Sizzler Has a Food Truck. Sorry, Hipsters

How a hot local trend became a marketing vehicle for national chains

Should you come across a broken-down food truck on the side of the road, there’s a chance Larry Olmsted let the air out of its tires.

When the USA Today food columnist recently documented America’s worst culinary trends for Forbes, he placed food trucks at the top of the list, beating out such abominations as TV cooking competitions, gastropubs and restaurants named for (but rarely featuring the actual cooking of) celebrity chefs.

Olmsted dubbed food trucks—those mobile purveyors of dumplings, tacos and cupcakes popularized by hipsters, foodies and office workers from coast to coast—“ridiculous” and even “morally reprehensible,” arguing that they are less a real innovation than simply another means of delivering grub to consumers, “akin to the ‘invention’ of home delivery, take-out containers or the drive through.”

The writer proclaimed it ultimately “more a fad than a trend,” adding, “I’ve yet to see any tangible benefits of the food truck craze to the average consumer.”

Don’t tell that to Sizzler. Or to Applebee’s, Taco Bell, Red Robin, Jack in the Box or any of the other national restaurant chains aiming to crack the code of food truck culture. Even companies that aren’t in the business of slinging hash have begun including food trucks in their marketing plans. Last year, for example, the Gap deployed food trucks in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco as part of a two-month promotion for its 1969 apparel collection. And this past spring, NBC’s Today show commissioned a pair of food trucks to make its presence known at the annual SXSW festival.

But is there really room for Big Macs and Jumbo Jacks alongside all those organic s’mores and sustainable grilled cheese sandwiches?

To die-hard fans, “corporate food truck” may be an oxymoron along the lines of “caffeine-free energy drink” or “eco-friendly SUV.” Food trucks are in vogue precisely because they are an antidote to corporate chains, with their dull, processed and, more often than not, unhealthy eats. Food trucks became hot by offering fresh, artisanal and sometimes daring fare in limited quantities at select locations—status dining for foodie elites on a Groupon budget.

And yet, given its explosive popularity and intrinsic marketing value, one could hardly expect the food truck to stay trapped in such a narrowly circumscribed paradigm.

“Food trucks are like having a roaming billboard in whatever city you’re in,” says Dennis Suh, operations director of Mobi Munch, a Los Angeles-based company that leases and sells custom-configured food trucks. And these aren’t merely billboards but highly interactive ones, dispensing comestibles, aggregating customers and enlisting target audiences in their sales pitches.

To that end, Twitter has, of course, been a key partner of food trucks, as NBC demonstrated at SXSW with its “Munchie Mobile” promotion. Long before Ann Curry’s dis-astrous heave-ho came to dominate headlines and blogs, the network managed to get tongues in Austin, Texas, wagging about Today—a not inconsiderable feat considering this is a half-century-old, gray-viewer-skewing network television program we’re talking about, being hawked at a gathering devoted to uncovering the next Pinterest.

The secret formula: hot breakfast first thing in the morning for all those bleary-eyed influencers and their followers.

The network served some 10,000 compulsively self-documenting media professionals more than 2,500 free “breakfast bombs” and 45 pounds of bacon jam over the course of four days, urging them to publicize it via Twitter, Foursquare, Instagram and outlets such as USA Today and NPR at a time when the eyes of media, tech and entertainment were on Texas. The result: 6.2 million impressions via Twitter alone, according to Jen Brown, digital director of the Today show.

Aside from such promotional one-offs, it is national chains suddenly getting in the game that is reshaping food truck mania.

It has been a learning process.

When Sizzler rolled out its truck last year, executives at the 54-year-old steakhouse chain felt that one way they could stand out from all the culinary upstarts hustling kimchi quesadillas on the streets of Los Angeles was to emphasize service. While well-meaning, it also served as evidence that the suits did not necessarily appreciate what had spawned the food truck rage to begin with.

“We’d see all these long lines at food trucks and talk about how we could capitalize on that by getting our food out in a few minutes without compromising quality,” says Chris Rahder, who focuses on nontraditional business development for the chain.

But while reducing average waiting times is the holy grail in the world of fast-casual and quick-service restaurants, in the trendy world of food trucks, Rahder would come to realize, slow service is a feature, not a flaw. Indeed, a long line suggests that whatever menu items are for sale are not only in great demand, but also worth waiting for.

“At these food truck festivals, that’s what people look for—the trucks with the longest lines,” Rahder explains. “So you’ve got [operators] purposely slowing down just to create that line. It’s a game.” (In Forbes, Olmsted saved special vitriol for the festivals. “When grouped together in lots … food trucks become an outdoor version of a long-standing American culinary tradition: the shopping mall food court, and nothing more,” he griped.)

One of the first chains to go mobile was Taco Bell, which has had a food truck since the early ’90s, doling out free samples at big events like the Major League Baseball All-Star Game and MTV’s Video Music Awards.

It used to be that Taco Bell execs and the company’s PR agency would cook up the truck’s itinerary. But since 2009, when the truck got its own Twitter account, the Bell has looked to the public for its cues about when to hit the road.

“Every year now, we do a road trip in the spring and summer, telling people where we’ll be stopping and sometimes crowdsourcing suggestions for stops as well,” says the chain’s fortuitously named spokesperson Deb Bell.

In February, the truck played a role in a contest designed to publicize the launch of its Doritos Locos Tacos. Consumers were urged to tweet #DoritosLocosTacos and ask their followers to retweet the hashtag. The winning contestant, a high school senior from North Carolina, inspired 494 retweets, and was rewarded with a visit from the Taco Bell truck and 4,000 Doritos Locos Tacos eight days before their official launch. (His neighbors lent him a hand getting rid of the prize.)

For its part, Sizzler has emphasized selling over sampling via its ZZ Truck. Still, the vehicle functions primarily as a marketing tool, aiming to generate interest for an aging brand that might otherwise get overlooked by younger generations of consumers.

In the early days of the Sizzler truck, the chain experimented with product choices so aggressively that it had to resort to a digital menu that could be changed on a dime. That experimentation paid off, as some items designed to entice food truck patrons found their way onto the menu at Sizzler’s national brick-and-mortar locations.

“The truck is basically serving as a rolling test kitchen for us,” explains Rahder. “We get feedback off the truck, and now these items are bouncing back into our stores and getting huge favorable comments.”

Despite the cool factor resulting from those long lines, convenience is a selling point of many food trucks. While food truck festivals and hip neighborhoods remain magnets for mobile gastronomy, increasingly so are zones largely bereft of food peddlers: office complexes, construction sites, residential neighborhoods, beaches and the like.

As Hudson Riehle, svp, research and knowledge at the National Restaurant Association (NRA), points out, consumers’ desire for convenience has been one of the food industry’s major drivers over the last couple of decades. “In that time period, the majority of restaurant industry sales growth has come from what the industry calls ‘off-premises occasions’—that is, takeout, delivery, drive through, curbside and now mobile,” he says. “There’s really no more convenient solution from a consumer perspective than having the restaurant literally come to you.”

With that in mind, Taco Bell recently added a second truck. Jack in the Box is following suit. And at Sizzler, Rahder reports, they’re mulling offering food trucks to new franchisees. “We would have a plan put together showing exactly what you can do with a truck,” he says. “We’d have a team that would go out to help the new owner get up to speed, just like you’d do with a restaurant.”

Some wonder whether food trucks aren’t on a similar evolutionary course to that of the cellphone. When mobiles first hit the market, consumers viewed them as a supplement to the landline. But over time, the mobile phone, for many, became their only phone.

For those who think that far-fetched, consider that off-premises dining already accounts for well over two-thirds of all restaurant traffic, according to the NRA’s Riehle.

As American lifestyles continue to get more mobile, and as our love affair with the food truck seems to be growing only deeper, is it really so inconceivable that those familiar golden arches along the road may someday give way to the Big Mac Truck in your own backyard?

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