SXSW 2011 Lesson: Food Trucks as a Model for Social Innovators
#1 Thing You Need to Learn from This Post:
Launching new ideas in today’s marketplace requires less capital and greater agility – something food trucks know very well.
A More Detailed Exploration:
Eating barbecue in Austin during SXSW is part of the annual pilgrimage. Since I have spent my fair share in Austin with my prior travels and previous times at SXSW, I was searching for something new. Fortunately, I caught a news story about a place that has skyrocketed on to the Austin BBQ scene: Franklin Barbecue.
What caught my attention was that they were opening their first permanent location on the Saturday of SXSW Interactive after operating for some time from a food truck. Yes, you’ve seen those food trucks in your city starting to multiply like rabbits. There’s a good reason for that. It’s far cheaper to open for business, especially since the credit market has been so tight for small businesses as of late.
Apparently, Franklin Barbecue is so good, people will wait in line for over an hour to eat it. Even more interesting is how Franklin Barbecue is open until they run out of food – which is fast. This daily scarcity is because of capacity issues. They only have one smoker, but are in the process of building a second one. But the fact it can run out adds urgency for barbecue lovers to buy the product when they can.
I showed up at about 11:45am to beat the rush. That was naive. A few had camped out over night and most got in line by 10 am for the 11 am opening. The line was this long (see left) when I got there and took a little over an hour to get to the counter. The line moved steadily and gave me a chance to talk with passionate people who’ve been eating there for awhile. That’s how I knew to order the two-meat plate that came with two sides AND a brisket sandwich. Brisket is by far the reason for its success. (see above)
The Lessons for Social Innovators
Before you mistake this post for a restaurant review (5 stars, BTW – most amazingly moist brisket and three types of sauces. Ribs and sausage were great, too), I think food trucks offer up important lessons for social innovation. Here goes:
- Smaller Entry Barriers = Greater Risk Taking – Opening up a barbecue stand featuring espresso-marinated brisket is risky, especially when you source your brisket from a humane-certified ranch in Montana that you sell in Texas.
- Carve Your Niche and Stay Focused - Walking around Austin, I found food trucks selling gourmet mini-donuts at DocMunchies, multiple Korean taco trucks, estate-grown espresso drinks, wood-fired Italian sandwiches, waffle cones full of bacon and cereal, Australian pocket sandwiches and much more.
- Go to Where the People Are - Unlike fixed point restaurants, you can move if the crowd has migrated away from where you set up for the night.
- You Can Be Classy in a Food Truck - I ate one of the most exquisite Indian meals at G’Raj Mahal Cafe, which was a food truck parked in a pea gravel lot with magnificent Moroccan-style tents interspersed with the Austin Bike museum’s collection (see below).
- Use Social Media to Build Your Following - Twitter and Facebook are a great way to let your loyal customers know where you’ll be, what new recipes you’ll be serving and any other changes. I followed @DocMunchies to find out where and what they’d be selling. (I went with Mexican Chocolate and traded some for my friends’ Coconut, Cinnamon and Sugar and Hazelnut orders – all excellent).
- Prototype Then Scale - Just like Franklin Barbecue, you can test out your recipes, portions, prices and other elements of your operations. Once you’ve figured out the right mix, you can move from the equivalent of a food truck to the bigger scale brick and mortar in your sector.
What other lessons do you think social innovators can learn from food trucks?