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Ask the experts: How food trucks can expand their business

By Marty Minchin
Correspondent
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/01/25/15/39/1bou3e.Em.138.jpeg|210
    Picasa - COURTESY OF ROOTS
    Craig Barbour of Roots
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/01/25/15/39/B5zvE.Em.138.jpeg|199
    Picasa - COURTESY OF ROOTS
    Craig Barbour of Roots

Not long after opening Roots food truck, Craig Barbour realized that the business would not be hugely profitable. Roots, which serves in-season, local food, was building a following, but it wasn’t enough.

“You could make money off it, but you couldn’t make that much money off it,” Barbour said.

To increase profits, he said he needed to expand the business outside of selling food from the truck. His break came when a couple who regularly ate at the truck asked whether Roots could cater their wedding.

“We had never planned on doing weddings,” Barbour said. “It was a lightbulb moment after the wedding was over and I saw that we did it successfully. I said, ‘We can do this again.’ 

This year, Roots is on track to cater as many as 30 weddings.

Barbour also bought the commercial equipment kitchen from the now-closed Blynk Organic, and Roots uses the former food shop’s space to hold cooking classes. In its third year of business, Roots is poised to turn a profit.

Here is advice from Barbour and Emma L. Merisier, owner of Southern Cake Queen food truck, on how to expand a food truck business:

•  Find your niche: Food trucks can develop a loyal following by developing a specialty or specialty items that customers look for.

Merisier opened the Southern Cake Queen cupcake truck with five flavors of cupcakes. She’s since expanded to 31 flavors and added other baked goods. Her red velvet cheesecake brownie has become her signature item.

“I know that (cupcakes) are going to be a fad,” she said. “You always have to stay innovative and think about what you could offer that everybody else isn’t offering.”

Barbour focuses on working with local farmers to use the freshest ingredients and uses his background as a chef to create custom menus and unique dishes.

“Focus on what you do well and you’ll naturally be able to expand in that direction,” he said.

•  Get on social media and the Internet: One of Barbour’s first hires was a full-time marketing manager.

Because Roots changes its menu daily, it has an excuse to send an email out to its list of more than 800 customers every day. At the end of the email, Roots includes information about catering and upcoming cooking classes.

Merisier uses Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram to stay in touch with customers, sending out information about the food truck’s daily location and food specials.

She also sends messages or tweets to companies she’s interested in working with, which has helped her land catering jobs and opportunities to bring her food truck to large events.

•  Think creatively: Food truck business can be severely impacted by variables such as rain, cold or holidays that fall in the middle of the week. Catering, cooking classes and other sales outlets will create more revenue streams.

Along with popular food truck locations such as South End and office buildings, Merisier also makes her truck available for birthday parties and other private events.

A customer with connections to food service at Charlotte Douglas International Airport recently tried a red velvet cheesecake brownie at Food Truck Friday, a regular Charlotte gathering, and loved it.

Southern Cake Queen now is selling baked goods at two locations in the airport.

Merisier and Barbour still operate their food trucks, where they can meet and build their customer bases.

“(The food truck) is just a gateway to other opportunities,” Merisier said. “This is your mobile advertising.”

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