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Restaurants and Food Trucks

August 15, 2013

Last night was a quick pit stop in Manhattan on the way from Providence to rural Pennsylvania. On the way we drove through New Haven. More than anything else, I wanted to stop at Pepe’s for one of their summer tomato pies and a small white clam pizza.

The kids love clams. They love pizza. This should have been a no brainer.

But the schedule didn’t quite work out. Instead, we got to have a lovely visit with my Aunt N and Cousin A further down 95 in a much more lovely section of Connecticut. And Little Miss Fussy got to rub herself silly with some rosemary that my Uncle M was growing in his garden.

I was able to keep the children in line during the trip with promises of soup dumplings when we got to the city. We’re staying in midtown, so there is an outpost of Joe’s Shanghai nearby. I’d never been to any of their locations, and I have to say the dumplings we had were quite good. The scallion pancake, not so much.

Travel updates aside, there is an insight from my time in Providence that I’ve been meaning to share.

The new wave of food trucks has been spreading across the nation. Cooks with vision, but without sufficient financing to open their own restaurant, have set up shop in mobile kitchens to serve an eager dining public.

Eaters have been rejoicing for years at these quirky, high quality offerings. And frankly, many of these trucks engage in practices I would like to see at more restaurants. Mostly that’s small menus that are written daily. Not only does this allow some trucks to be seasonal day-to-day, it also helps to minimize waste, and improve quality by focusing on the mastery of a limited number of preparations.

Okay, you know all of this.

But food trucks have their detractors too. Mostly these come in the form of established restaurants that have payroll, rent, taxes, and a long list of other expenses with which to contend. And many of these see trucks as free-riders who are chipping away at their revenues.

It’s totally understandable. However, diners wouldn’t be nearly as attracted to food trucks if there were more restaurants that were offering good food at better prices. It would seem that consumers are starting to get tired of being charged restaurant prices for supermarket ingredients.

Good for them.

My hope is that this downward pressure on prices will inspire some restaurants to rethink what they are doing. In Providence, there is a place that’s doing just that, and it’s marvelous.

Let me tell you a brief story about Chez Pascal.

Chez Pascal is a fancy restaurant. They are only open for dinner. They do things locally and seasonally. They butcher pigs on sight site. They have a wonderful way with pork, which includes curing it and making it into sausage. So you know what they did?

They got a truck.

After five years of serving high end cuisine, they brought their food to the masses. Sure, the truck wasn’t the Chez Pascal truck. It wouldn’t be smart to dilute their brand. It was called Hewtin’s Dogs Mobile Food Truck. Hot dogs. Sausages. Simple and delicious meaty sandwiches. The truck would sometimes park right outside the restaurant. Other times it could be found by local area farmers markets. And it’s great.

Now, after four years with the truck, Chez Pascal has added another profit center to their business. They have recreated the truck experience indoors. So Chez Pascal still is not officially open for lunch. However, you can show up to the restaurant during lunchtime hours, slide your way to the small paddock at the end of the bar and seat yourself at one of the stools in The Wurst Kitchen.

Essentially, it’s the food truck experience, indoors, with beer.

Yes. Food trucks can steal away dining occasions from established sit down restaurants. However, savvy restaurants will find a way around this. And having a mobile outpost is a great form of advertising. The return on investment goes beyond the daily receipts from the truck. It garners a lot of additional exposure and gives consumers another touchpoint with the brand. Assuming those touch points are good, you’re golden

Trucks are popular because they are giving consumers something they want and what they haven’t been able to find enough of elsewhere. Restaurants can decide that they are going to fight with the dining public. Or they can be creative and leverage these consumer insights to their advantage.

Those that can figure it out will do well. But restaurants shouldn’t try to stand in the way of trucks. It’s a move the reeks of desperation.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Sarah M. permalink
    August 15, 2013 12:30 pm

    Where are you finding restaurant hostility toward trucks? I’m not implying it doesn’t exist, but I just haven’t seen it where I live (not Albany, obviously). The argument that food trucks are “free-riders,” however specious, makes zero sense to me. Many of the most successful trucks/trailers in Austin and Houston, for example, seem to be a lower-cost stepping stone to the chef/owner opening a brick and mortar location. I imagine that the number of truck/trailer owners who want their business to remain in that state forever (evil cheapskates!) is probably small to negligible.

  2. August 15, 2013 2:03 pm

    Maybe it’s my angst at not getting to try Slidin’ Dirty’s avocado fries at the Saratoga Food Truck Rodeo, but I’m not totally on board with the Cap District food truck scene. In Austin and SF, where I’ve previously experienced food trucks, they are usually dedicated to one fairly aggressive concept–Filipino lunch counter, Korean tacos, donuts the size of your head etc. Here they trend more toward standard sandwiches, pizzas etc. So you’re left with an outdoor dining experience akin to going to an ice cream or hot dog stand, yet paying considerably more than you’d pay at those places.

    A food truck menu… indoor… with beer… now that sounds like something I could easily support.

  3. August 16, 2013 9:19 am

    There’s plenty of hostility toward trucks from restaurants, Sarah… you see it in NYC and SF all the time. I think a lot of it stems from some idea that trucks don’t have the overhead that restaurants do – that they can just pull up at a location and start selling out of the back like they’re the cigarette guy in “Goodfellas.” Of course, it doesn’t work that way – trucks have to prepare food, market it and ultimately get it to the consumer just as any restaurant does.

    I would have been interested in a Frank Pepe’s vs. Sally’s taste test, Daniel… maybe the next time you go through New Haven? Both are great, but they have their partisans. Perhaps a “tour de New Haven?” ;)

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