck, the truck, in turn, promotes the restaurant.
Mendoza likes being able to direct customers who taste the food on the truck to a stationary location if they want to experience the food again. Customers don't have to track down the truck on its Facebook page if they want to taste the food again.
The truck's biggest benefit is the growth it has delivered in restaurant sales, in addition to winning more catering business. While he has not been able to quantify the truck's direct impact on sales since he has also introduced other branding initiatives, such as in-store signage, "it definitely has created a sales boost," he said.
"I am bringing back clientele to my restaurant, and that is awesome," Mendoza said.
|Fresh salads are prepared on the truck.|
One of the greatest advantages of having a food truck is that if a location isn't doing well, the truck can move elsewhere, Mendoza said.
There is also a beneficial operational synergy between the truck and the restaurant. Mendoza can rely on the restaurant if he needs ingredients to fill last minute orders on the truck.
And because he is purchasing ingredients from the same food supplier for both the restaurant and the truck – Sysco – Mendoza is able to buy product in larger volumes than if he were only buying product for the truck, which improves his profitability.
"My profit margin is higher than other food trucks because my contract pricing allows me to have a better deal," he said.
Mendoza and Caplinger are considering adding another truck or possibly a trailer. One benefit to the trailer is less liability cost.
Il Primo Pizza & Wings in Richmond, Texas has proven that a food truck can do a lot to promote a brick-and-mortar restaurant, and that there are significant operational synergies between the two sales venues.
Elliot Maras / Elliot Maras is the editor of KioskMarketplace.com and FoodTruckOperator.com.