As the summer sizzle begins to cool off, restaurateurs look for ways to welcome the coming cold months by incorporating the winter season into their business model. Perhaps they will begin to offer more seasonal items like hearty comfort food to take customer’s minds of the impending winterapocalypse. They may begin to decorate the inside of their comfortably heated restaurants with seasonal selections: pumpkins, spider-webs…the premature Christmas tree may even pop up at the local pub in town. Typically, as the cold hits, restaurants across the country see an increase in business. The warm allure of glowing neon lights and savory smells draws customers in, allowing them to escape the gray landscape outside.
Now, imagine your restaurant has little to no heat, can only attract customers on a mildly cold day, and must serve a limited menu due to your pocket-sized kitchen. You are now in the shoes of a food truck operator faced with the chilling realization that winter is, in fact, coming. Millions of mobile food vendors across the country must come up with inventive ways to combat the cold to secure a profit throughout the winter months.
Columbus’ own Pitabilities, Red Plate Blue Plate truck, and Queen’s Table, along with Kenny’s Meat Wagon, reflect on past winter failures and share some inside knowledge on what it takes to stay both profitable and relevant during the “off-season.”
There’s a chill in the air
“Last winter, I had the grand idea that I was going to ‘man up’ and go all the way through spring without shutting the cart down,” Kenny Donnelly, owner of Kenny’s Meat Wagon says. “By mid-winter, I had completely lost feeling in my toes. This year, needless to say, my cart will be hibernating in December.”
While some food trucks operate for the duration of winter, business becomes much more spotty. The influx of festivals and event inquiries comes to a standstill.
“The cold brings an immediate customer drop off because people just don’t want to wait outside,” Chad Shipman of Pitabilities notes.
Most corporate offices around Central Ohio that offer mobile food vendors as lunch options to their employees discontinue their rotations mid-November, the first glaring sign that the “food truck season” is winding down. Perhaps Donnelly puts it best:
“Just like I don’t want to stand out in 10 degree weather, customers don’t want to come out in 10 degree weather to get food that’s going to get cold before they even get a chance to take a bite.”
How does a business with year-round employees stay afloat when profits freeze up by mid-December?
“Cash flow in the off-season is the hardest issue,” Thomas Adams, owner of Red Plate Blue Plate Truck says. “You really need to plan (save ahead) and find some other income sources.”
With Red Plate Blue Plate Truck set to close by mid-November, Adams mentions that saving money during the busy season is the best way to continue operating through winter.
“We go year round, only taking two weeks off over the holidays for routine truck maintenance,” Shipman says. “We have full-time employees that are guaranteed shifts in the winter…the only way to pay those employees is to set money aside when you’re in the green.”
It would seem that being fiscally responsible throughout the entire year is truly the only way to combat the profit drop-off mobile food operators face during the winter. However, these operations are recognized and reputable businesses. How does one stay “current” during the winter months while still bringing in revenue?
“My plans for the winter are to develop other sources of income that are too time consuming to start during the busy season,” Elvin Cooper, owner of Queen’s Table notes. “I have a few products, our homemade tartar sauce along with our celery juice, that I plan to get on store shelves this year.”
Keeping retail products on grocery store shelves is a great way to maintain brand recognition year-round. Donnelly agrees:
“I am working on bottling a few of my BBQ sauces…I want to get them bottled, labeled, then hit the local stores to give them samples to see if I can secure some shelf space. We’re really confident that our sauce will do well on store shelves.”
While food retail seems like a logical step for some trucks, Red Plate Blue Plate Truck and Pitabilities have other plans.
“We are developing some great ‘bar food’ plates to sell in local craft breweries and wine rooms,” Adams says. “We have a great summer sausage recipe, a tasty horseradish cheddar spread that has tested well amongst my fellow food truck peers, and some hearty caraway rye whole crackers, all handmade in small batches.”
Pitabilities plans to target large office buildings with their brand new catering service dubbed “The Pita Bar.”
“We are going to bring our food straight to the customer,” Shipman adds. “We set up everything right in your office so you don’t even have to bear the cold and you will have all the options available that we serve on our truck.”
Pitabilities’ “Pita Bar” has already started to secure profitable lunch gigs throughout the winter.
Thinking outside of the box is one way to bring in additional funding. With brands established throughout the spring and summer, it’s also important for mobile food vendors to continue to reach its customers during the winter months.
“If you decide to close up shop for the winter, stay on top of your social media,” Cooper says. “You are sure to have made some fans of your food…keep your social media presence so people will still see your name.”
Red Plate Blue Plate agrees:
“Maintain your social media presence with updates on what you’re up to, regardless of what it is,” Adams mentions. “People like to hear what it really takes to grow a business.”
Finally, what is the best way to stay sane during those final brisk days of business? Last words of wisdom from Donnelly:
“Put a coat on!”