“This time of year, we’ll do maybe $600 or $650 over two hours,” said Steve Schwartz, co-owner of Hummingbird
By Jerry Soverinsky | NACSOnline.com
The frigid, winter air swirled off Lake Michigan onto Northwestern University’s campus in Evanston, Illinois — less than 12 hours earlier, snow had blanketed the area. Backpack-laden students trudged through snow banks as they crossed the central campus toward classroom buildings, a scattered but determined mass.
Parked a block away from the Kellogg School of Business just before noon is a massive, 28-foot custom Freightliner food truck, the mobile kitchen for the newly launched Hummingbird Kitchen. A couple of dozen shivering students, faculty members and Evanston locals wait patiently to sample its entrées du jour.
“This time of year, we’ll do maybe $600 or $650 over two hours,” said Steve Schwartz, co-owner of Hummingbird and the owner of two popular Evanston storefront restaurants. “But when the weather’s warmer…” he nodded suggestively, surveying the dedicated following that’s braving the cold today.
Hummingbird, like a growing number of mobile food businesses (see, for example, the November 2009 “Meals on Wheels” feature in NACS Magazine), is redefining traditional notions of street food in major metropolitan areas across the country, and customers are lining up to sample their offerings.
Today’s Hummingbird menu features warm Neuske’s ham sandwiches with caramelized onions and Gruyere on fresh pumpernickel bread, roasted Amish chicken quesadillas with homemade guacamole and salsa, and black bean soup with crème fraiche and aged cheddar. Not your typical “roach coach” fare. But then again, Hummingbird set out from the start to sell much more than wrapped sandwiches and chips.
“We do a full restaurant experience [with Hummingbird], whether it’s parked on campus or at a private party. We’re restaurateurs; we don’t have an interest in prepping sandwiches at a commissary and handing them out like the ice cream guy,” Schwartz said.
Indeed, Hummingbird is a true mobile restaurant, with two six-top burners, a deep fryer, a 36-inch flattop grill, refrigeration, three-compartment sink, a hand sink, a coffee urn, a steam table, a 7-foot ice chest and a 60-gallon water tank. It’s a customization that took several months to accomplish at a price tag of $120,000 — and that’s only because the truck was used (Schwartz says a new truck would have upped the price to nearly $200,000).
Addition to the Marketplace
As owner of two popular Evanston storefront restaurants, Campagnola and Union, Schwartz leveraged existing Twitter, Facebook and website mailing lists to promote Hummingbird when he launched it in October 2010 with two partners. But while he had the advantage of a built-in audience base, the road to success was far from plug-and-play.
Evanston — and the entire state of Illinois, for that matter — had banned mobile food preparation, so Schwartz set out to petition Evanston to change its ordinance.
Because of his established local presence with Campagnola and Union, his insights proved influential to Evanston alderman and other city powers-that-be, as he reassured them that mobile food preparation would enhance, not cut into, bricks and mortar restaurants.
“We’re very conscious of our intention to be an addition to the marketplace, not to destroy somebody,” Schwartz said. Additionally, he worked closely with local health and street and sanitation officials, demonstrating Hummingbird in action to assure them of its adherence to the highest sanitation standards.
As a result, Evanston passed a new ordinance last fall that permits mobile food trucks like Hummingbird, while restricting them to 100 feet or more from an existing restaurant, park or school, with every site subject to prior city approval. “And we’ve got the same health inspections as any bricks and mortar restaurant,” Schwartz said.
While the road for Schwartz — capital investment aside — was relatively smooth, just a few miles south in Chicago, mobile food preparation is far from a settled issue.
Matt Maroni operates Gaztro-Wagon, a mobile food truck that sells an ever-changing menu of naanwiches — upscale eats wrapped in Indian naan bread — in downtown Chicago. While Evanston lifted its ban on food truck meal preparation, the Windy City still prohibits onsite cooking, so Maroni prepares all of his fare offsite before he hits the street each day.
But this is not exactly what the former Bostonian had in mind when he moved to Chicago intending to open a freestanding restaurant. “I tried to open a bricks and mortar business and couldn’t get financing for it, so I went back to the drawing board and looked for a niche and landed on food trucks,” he said.
Maroni says Chicago’s law restricts true foodies by mandating pre-cooked, pre-wrapped foods, which doesn’t always translate to freshness. “The ability to tweak, to run specials, and to do things spontaneously on the truck would be huge,” Maroni said. “Think about it: If you’re selling tacos, you’re not exactly getting a crunchy bite if the taco has been prepared hours earlier.”
As a result, Maroni set out himself to change Chicago’s law, helping draft an ordinance that Alderman Scott Waguespack introduced in July. The proposal includes similar restrictions settled on in Evanston, but Maroni’s road is far murkier than Schwartz’s, as many notable Chicago restaurateurs oppose modifying the existing law — to the sympathetic ears of many aldermen.
“We spent almost $9 million on two restaurants. It’s unfair to people who invested so much to allow someone who has a minimal investment in a truck…to pull up 200 feet from our door,” said Glenn Keefer, managing partner of Keefer’s Restaurant, to the Chicago Sun-Times.
The Illinois Restaurant Association (IRA) agrees, though it said if Chicago’s City Council legalizes mobile food preparation (the issue is unsettled and the matter was expected to receive a hearing in January), the trucks should be limited to food deserts, those neighborhoods with a shortage of restaurants.
“There are plenty of neighborhoods in the city that have a shortage of restaurants and grocery stores or late-night places to eat,” said the IRA’s president, Sheila O’Grady, in a Chicago Sun-Times interview.
In the meantime, a handful of trucks like Maroni’s roam the Chicago streets, selling prepackaged foods that are resonating with consumers. And while none can prepare food onsite, they’re still subject to local licensing and health laws. Maroni prepares his food at a counter service restaurant in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood, whose facility is subject to health inspections. And after just six months of hitting local streets in his truck, he has developed a strong, local following.
“On our busiest day, we did 360 people for lunch in an hour,” Maroni said of the type of sales volume that has other more established foodservice companies looking to capitalize on the public’s enthusiasm for food trucks.
Extensions to C-Stores
The experiences from Hummingbird and Gaztro-Wagon highlight the key issues facing the food truck trend, whose increasing popularity offers significant opportunities for convenience stores, according to David Bishop, managing partner of Balvor, a sales and marketing firm that specializes in the convenience and grocery industries.
“Assuming that the political climate is aligned and the opportunity exists to get a license,” Bishop said, “a food truck program can assist convenience store retailers by expanding a store’s geographic reach, exposing consumers to a c-store’s offerings, and helping to strengthen a store’s connection with a community.
“But the investment is a large one, and you’d want to be in a market that has enough density to support the investment,” he cautioned.
As to the future of the food truck trend, “10 percent of the top 200 chains will have trucks on the road within the next 24 months,” predicted Aaron Noveshen, a restaurant industry consultant in a Los Angeles Times interview last September. Indeed, Dairy Queen, Taco Bell, Arby’s, Johnny Rockets, Subway and Sizzler all have either rolled out or are planning to launch mobile food trucks, local politics permitting (several cities are debating the issue, much like Chicago).
The opportunities are vast, Schwartz says, especially for foodservice professionals who are looking to reinvigorate their base while gaining insights into a process that’s enhanced by social media technology.
“It’s another arm to our existing bricks and mortar business. It pulls us out of our day-to-day and gives us another way of looking at foodservice. And if you’re in an area with a [dense population] and you offer a quality product, you can make it work.”
While political and demographic considerations determine the viability of a neighborhood’s food truck program, Bishop said that, those elements aside (assuming there is a generous population density and obtaining a license is permissible), the opportunities that food trucks present for c-stores remain attractive.
“C-stores are in business to satisfy the on-the-go consumer…by making the shopping experience quick and easy, and food trucks go a step further by bringing the food to consumers,” Bishop said. “So the concept aligns well with the concept of convenience retailing and it could pay dividends beyond a bricks and mortar store.”