The food-truck phenomenon keeps speeding along, with more than 4,000 mobile kitchens on the road today, according to a May 2017 article in The Economist. And while some restaurateurs believe food trucks pose a threat to their business, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests otherwise: Counties with higher growth in mobile food services also report faster growth in restaurant and catering businesses. No wonder Si Mendoza, co-owner of Il Primo Pizza & Wings in Richmond, Texas, was eager to learn the food-truck business himself. He and partner Danny Caplinger opened their brick-and-mortar restaurant in early 2009 and rolled out their mobile operation in late 2016. We chatted with Mendoza to get his tips for success.
PMQ: So tell us a little bit about the history of Il Primo Pizza.
Mendoza: Paul Conti started Il Primo in Arizona in 1983. He grew it to two locations and eventually sold, then moved to South Florida and built another restaurant—same name, same style—in 2001. Before long, there were five Il Primo locations in Florida and now six. Danny and I started working for him and later became partners. In 2008, we made plans to move and build our own Il Primo. But due to the economic situation at that time, there was no point building one in Florida—a study in 2010 showed that one out of three homes in the state were under foreclosure at that time. After doing our research, we learned that Fort Bend County, part of the Houston area, had some of the fastest growth in the country, and the household income and demographics were perfect for our restaurant. Also, we came across a commercial property next to what was, at that time, the largest Kroger being built in the country. So we opened our own Il Primo Pizza & Wings there in April 2009.
PMQ: How did you segue into the food truck business?
Mendoza: I started with the small classic “roach coach” truck to test out the business. I would send it out in a 1.5-mile radius around our restaurant. It did well because the area is growing, and a lot of construction workers don’t live in the area and didn’t know our brick-and-mortar restaurant is here. The truck was a great ice-breaker, selling our pizza by the slice with drinks and snacks. But I realized the only way to produce more sales and a bigger profit was to have a full-size truck with an oven. Many of the classic food trucks seemed too small. After looking at trucks for sale and different designs, I bought a 20’ box U-Haul truck. It had enough room for the oven and all of the other equipment needed as well as enough space to move around in and work as efficiently as possible.
PMQ: We noticed you only offer pizza in one size. How does that improve efficiency and turnaround time?
Mendoza: I wanted to make sure we could make the same pizzas—or as close to the same as possible—that we sell at the restaurant. It’s the exact same recipe and toppings. But, as I have seen in the restaurant, the more options you give a customer, the longer they may take to order, especially if they are with their family or a group. They will try to calculate the amount of food needed per person and the best package deal to meet their needs. I have learned that time is crucial in the food-truck business. Trucks can get huge lines, and people will go to the shorter lines if they are really hungry. So your turnover time is so important. I like the idea of one size—it’s like a close-ended question. I’m controlling the results. Plus, with more pizza sizes, I would have to carry more screen sizes in the truck, and it takes longer to cook the larger pizzas in the middle of a rush.
PMQ: What are the advantages of running a food truck that’s associated with an existing brick-and-mortar restaurant?
Mendoza: I already have a restaurant, so I get contract pricing. I’m permitted to use my restaurant as my commissary. I have an established name, so I already know people will buy my products and will feel more comfortable booking me [for catering events]. One reason many food trucks have such high prices is because it costs them more money to make their dishes. They might have to rent a commercial kitchen. Also, they tend to be paying retail costs for ingredients. I can charge the average food truck prices, and my profit margin ends up being higher than most food trucks.
PMQ: Obviously, there’s more to operating a food truck than just driving around and looking for a spot to park. Can you tell us about the various moneymaking opportunities?
Mendoza: Commonly, there are three opportunities: events, accounts and spot locations. Events are any type of party or festival. Accounts are properties where you have made a deal or a contract to be there to sell your pizza. Spot locations are wide open, typically a designated area where food trucks park and serve. I have seen more profit at events, and we have an account with a very popular bar in our area. Sometimes, you will be reached out to for a big event, and you really need to get as much information about it as you can to decide if it will have any real value. For some first-time events, they will project a high traffic flow, but they don’t have any reliable numbers to work from.
It’s really easy to learn about upcoming events. Discussion among truck operators is a good source of information, and most trucks post their schedules on social media, trying to generate their own following. For any event, you want to know how many other food trucks will be there. Food trucks have a nice sense of community, but, in the end, it’s business. The more trucks at an event, the less revenue you will make. But the people coordinating the event sometimes want a lot of trucks there. I consider it a red flag if it’s not a proven event with a high number of people known to attend. As they say, there’s not enough meat on the bone.
PMQ: Do you cross-promote between your brick-and-mortar restaurant and your food truck?
Mendoza: It’s very important to make sure customers understand that your truck comes from your restaurant. I have created graphics for the truck that invite people to come see our restaurant and have dispensers that carry the restaurant’s menus for customers to take and look at. We also bring our truck to carnivals at the local schools. It’s very important to be involved with events like that. With almost every job you do, you will meet someone that’s interested in your service or you will get a lead for a future event.
PMQ: Restaurant work is notoriously difficult. Is it the same with running a food truck?
Mendoza: It’s not an easy schedule. Mother Nature will teach you, “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.” You can’t rely on every job to come through financially. Rain-outs will happen, and you will have to reschedule an event or not be able to go out at all for an entire day. One key factor to remember is that your truck is both a kitchen and a vehicle for driving, and either of those systems can go on the blink any time. Your truck might run fine, but your oven or fryer might be having issues. One day you might have all the food loaded, all the systems are working, and you’re completely stocked up and ready to leave for the event; then, you put the key in the ignition and your truck won’t start. This actually happened to me—I needed a new battery. The biggest issue for me was when my generator went out. Our truck was down for a week.
Aside from all that, though, it is a pretty cool way to meet new people and earn new customers. You get to see more of your city, too—the view from the truck always changes. And you will get to know how fast you can work in one of the smallest kitchens around!
PMQ: So what’s next for you?
Mendoza: I am looking forward to selling these trucks myself. I believe that will be my next step. As everyone knows, the pizza business is huge, but I haven’t seen a big movement in food truck sales. I see all the ads for all the equipment, but no trucks for sale. I have a dealer that specializes in wholesale commercial trucks. I have my timeline figured out on how long the production takes, what kind of improvements are needed, and the extras to offer. It’s definitely worth a shot. I think I see a niche that I can attack and grow on it. And the beauty is that the trucks are mobile, and I can drive them straight to the buyer!