• September 1, 2011
  • By Marshall Lager, founder and managing principal, Third Idea Consulting; contributor, CRM magazine

I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream for … Short Ribs?

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It may be time for the kids to go back to school, but I’m sure that if you listen closely, you’ll still hear the jingle jangle of your local ice cream truck. In fact, the season doesn’t seem to matter anymore when it comes to ice cream trucks—what used to be a mid-spring to early-fall window is now nearly year-round. I’ve encountered trucks as early as February and as late as December. Basically, whenever the temperature is above freezing, some yoyo with the froyo will be on hand to cool you back down.

Despite what you may know of my waistline, I have never been a fan of the ice cream truck. I liked the idea of it, but I can count on the fingers of one hand the times I bought something from one in my youth.

It’s different in the city as an adult. Food trucks, like their sidewalk food cart siblings, stake out territories—sometimes paying top dollar for a prime location—and then loiter all day. And I carry cash now. Eats can be had on a moment’s notice.

Yet, I only recently became interested in food trucks. Other than ice cream and the occasional hot dog or pretzel, my only wheeled food experiences were with what is called a roach coach. Those vendors serve job sites that lack eating options by parking nearby and selling basic breakfasts, lunches, and snacks—wrapped foods, mostly, and not necessarily of any particular quality or freshness. Between that and my dislike for eating while standing—I need a table to hold it all—it took years for me to overcome my bias against vehicle-based comestibles.

I’m glad I did. There is some amazingly good food to be had out there. Sure, there are plenty of mediocre trucks, but they’re not the ones generating buzz and landing their own TV shows. Old favorites like ice cream, coffee, and Mexican fare are well represented with a gourmet spin, but that’s just the beginning. Look on the right street at the right time, and you can find freshly made Korean tacos (short rib and kimchi), barbecue, dim sum, grilled cheese sandwiches, pizza, waffles, lobster rolls, and cupcakes.

There’s a professional reason for my liking food trucks, too. Apart from a great nosh, all of the most successful trucks have one thing in common: a vibrant social media presence.

Nobody becomes wealthy driving for Good Humor, but these upscale eateries-on-the-go are making it pay. The trick with food trucks, even the ones that remain stationary all day, is they’re still mobile. Chances are they’re not going to be in the same spot every day, and many cover myriad neighborhoods. The only way to keep a steady clientele—and expand faster than chance allows—is through social media.

The best trucks post location schedules online, but that’s just a start. For example, Wafels & Dinges (www.wafelsanddinges.com) has a blog (thedinges.blogspot.com), a Twitter feed (@waffletruck), and a Facebook presence. All are updated constantly—every mention is retweeted with commentary (so it’s not automated), everything gets a response, and photos are posted all the time. New menu items hit the social feeds first—at the moment it’s the Wimbledon Wafel, with strawberries and cream—and there are special one-day-only perks for Twitter followers, such as a free topping if you sing them a certain nursery rhyme. There’s personality in abundance, and the other trucks are no different.

The social component spills into society, too. A good food truck draws crowds, and customers chat. The vendors get involved as well. This isn’t just the gourmet trucks, either; I can get into conversations at one of my local ice cream trucks.

We’ve had food truck events this year in which a dozen or more vendors would occupy a park, and people would line up, even in the rain, to sample their wares. If you need another sign that food trucks are a certified Thing, the Zagat Guide has a site (foodtrucks.zagat.com) and a Twitter feed (@ZagatTrucks) dedicated to the topic. The roach coach it ain’t.

Marshall Lager (the Overweight Lover, Heavy M) eats at his desk while operating Third Idea Consulting. Contact him at marshall@3rd-idea.com, or via www.twitter.com/Lager. Or just look for him at the nearest taco truck.

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