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The hallmark of a successful food truck is typically its ability to consistently maintain long lines of customers at the order window. Long lines play a significant role in the psychology behind a food truck.

They validate the chef’s incredible culinary talents, they’re a beacon to other potential customers, hailing “try this amazing food,” and they usually mean money in the food truck operator’s bank… Usually.

Long lines can say something else, and this truth can sometimes hurt. They can be a testament of under-staffing, disorganization, complicated menus, and poor preparation. Most of these paint a picture of a lack of experience.

While a group of people, standing around the order window is an essential “window display” in attracting customers, unreasonable wait times can result in lower sales and increased waste.

Customers are willing to wait for something they see a value in. In most cases, gourmet food trucks are known for their elevated food experience with fresh, organic or locally grown ingredients, and their unique menus.

“It better be worth the wait.”

The key is first developing an efficient and profitable menu, then focusing on execution. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? If customers are complaining that they’re waiting too long for a meal, or if you’re not selling as many covers you think you should, then it’s obviously not as simple as you may have thought.

Bottom line, keep the menu simple, easy to prep, and efficient, and design an organized kitchen with a well-trained staff to maintain a consistent crowd of customers that turns over frequently.

Is it worth the wait?

It’s all about logistics. Operating a food truck limits the number of menu items that can be served. This is actually a food truck’s greatest strength. Fewer menu items means fewer items to prepare, and manageable food costs.

In San Francisco, I have my choice of dozens of highly rated, gourmet eateries within a one block radius of my front door. Many of these small bistros and cafés feature high quality meats, local or organic produce, and some of the most incredible homemade side dishes and desserts for anywhere between $8.50 and $10.00.

Sound a little like a food truck’s menu pricing? Maybe, a little.

Yes, they have storage which gives them the ability to prep more items and ultimately serve more people. But that’s not what this is about. This is about logistics, and managing your capabilities, because at the end of the day, they’re still serving six-to-eight entrees all day, with about the same amount of space and equipment, and turning covers like a well-oiled machine.

The menu on the left offers 6 tacos, 6 burritos and 6 quesadillas, using a total of 9 ingredients and 3 staff members. Wait time from standing in line until order received, 27 minutes with 15 people in line. The menu on the right offers 11 sandwiches and burgers, 5 versions of fries, and 4 side dishes using 34 ingredients, and 2 staff members. Wait time from standing in line until order received, 47 minutes with 0 (ZERO) people in line, and 14 people waiting for their food.

Is your line where it should be? Take a look at it. How long does the average customer stand in line before placing an order, then how long does that customer wait for his or her name to be called from the pick-up window? If it’s longer than 12 minutes, you’re in trouble. How much time is left on that customer’s lunch break, by the time they’ve received the order? Is it enough time to enjoy the meal you’ve masterfully prepared?

A long order line may indicate that your menu is too complex. How many items are on the menu? If you’ve got more than six, you’re pushing the envelope and creating chaos in your food truck. You’re also probably not taking a fraction of the orders you could with a streamlined menu.

What can you do to speed your throughput without sacrificing quality? Four Simple Steps.

  1. The sales transaction at your food truck begins the moment a patron steps into the line, not at the order window. The menu should be concise, easy to read, and scream your personality.
  2. Move your order taker / greeter outside of the food truck. This not only opens more space for kitchen staff to move about inside, it brings your food truck’s personality eye-to-eye with your customer. Not only can the order taker interact with the person at the front of the line, he or she can mingle with other patrons in line. The order taker becomes the server, expeditor and maitre d’, assuring a pleasant and efficient customer experience.
  3. Select menu items with the highest gross profit, lowest food cost, and keep the degree of preparation difficulty manageable.
  4. Staff the food truck kitchen adequately with well-trained kitchen staff, and put your maitre d’ / server in the front of the house – at the head of the line.

Simple, yes. Easy? Not by a long shot. The end goal is to keep the line moving, avoid lengthy backlogs, and keep the customers’ focus on your food experience, not the waiting-in-line experience. It won’t be easy, and it’ll take a lot of analyzing before you’ve dialed in to a truly efficient menu, but the process is simple and well worth the effort.

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About the Author

Chris Ford is the founder of Stitches 'n Dishes and editor in chief with a passion for food, photography and travel. Chris is a Media Correspondent for the Food Network TV show, Eat St, a syndicated blogger, seasoned event organizer and promoter, a food critic, a marketing consultant and Social Media Marketing expert. Chris is also a fashion and entertainment photographer. When he's not dining on the sidewalk, he's snapping photos on the catwalk.

  • http://www.facebook.com/dougwo Doug Wolfgram

    I’d love to see an article on the new breed of food trucks that let you order online and tell you were they are via live twitter feed. There were a couple in San Diego when I worked down there.

    • http://www.stitchesndishes.com/ StitchesnDishes

      I’ve seen a few here and there too, Doug. I LOVE that. Some trucks are using an app, and I’ve recently seen one that announced he’s releasing his own app. I’d love to see more of that.

  • http://twitter.com/BewitchedSalem bewitched in salem

    15 minutes max would be my wait time. That’s from line to food in my hand. Anything past that, and the quality would not be able to wash away the
    anxiety from waiting.

    • http://www.stitchesndishes.com/ StitchesnDishes

      I think I’d have to tend to agree with that. I think 15 minutes is reasonable for most items from a food truck, unless you’re at an event and the truck is absolutely bogged down and mobbed.

  • http://www.stitchesndishes.com/ StitchesnDishes

    Amen to that, Justin! This is really all about efficiency, and it does take quite a bit of thought and planning to get it right. I’ve had many grab-n-go kind of lunch breaks myself, but 3 minutes wouldn’t be even close to enough time for me, either!

  • http://www.stitchesndishes.com/ StitchesnDishes

    Good point, Michael. I think most of the food truck operators I encounter do lack the experience of serving at large events. Actually, many of them come with no culinary experience at all. They’re talented chefs, but jumped with both feet into the fire.

  • http://www.stitchesndishes.com/ StitchesnDishes

    Exactly, Harold! Great observation. I’m a huge proponent for getting that order taker out into the crowd. It gives the food truck a completely different appeal and really brings out the personality. And, you’re right, it’s a great opportunity to upsell, or push a special. Great comment… thank you =-)

  • http://www.stitchesndishes.com/ StitchesnDishes

    Thanks Al. It really does boil down to that question, is it worth the wait? I think in several cases in my experience it was worth the wait – the dish was complex. But there aren’t many other situations where I’m ok waiting beyond 15-20 minutes, either. It’s about customer service and fulfilling your customers’ needs. If you’re serving a lunch crowd, these people don’t have all day to wait for their lunch!

  • http://www.stitchesndishes.com/ StitchesnDishes

    There ya go! A business connection! I think apps are a great idea for food trucks. Getting people to use them might be a different story, though. Would be an interesting challenge.