- Ross Resnick is the CEO of Roaming Hunger, a food truck catering and events company that opened during the 2009 recession.
- As COVID-19 takes a massive toll on the restaurant industry, Resnick suggests food trucks as an option to meet the public’s desire to keep eating out while also abiding by local safety regulations.
- Food truck customers have ample room to distance themselves while waiting in line, and they can also order ahead to avoid waiting in a crowd.
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Coronavirus is changing everything, including how we eat, and the impact on the food industry can’t be overstated. During the first 22 days of March alone, the restaurant industry saw a $25 billion loss in revenue. That number soared to $80 billion in April, but concern goes beyond sobering statistics.
Harvard professor Paul Freeman predicted sit-down dining and communal eating in general will see a sharp decline in the coming years, meaning the future of the restaurant industry itself is unclear.
Despite all the doom and gloom, however, we’ve seen something remarkable: examples of food entrepreneurs actually growing their businesses. There are two things these businesses are doing right now that I believe hold the keys to success in the post-COVID-19 restaurant industry.
First, they’re going mobile to go where the customers are. And second, they’re creatively incorporating order ahead (not just delivery).
For the past 10 years, I’ve been the CEO of Roaming Hunger, a company that started at the beginning of the gourmet food truck movement, a product of the Great Recession. We’ve built a network of over 18,000 mobile food partners across the US and Canada, and in March our entire industry was disrupted by the cancelation of events and by social distancing requirements.
Unfortunately, many of the food businesses that existed just a few months ago will not recover. The fact that some are thriving, however, makes me optimistic about what the long-term future holds. The demand for food service is still there, just now in different formats.
Food trucks partner with neighborhoods and homeowners associations to bring meals to customer’s doorsteps
With the restaurant industry on hold for the foreseeable future, innovative brick-and-mortar establishments are pivoting to mobile dining to navigate the new market.
San Francisco’s Wayfare Tavern, for example, recently opened a supplementary food truck that pops up throughout the Bay Area selling a custom menu. They set up an order-ahead option so customers could pick up their food, and even allowed the public to request where and when the truck showed up. The customer focused approach paired with the truck’s mobility meant showing up where there was existing demand, and it generated a good amount of daily revenue.
We’ve seen an increased demand to bring food into communities, specifically neighborhoods and apartment buildings. Last week alone we worked with over 40 apartment property managers looking to bring a food truck to their tenants. Unlike delivery, a food truck showing up creates a culinary event to break up the monotony of the week. Plus (and this is a big plus), the food is prepared fresh and on location. People still crave the community aspect of eating out, and some trucks in our network have capitalized on that demand, even if they’re just walking outside to pick up their dinner.
A great example is the recent success of Queens Ice, a North Carolina-based Italian ice truck. I spoke to owner Monica Walsh, who told us her business is doing better than before the pandemic.
When COVID-19 cancellations began in early March, the impact on Walsh’s business was immediate; her main source of summer revenue, festivals and events, disappeared overnight. After a few weeks of experimenting with delivery and curbside pickup, Walsh began working food truck days orchestrated by Homeowners Associations (HOAs). The neighborhoods wanted to create a bonding experience for their community without breaching social distancing protocol. Queens Ice was able to provide that.
In a market where food must go to consumers (not vice versa), being constrained to a single location can be a disadvantage. Mobility is now a necessity to reach customers in their homes or as they start to visit parks, open spaces, and other areas.
Mobility combined with order-ahead has been the winning combination during the pandemic.
For the customer, order-ahead allows for a safer experience. Customers still get hot, fresh food from a truck, but are able to do so without standing in line with potentially large crowds. This kind of swift, efficient service is a major draw for health-conscious consumers who still want to participate in getting a delicious meal.
In some cases, over 50% of revenue has come from order-ahead sales. The coalescence of order-ahead and mobile dining recreates food experiences for a changing world; it preserves some social aspects of eating out, but does so while minimizing health risks now associated with indoor dining.
People miss dining out, and that’s not going away
A recent Ipsos poll showed the majority of Americans would still feel uncomfortable going to bars and restaurants even once restrictions were lifted, unfortunately meaning COVID-19’s effects on the restaurant industry will be long lasting. However, another poll indicated over two-thirds of Americans do long for their old routines, and going to bars and restaurants tops the list of the most missed social activities.
No matter what happens, people need to eat, and food has an intrinsic link to community, occasion, and ceremony. We expect the demand for these types of services to grow as mobility and order-ahead both becoming necessities.
Together, they allow food businesses to reach customers where they live, work, and play — and give us all a taste of what the world was like before this madness just months ago.
Ross Resnick is the founder and CEO of Roaming Hunger, which he started in 2009 out of appreciation for street food culture. Roaming Hunger is now the leading platform for over 18,000 food trucks and brands, connecting them with workplaces, events, and communities across the US.
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