- Start looking for gigs even before you open your mobile unit for business, says Patrick Maggi. “Just parking in parking lots does nothing unless people know where and when to find you.”
- Maggi found success talking to the HR staff at distribution centers for large companies, like big-box chains and car manufacturers, and landing contracts to feed their employees once a week.
By Brian Hernandez
Nature is full of good analogies. We all know a green branch is flexible, while a dry branch is rigid and will snap under pressure. Pizzeria operators need to remain flexible to prevent that dreaded “snap.” After the disaster that was 2020, everyone’s looking for ways to sprout again and sustain growth. U.S. Pizza Team member Patrick Maggi, owner of Blues Pizza Truck, Blues BBQ Co. (a stationary trailer) and Maggi’s Pizza & Subs in Damascus, Maryland, is staying green and flexible, as the analogy goes. Over the past few years, Maggi took his show on the road with a brand-new delivery truck. Teaming up with local businesses and knocking on numerous doors to create awareness, Maggi has been able to supplement his brick-and-mortar by offering meals on wheels throughout the area.
PMQ: What was the first pivot you had to make in your brick-and-mortar (B&M) operation?
Maggi: Being a carryout and delivery setup, we didn’t have dine-in and didn’t have to make a huge pivot. If you respect the [COVID-19] safety guidelines, people will be comfortable coming back. We did hear some grumbling early on from some employees about masking up, but mostly from family members. Once the first customer complaint came in, we all masked up right away. Not wanting to wear a mask is not worth losing a customer over.
PMQ: When did you decide to get the Blues Pizza Truck?
Maggi: We had a barbecue food truck for about 10 to 12 years for catering events, mainly run by my brother. It was doing very well. Then, about three years ago, the truck became a large drain on my brother’s time, so I took it over. I added pizza to the menu, and we started partnering with local breweries and wineries for on-location dining for certain nights or events. We tripled our sales from 2018 to now with the addition of the pizza menu and barbecue truck sales. Then the pandemic hit, and when breweries and wineries started to reopen, we happily rekindled that partnership, to the benefit of all of us.
PMQ: What kind of pizzas are available at the Blues Pizza Truck?
Maggi: We do some gourmet pizzas, plus the regulars that everyone loves. They are all 10” pizzas. The truck had a different philosophy than the B&M. Of course, at the B&M, you get more families. They don’t want to have to spend $100 on pizza for the family, which is why we offer different sizes. But we don’t want them sharing their pies from the pizza truck. We want them to buy their own—and as many as they can. Rarely do we have two people come up and ask if they can split a pizza. Also, not sharing your food was a good idea in the time of COVID-19, and it also helps in ease of prep and your inventory. Only one size—you don’t have to worry about numerous sizes and people sharing half-and-half pies. This is good for a fast-paced, small workspace environment such as a food truck. Less is more. Plus, the diner mentality for mobile units is one person, one meal. Sharing typically isn’t a thing in this market.
PMQ: What is the No. 1 thing to be aware of when opening a mobile unit? Can you offer some words of wisdom?
Maggi: A lot of people run out and try to get a home equity line of $150,000 to have a truck built when there are so many units on the market right now. You could probably get one with most everything you need for $25,000 to $30,000. Don’t sell your soul to get something new when you can find something slightly used that’s just as good.
Also, this is a lot of work, more than a brick-and-mortar. Don’t get me wrong—owning a restaurant or mobile unit is extremely rewarding, but it is ridiculously hard work. Most people like the romance of traveling around and cooking and selling food, but they fall out of love when they realize they are working 80 hours a week and only making $8 an hour—if that much—as an owner! Understand the level of work you will have to put in, because that’s the only way to get the rewards out of it.
PMQ: Are the health codes for food trucks stricter since COVID-19?
Maggi: It is harder to get licensed now since so many people are doing it, so you must make sure to follow the rules. I do know that my trucks get inspected twice as often as my B&M. But it is also a little more difficult to get licensed for food trucks because they tend to be deemed a “high-risk” establishment. Also, be aware of the different health codes in different counties and states. It’s not like the movie Chef, where you can drive from state to state without having to register and buy a new license. Just be aware of the regulations in your market areas.
PMQ: Should you set up your mobile unit to accommodate prep or rely on a “home base,” such as your B&M or another restaurant’s kitchen?
Maggi: Having a home base is the way to go. If you’re having a hard time finding one, usually churches have commercial kitchens you could partner with. It also varies from state to state. For instance, in Virginia, you’re not allowed to prep anything on that food truck. Everything must be precooked and remain hot before cooking. This could affect where you go and whether you even want to go across state lines. This is why I don’t sell in Virginia, even though it’s right across the street from my shop, so to speak.
PMQ: How do you market a new mobile unit?
Maggi: Do the market research for your area beforehand, especially if you do not have a B&M. I would also start looking for gigs even before you open for business. Line up a customer base built on good faith and quality. Just parking in parking lots does nothing unless people know where and when to find you. You must create that hype around your brand and your menu before you open to generate buzz and excitement for when you hit the road. Also, if you have a B&M, I suggest connecting the two operations. Drive business from one to the other and vice versa. But already having a customer base at your B&M that you can direct to your mobile unit is priceless.
PMQ: Any other ideas for people venturing into the mobile market?
Maggi: One thing that has boomed recently for us are wedding receptions. This is perfect for marketing. We get special 10” pans that are engraved with the bride and groom’s name, the date and our logo. Everyone at the reception gets this as a take-home gift, and now you have your name in front of them. Not to mention it’s a pretty unique and reusable item to take home from a wedding. But a big winner for me has been finding distribution centers for large companies, like big-box chains and car manufacturers, talking with their HR people, and getting a contract to feed upwards of 1,000 employees a week. If you do that three times a month with three different businesses, it’s a game-changer. I also try to personally work as many catering events as I can. It’s the owner’s touch that people really appreciate. And great employees are always a plus.
PMQ: What’s the best tip for any mobile unit operator who has recently opened?
Maggi: Having a prepaid gig when you leave your house in the morning is way better than going to a location and hoping you draw a crowd. At a random pop-up, you have to worry about the weather, the number of people attending, even COVID-19 right now. If you have something in writing, it takes a lot of the worry off your shoulders for that event, and you can then focus on quality of your product. I rarely do anything without being prepaid, besides my partnerships with my wineries and breweries, and even then, I still get a guarantee of a minimal deposit for labor and even food waste.
To see the full video interview with Patrick Maggi, visit PMQ.com/maggitips!