Sizzler Has a Food Truck. Sorry, Hipsters

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

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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