The most recent boom of food trucks began about eight years ago, turning dining on the street “hip” and “chic”. So what is so special about running a food truck?
I asked 2 of the entrepreneurial-minded owners in Copenhagen to explain how running a food truck is different (and cooler!) than running a restaurant.
Copper and Wheat
Copper and Wheat is a brilliant example of a business which understands that traditional recipes cultivated by families bring the most value for its customers. The founders, Alex and Pierre, say that they “work hard for their own little space ship to take off”. Based in a Copenhagen Street Food Market, Copper and Wheat definitely has a chance to do so. But first, I asked Alex about his story and how to be successful in the food truck business.
First of all, “mad” in Danish means “food”. Anders, the owner of the Mad Truck, says that his business is also a place where everyone can be a bit mad… in an English-speaking sense. Once you try the burgers Anders makes, you will understand why.
Tell me a bit about your food truck – what are you guys all about?
Alex: First, I will explain where our name came from. Copper is a metal used for the gastronomy parts in French cuisine. And wheat… well, you use it to make bread. The name explains the concept behind our business – we want to bring countryside to the city, clash modern and grandma’s traditional food together. We strive to preserve traditional and regional cuisine; our goal is to promote this slow food philosophy, fitted to the busy lifestyle of Copenhageners.
Anders: Mad Truck is a one man operation. My mission is to create and share the best version of myself through cooking by sharing food experience. My food truck started as a place where the menu was changing constantly. This is MAD, if you know anything about running a successful food truck – and this is why I decided to name it Mad Truck.
What inspired you to open a food truck? Were you working in food service before you opened the truck?
Alex: None of us was in a food service before! My partner, Pierre, was a primary school teacher and I am an engineer who came to Denmark to study architecture. We met each other while working at Torvehallerne – we love food and we love how it makes you interact with people. We saw the opportunity and we took it.
Before we opened Copper and Wheat, I wrote a project on my Food Innovation and Health course when I was a student at Copenhagen University. I won a national food innovation prize, got sponsored by the University, and got invited to Roskilde Festival to the area dedicated to new innovative food concepts in Denmark. That was the first time I worked together with Pierre.
We didn’t know anything about the festival back then. We decided to make something interesting and fast to consume – this is how we developed the concept of french fries in duck fat. This huge success allowed us to open our own stand in Torvehallerne, and only a few months later we got invited to be part of the new concept in the city: Copenhagen Street Food Market. It’s an amazing story, because we were only six stands on the beginning; we grew together.
Anders: Countless travels and encounters with street food around the world. I love food and what it means to us, humans: a social bond. Building a food truck was also the only way for me to start the business on a shoestring budget.
How would you describe your food?
Alex: Super simple. We don’t want it to be too fancy or too complicated. What we are trying to do is to come back to the roots, to the old-fashioned grandma food made in a very simple and convenient way. Nothing fancy, just good and honest.
What is your most popular menu item?
Alex: Fries. Everything is based around it.
The fries were something we never expected to be so popular. We made and tried a lot of recipes; now we selected 16 different ones and we change our menu depending on the season. But the key to all of our recipes is the french fries in duck fat.
Anders: Definitely my smoked brisket burger. It is the only item on the menu this season! I love it – and so do my customers. I source my meat from one of the best butchers in Denmark. It’s organic, free range, killed with respect for the animal. And on top of that, the butcher dry-ages all his meat – it’s crazy expensive, but crazy good!
What is the biggest struggle you have faced when running a food truck?
Alex: We are trying to be positive all the time – we want to learn from every struggle which occurs. We learn every day from every problem.
But the most complicated matter in the food industry is how to manage your employees so they make the food in the way you want. It is very tough, because the food is something that is extremely personal and you put so much energy to make it that way. If you want to be on top, you need time to teach employees how to make your food. As an owner, you want to deliver the best quality for your customers with a personal touch so they will come back and eat again at your place.
Anders: The day to day sales on the streets. It’s a constant unknown.
How are challenges of running a food truck different than a traditional sit-down restaurant?
Alex: First of all, we don’t want to be a food truck. We want to be something between a restaurant and a food truck. The food scene is a bit complicated in Copenhagen.
Logistics and space when running a food truck are the main challenges every owner faces. If you have a big customer flow, especially at a festival, your logistics must be really, really good. In those terms, the truck is quite limited.
Anders: I’ve never driven a traditional restaurant. But I am surprised about how many things go wrong in an old postal truck from 1994. Flats, dead batteries, running out of butane and God knows what comes up.
Is it difficult to manage a business like this? How do you do this?
Alex: Well, I can only talk about Copenhagen since we are based here.
There are so many rules here. Of course, you need a permission to park your truck and sell your food on the street. Once you get it, you can be anywhere in Copenhagen, BUT you cannot park the truck by the bicycle lane. And that is quite impossible in here since the city is designed for bikes. In my opinion, you waste your time by standing in the traffic rather than selling.
Anders: Yes, it is very difficult. I buy the supplies almost everyday, I can find toilets by being kind to nearby restaurants and cafés. The permits are a pain to apply for. Moreover, Danish summers are more like winters some days. And I am extremely bad in accounting.
What do you wish you knew before starting a food truck?
Alex: I like the fact that we didn’t know anything before starting it. If you know everything about it, you already have some traditional approach on how to be in a food business. This way, you cannot be innovative. Therefore, by not knowing you can get more creative and make your business more unique. We had the chance of not knowing anything and we succeeded.
Anders: I feel that I was as prepared as I could have been. The main thing is to set yourself up so that NOTHING is as you would expect. So be prepared for anything and everything.
What advice would you offer for those who would like to open their own food truck?
Alex: Most of the people think that making fast food is easy, because they can cook. But there is a big gap between doing food in your own kitchen and selling it.
You have to take care of the logistics, which can be quite demanding as I mentioned before. Moreover, you have to be smart about how you develop a concept of your product. Of course, you want to be the best. Try to keep it easy, be good in one product and don’t have too many products in your menu.
Many specialists say that you have to do market research before starting your business, but the best way to learn is simply just to be on the market. We didn’t have a business plan, but from the other hand, we never expected what can happen to us. You just have to estimate the risk and compare it to what you can win. And if you have a margin of more than 50%, just do it.
How can you be the most profitable during summer? Can you share any tips?
Anders: Stay positive and always have a “glass-half-full!” attitude! You should show up for every event in your city at any day of the week. It gives you endless opportunities to gain more customers. Positive referrals, returning customers and meeting new interesting people are just a few of the benefits.
Can you share any social media secrets?
Alex: We tried to do some social media. To be honest, we are planning to open a store in Copenhagen and this is our main focus now. Before, we had a lot of luck so we didn’t have to take care of marketing that much. Some time ago, we had a friend who helped us with the marketing strategy and to maintain our Facebook page. Unfortunately, he left and now we cannot do much, because we don’t have enough knowledge about it. This is a next huge step for us: to find somebody who could help us with social media and marketing.
Based on Alex’s and Anders’ experience and advice, make sure that you follow those tips in order to run a successful food truck business:
- Be innovative with your menu, but keep it simple and not too complicated
- Be good in one product
- Always be positive, learn from every struggle and problem which occurs – next time it can only be better
- Add a personal touch to your food and make sure that your employees know exactly how to make every dish from the menu
- Logistics and space are difficulties every food truck owner is facing
- Remember about local permissions and requirements – some of them might stop you from being successful
- Remember that if you are a good cook in your own kitchen, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you will be good in making a business of it
- Sometimes you don’t need a business plan to succeed
- Get inspired by your experiences and travels when making a menu for your food truck
- Street sales are a constant unknown
- You should show up for every event in your city during summer time
- Do your best to appear at one of the famous music festivals in your country