Can seafood tap into food truck craze?
When Colin Comer buys cod to fry and sell from his seafood truck, The Mobile Marlay, his order needs to be as exact as possible. If he requests more than he needs, his pricey purchase begins perishing. Too little and he runs out before satisfying his growing cadre of mobile customers.
And even though he’s part owner of Marlay House, a Decatur, Ga., pub that also serves fried cod, he can’t dump his excess inventory into its walk-ins; that business has its own established pars. And raiding its refrigerators when the truck’s supplies dwindle isn’t an option either; the truck roams the streets of Atlanta about an hour away, rendering a rapid replenishment trip out of the question.
“The hardest part of doing the truck is the forecasting part,” says Comer, the Dubliner’s Irish accent still thick despite living many years in America. “We can’t have too many days like the time we cut 50 pounds of fish for an event and only sold 15. The food truck is a totally different animal from the restaurant.”
Yet according to a new study from Chicago-based foodservice tracker Technomic, customer traffic at food trucks should rise steadily in the coming years, removing some of that unpredictability for operators like Comer.
“As we took a closer look at food trucks, we saw that the term ‘trend’ shortchanges what’s really a growing movement,” says Technomic director Kevin Higar, who visited 150 food trucks in three cities to compile his research. His study found that one in five consumers aren’t even aware food trucks exist as a high-quality food option, and of those who do know about them, only a third have patronized one. “This is just the beginning for food trucks, we think.”
That food trucks in general are migrating from the foodservice fringes to the mainstream pleases Comer, who’s surprised trucks took so long to catch on in the United States. “They were all over the place back home,” he says. “Since pubs there typically don’t do food, you expected to step outside one and see a food truck there late at night.”
He admits, however, that Ireland’s food truck scene never had the wide range of options he’s learned about here. There were no fish tacos or sushi or shellfish, nor were prices as high as here. The Lobsta Truck, which has vehicles in New York and Washington, D.C., is charging $15 for lobster rolls, and Alex Tsamouras, chef and founder at Feelin’ Crabby’s in D.C., gets $11 for lump crab sandwiches and salads. On his Rockin’ Roll Sushi Truck in Los Angeles, chef-owner Roy Kim charges $8 per roll, while Comer fetches a comparably humble $6 for a fish and chips cone at Marlay.
“We’re putting 4 ounces of jumbo lump crab on our sandwiches, which is a good-size portion for $11,” says Tsamouras, who deliberately chose the large portion to compete with a Lobsta Truck in his area. “The price for Maryland crab has gone as high as $25 a pound, so we’re blending it with some Indonesian blue-swimming crab. A quarter pound portion can limit your profit margins some, but we know people have to see it as a value.”