April 13, 2012 By Michelle Brisebois
When most Canadians think of food trucks, they envision french fry wagons, shrivelled hotdogs and carnival fare.
When most Canadians think of food trucks, they envision french fry wagons, shrivelled hotdogs and carnival fare. While food truck offerings may have traditionally been less than stellar, the fact remains that the venue had a lot going for it. As “pop-up retail” (temporary retail stores that appear and disappear at specific locations) becomes more popular, it’s to be expected that mobile dining will be a concept worth revisiting through new eyes. For many young culinary entrepreneurs, going mobile doesn’t mean compromising quality. It’s about being able to bring that quality to a greater number of people. In her Wall Street Journal piece titled “Food Truck Nation” Katy McLaughlin wrote, “The new breed of lunch truck is aggressively gourmet, tech-savvy and politically correct.” What’s more – food trucks lend themselves beautifully to the whimsy and joy inherent in the baking industry.
|Offering a curbside service of gourmet food has proven successful for Natalie Ravoi, owner of the Cupcake Diner in Hamilton, Ont. |
Upscale mobile dining has become big business in the United States with companies like Rickshaw Dumpling Truck and Mexicue taking what used to be a benign form of food delivery and making it fun. Natalie Ravoi, owner of Cupcake Diner in Hamilton, Ont., is one entrepreneur pioneering the upscale food truck movement in Canada.
“I could see that food trucks were becoming so popular in the U.S. but that the Canadian market was much less developed,” says Ravoi. “It was a perfect fit for my business plan. While I do have a small storefront for meetings, it’s been all about the truck since Day 1.”
One aspect driving the adoption of food trucks by entrepreneurs is the lower cost of entry. For many chefs and bakers, having a restaurant or full retail storefront is a cost-prohibitive prospect. A food truck can be up and running for a fraction of the cost and it has the benefit of being able to go to the customers instead of waiting for them to come to the bakery. With so much foodservice growth coming from channels like takeout, QSR and drive-through, mobile restaurants are the perfect solution. It is, however, a venture best entered into with a bit of research under one’s belt. You see, not all municipalities are food truck friendly.
“Before I even purchased my truck I researched the licensing permit parameters in various areas,” says Ravoi. She had to rethink her plan of attack when she discovered that Toronto wasn’t very food truck friendly. “My goal was to be in Toronto because in the U.S., food trucks had great success in cities. I quickly learned that there is a big black tape around the city regarding food trucks in Toronto.”
|Offering a curbside service of gourmet baked goods has proven successful for Natalie Ravoi, owner of the Cupcake Diner in Hamilton, Ont. |
Toronto and other cities such as Calgary and Vancouver are moving towards broader acceptance of food trucks and have hosted food truck festivals to develop awareness, but there is still more to be done. Ravoi was delighted to discover that Hamilton offered lots of options for her fledgling business so she found places she could park and then found a truck to fit the measurements of the spaces she’d located. She decided on a Dodge Sprinter to help create that cute diner feel she desired. After finding exactly the make of truck she wanted, Ravoi took photos of the truck and drew on how she wanted the logo featured. The truck was decorated in a whimsical ’50s diner style with the company name and logo prominently displayed, and outfitted with custom windows, racks and tires. Once roadworthy, the Cupcake Diner made its debut on the streets.
Ravoi’s business has grown extremely rapidly. In the beginning, there were curbside stops, then larger fairs and festivals. However, word of mouth and media coverage spread, and soon the Cupcake Diner was being booked for corporate events. Ravoi is now booked months in advance. Word of mouth is enhanced by a little “word of mouse” as tools such as Facebook and Twitter allow food trucks to let fans know where they will be on any given day. With 1,653 Twitter followers and just under 3,000 likes on Facebook, Cupcake Diner is making great use of social media.
Ravoi does caution against letting anyone but the key personality do the social media updates. “Social media allows my customers to build a relationship with me as the owner/operator,” she says. “I tweet that I’m on the truck, where we will be or if we’re running low on a certain flavour. It all adds to the excitement.”
It seems that excitement is something food trucks can help facilitate. There’s that little sense of anticipation one feels when food trucks are on the scene that takes us back to those same butterflies felt when we were kids and the ice cream wagon rounded the corner.
“People get the fun factor,” says Ravoi. “They get that giddy feeling and they smile when they see the truck and have that favourite cupcake. That’s when I realize that I’m really in the business of making people happy.”
Michelle Brisebois is a marketing professional with experience in the food, pharmaceutical, financial services and wine industries. She specializes in retail brand strategies.
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