By Chad Emerson
Have you ever bought food that was prepared in a truck?
Several years ago, this would have seemed like a strange question unless you were on a construction site or buying frozen treats from one of the jingle-playing ice cream trucks that roam American neighborhoods during the summer.
That’s all changed, though, as one of the hottest sectors in the food world is now the on-wheels variety. From television shows like The Great Food Truck Race and Food Truck Paradise to local events in city parks, mobile food vendors are gaining popularity at a fast-paced clip.
And, unlike the uninspiring offerings from the past (remember the trucks with cold turkey sandwiches and dry potato salad frequently found at worksites), today’s food truck scene is full of culinary flair—oftentimes operated by trained chefs and experienced restaurateurs. This new reality was even the feature of the 2014 award-winning movie “Chef” where a decorated chef leaves his brick and mortar restaurant for a mobile venture that brings him closer to the people, able to move around to different locations, and with a guest expectation for unique and eclectic food.
These three traits have made food trucks wildly popular. Not surprisingly, theme parks are beginning to examine whether this relatively low-investment and guest-popular option might be a fit for them too.
Food Trucks Invade Downtown Disney
As part of its recent transformation of Downtown Disney into Disney Springs at the Walt Disney World Resort near Orlando, Fla., Disney brought in highly-esteemed professional Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto to open a two-story Asian restaurant with a dim sum theme. While Disney is not providing exact numbers, a higher-end, brick and mortar restaurant like this one can cost into the millions from concept to opening.
Which makes it notable that in addition to a beautifully-designed new restaurant space, Disney also elected to open its first food truck park as part of the Disney Springs redevelopment. By embracing the food truck trend, Disney signaled that the future of theme park food might be more than just tables and chairs inside a conventional setting.
Interestingly, Disney’s food truck park actually brings flavors from inside its parks to the Downtown Disney setting. In particular, Disney opted for four trucks—one each inspired by menus from its four different theme parks: Animal Kingdom-themed Namaste Café; Hollywood Studios-themed Superstar Catering; Magic Kingdom-themed Fantasy Fare, and the World Showcase of Flavors featuring the tastes of Epcot.
Known as Exposition Park, the Disney food trucks use many of the same recipes from their in-park counterparts and essentially serve as a next generation version of the counter service food option. On most days, guests can walk up to the trucks, order their food, and then use outdoor seating available in the immediate vicinity. Unlike most food trucks though, the Disney ones do not move from location to location on a regular basis. Even so, they are, in fact, actual trucks that could be moved to different venues at the resort if demand dictated (maybe to a large event at Disney’s massive ESPN sports complex).
Disney is not alone among large parks with food trucks though. In fact, right down Interstate 4, Universal Orlando has introduced a new food truck in the Simpson’s themed land at its Universal Studios park. Known as Bumblebee Man’s Taco Truck, the mobile vending option doesn’t actually drive around the park but it does provide a setting where food is prepared in the truck for guest consumption outside the truck. So far, Yelp and other customer reviews are tracking as high, if not higher, than more conventional counter service venues in the park.
Food Truck Festivals at Six Flags
While their approach has been somewhat different, Six Flags has, like Disney and Universal, embraced the food truck scene. Rather than a designated food truck park, though, Six Flags has focused on limited-time events with food truck festivals at several parks including Great Adventure and Six Flags New England.
For these events, Six Flags works with third party food trucks to offer a special ticketed event (that can include park admission) for access to the food trucks plus a wide variety of craft beer (another fast-growing crowd favorite) or wine options. The advantage of this approach is that it allows the park chain to determine how much demand there is for this type food option without having to invest in the trucks and other infrastructure required for a full-time operation. On the other hand, not owning the trucks means less than 100 percent of the revenue so, for a long-term, regularly-scheduled food truck program, using a third party may not be as useful from a revenue capture perspective.
Food Truck Options for Your Facility
While your facility may not be ready to invest in a designated food truck area like Exposition Park, there are other options to test the food truck craze in your park. For instance, local food trucks would likely be willing to set up during special events or select days at your facility to determine whether there is a demand among your audience for this type of option. Granted, this could compete for revenue against your existing food and beverage venues but there are ways to accommodate for that such as revenue sharing and participation fees from the food trucks.
In addition to local food trucks, several national brands have food trucks that travel across the country for promotional purposes. These are typically short-term setups but they generally do provide promotional support during their visit—basically an opportunity to trade some food revenue for national promotional awareness.
A good example of this recently occurred at Fun Spot America and the Kissimmee Fun Spot in Orlando where national burger chain White Castle parked its food truck—and sold over 8,000 sliders in a single day. Not only did White Castle fans flock to the facilities but the parks also received increased media coverage during the events.
While the idea of eating food made in a truck may or may not sound appealing to you, the reality is that the food truck phenomenon has grown to reach beyond bohemian city neighborhoods to include some of the industry’s largest parks and resorts.
Now would be a great time to test drive the concept at your facility with a temporary event as you research whether adding a food truck long-term might be a wise addition to your food and beverage offerings.