Food Truck Festivals of America co-founders Anne-Marie Aigner and Janet Prensky have grown their business from eight trucks and one city to 2,000 participating trucks in cities and towns across the country. Their newest division, Food Trucks 2 Go, meets the increasing demand they get from corporate requests for employee lunches. Here they share four pieces of advice from well-intentioned entrepreneurs that turned out to be all wrong.
1. "You must work with a coupon company."
So many small businesses look to various coupon sites as a great way to launch — and for many they are. But for us, our coupon experience almost buried us before we began. We decided to try one for that first Boston festival in 2012 and sold 1,000 $40 tickets in two hours. We were floored and excited. Until we were depressed and destitute. That $40 ticket cost the consumer $20; that meant $10 to us. The whole thing was made even worse in our case when we had to refund some customers. Although they only paid $20 for their ticket, wanted the full value — $40 — as a refund. Those customers were upset because they were promised a free item from all 25 trucks but only had time to get 15. Gee, we’re sorry you only ate 15 free items!) But refund we did.
2. "Hire young people. They'll grow with you."
A common strategy when you start out and you haven’t generated revenue or turned a profit — hire young, pay low. Don’t get us started on the millennials. Yes, they can be bright, hardworking, and talented and they can also be narcissistic, moody, and difficult to please. By the time they landed a job with us, we noticed some were on LinkedIn looking for the next career opportunity. We found that balancing our staff with millennials and boomers is the best choice – and everyone benefits from varied perspectives.
3. "Advertising is the best way to draw crowds."
If you have a product that will appeal promotionally to potential media partners, you may not need paid media. We drove attendance through public relations, pitching stories on the festivals and the individual trucks and truckers. When we wrote to TV stations and asked if they’d like a food truck to come to their station for a TV segment promoting the festival, we almost always were invited to visit! We also approached key radio stations and media outlets in each food truck festival region to become our partners. That way, we were able to receive promotional support from them, and they could have informational booths at our festivals and ads on our website. Through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat, we have been able to promote the festivals to a massive audience with the food trucks re-tweeting and sharing our messaging. In five years, we have not had to advertise.
4. "You never get a second chance to make a first impression."
It turns out you do get second chances. When you’re in the event business you learn pretty quickly that you can’t make everyone happy all the time. Our events are popular. This can mean waiting lines at the trucks. Sometimes the trucks run out of food. Sometimes the parking lot is difficult to navigate. Sometimes it’s just hot and people are cranky. When these things happen, our customers start to complain. On Facebook, on Twitter, by email, and snail mail. We answer each and every one of them. We listen. We learn. If necessary, we apologize or refund. And we find that people forgive. A festival we held in South Carolina caused a traffic back-up for over two hours (yikes!) and then when folks finally got to the venue, our trucks were out of food. It was one of our worst days. But we went back the next year. We changed to a bigger venue. We asked for folks to give us a second chance. And this year’s South Carolina Food Truck & Craft Beer Festival had 10,000 people and no refunds.