When Weather is Frightful, Food Truck Sales Not so Delightful

WASHINGTON— While the winter holidays normally represent a boon for businesses looking to capitalize on the giving spirit, excuse food truck owner-operators if they lack holiday cheer.

Wreaths and snowflakes mark the beginning of the most lucrative retail spending season of the year, but colder weather and the transitive nature of the city during the holidays kill demand for the food truck industry.

“Sales slow significantly when it gets below freezing,” Anthony Blackwell, the director of operations for the TaKorean truck, said in an email. “Our truck business takes up to a 50 percent hit during the winter.”

Two other D.C. food trucks, Curbside Cupcakes and BBQ Bus, both reported similarly gloomy winter projections.

The busy season for food trucks lasts from about mid-March until the temperature starts to dip around the middle of November. Gone are the beautiful afternoons and the throngs of tourists, leaving food trucks left to battle for the remaining residents who have not skipped town for the holidays and are willing to brave the elements for a meal.

But for most, simply closing up shop for the winter is not an option, as profits from the busy season rarely can cover the physical and public relations costs of taking the winter off. Instead, trucks are forced to shift their operations to maximize profits when demand plummets.

“We basically store up our reserves knowing that our business will drop in the winter,” said Kristi Whitfield, co-owner of Curbside Cupcakes. “We can face the winter knowing that if we get through, things will pick up.”

Variable weather adds a significant amount of unpredictability to the food truck business, possibly no more significant than during the storm nicknamed “Snowmageddon” that slammed Washington D.C. in February 2010, during Curbside Cupcakes’ first winter.

“It was terrible, that winter was tough,” Whitfield said. “When the weather changes, people’s habits change, and there’s not a lot you can do.”

Outside of the storm that brought well over a foot of snow to D.C., Anthony Blackwell said that the early winters for food trucks, which began popping up in the city in 2009, had initially been profitable since there were only a “handful” of trucks. But now that there are almost 200 trucks operating in and around the city, the winter months represent a much larger danger to trucks’ bottom lines than they did in the past.

“The saturation and subsequent over-saturation of the market had a huge impact on sales and industry trends in the DC food truck market,” he said in an email.

Keeping business hot

Dealing with the winter months is such an integral part of the food truck business that a recent DMV Food Truck Association happy hour held a discussion to share best practices. Strategies shared by various owner-operators include emphasizing catering, selling gift cards, and helping staff pick up hours when trucks are cutting down on hours.

“What’s really nice is that we see, especially among the trucks in the food truck association, we will help each other out with employees,” said Ché Ruddell-Tabisola, the co-owner of BBQ Bus and the food truck association’s political director.

BBQ Bus’ business, like most trucks, takes a significant hit in the winter; Ruddell-Tabisola estimates that just one-quarter of its gross revenue from street-side sales comes from the off-season. But the truck works to diversify their sources of revenue in the winter to pick up the slack, providing holiday catering and selling “BBQ Bus Bucks.” The truck is offering 20 percent off of gift card purchases until December 23, looking to help drive business throughout the winter.

“January, across the board, is the hardest part of the year,” Anthony Blackwell said. “Everyone’s getting over the hangover of how much money they spent during the holidays.

Some trucks willing to put down more capital up front use brick and mortar locations to bolster their sales. In October 2012, TaKorean opened a permanent stand in Northeast D.C.’s Union Market as part of the company’s new shift towards exploring more fixed locations. The stand, which brings in about twice the sales of the TaKorean truck during the busy season, posted consistent sales during its first winter, according to Anthony Blackwell, and helps them weather a seasonal decline in sales.

“Our ordering is impacted, but not hugely,” he said. He added that the brick and mortar is “much easier operationally, more profitable and less risky,” once the brand has been established.

New regulations

As trucks deal with winter challenges, they must also acclimate to brand new food truck regulations imposed by the city government. Instead of a wild free-for-all to grab limited spots at the city’s hottest spots, the city now holds a lottery for spots in eight “mobile roadway vending zones.”

Lottery assignments are good for one month, giving truck owners a more set plan of action for the upcoming month. The regulations could provide a lifeline for trucks that were unable to get prime parking in the past, but smaller trucks may get eaten alive if surrounded by more popular competition each day.

“We believe that the regulations will positively impact trucks that have built a following and negatively impact trucks that haven’t,” Blackwell said. “That being said, the regulations help us implement our winter strategy of hitting bigger food truck spots more often.”

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