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Hot restaurant trends for 2011

Mobile Kitchens

Και μην πάει ο νους σας στις κλασικές καντίνες.

One of the trends that we’re noting as part of our upcoming 2011 Trends Forecast is the rise of mobile kitchens. Due to a number of economic and social factors, mobile kitchens are one of the hottest restaurant trends that we see for 2011.

Of course, there have always been hot dog carts and the infamous “roach coach,” but we’re seeing something new – a more sophisticated breed of mobile kitchen, delivering a new twist on the concept of mobile food service, with specialized ingredients, fresh flavors, and tightly focused menus.

The tale of Kogi

One of the first restaurateurs to get national publicity from this new wave of mobile kitchens was Kogi BBQ, a mobile kitchen selling Korean/Mexican cuisine in L.A.

Kogi became one of the most popular food phenomena in Southern California by putting a new twist on an old favorite – the taco.

By serving up $2 tacos made with Korean barbecue sauces and finely diced peppers, cabbage, citrus and spices, they created something new and oddly authentic to the culturally diverse environment of Los Angeles. And people were standing in line for two hours, outdoors, to buy these tacos. Even in the depths of the recession during 2009, Kogi was a hit.

Social media and mobile kitchens: An ideal pair

Of course, Kogi’s success didn’t happen overnight. When they first got started, driving their Korean barbecue taco wagons into the neighborhoods of L.A., people were laughing at their food trucks, spitting at them, even flashing gang signs at them.

But once people started to taste Kogi’s tacos, and saw the quality of the food, the cleanliness of the preparation, and the uniqueness of the presentation, it started to take off. And one of the biggest factors in Kogi’s success was social media.

By using Twitter to broadcast their trucks’ locations and announce where they were going to be serving food an any given night, Kogi turned buying a $2 taco into a part-scavenger hunt, part-social event. (Kogi BBQ currently has over 77,000 followers on Twitter – all ready to pounce when a Kogi truck rolls into their neighborhood.)

When a new restaurant concept finds success in social media, traditional media is likely to follow. Kogi has been featured on CNN, and NBC recently announced that Kogi BBQ will be one of the contestants on a new show with mobile kitchens racing across the country in a contest to see who can get the most sales. This kind of mass media exposure is going to do a lot to promote mobile kitchens from the consumer perspective; once people get more familiar with the idea, we’re going to see one of these mobile kitchens starting up in every city in the country.

Does this trend have staying power?

In a word, yes. Mobile kitchens are well-suited to the current economic climate of the restaurant industry, and I see them having some potential staying power – if handled the right way.

There are several broader trends powering the growth potential of mobile kitchens:

1. A more profitable unit economic model: It used to be that to get started in the restaurant business you needed $1 million and would be happy with a 1:1 sales to investment ratio. With mobile kitchens, the cost of entry can be as low as $100,000 and the sales to investment ratio as high as 5:1.

2. Self-contained: Even if you want to start a simple quick service sandwich franchise, you need to build a place, put in fixtures, wallpaper, restrooms, and 30-40% of your investment can never be recouped, even if you were to go out of business the very next day. Mobile kitchens are self-contained and can be moved or repossessed in full – this makes them easier to finance. Even after the credit crisis, we’re currently seeing financing of up to 100% for mobile kitchens.

3. Location strategy: With a mobile kitchen, you don’t need a location strategy in the traditional sense; you’re not limited to any one location or dependent on foot traffic – if your location doesn’t work, you pick up and move on to the next one.

4. Novelty: At least for now, mobile kitchens are so interesting to see (outside of a place like New York or L.A.) that they have built-in marketing and are a buzz-worthy, newsworthy concept when they roll into town.

5. Digital Marketing: Kogi BBQ got famous by being an early adopter of social media. Newsweek was looking for examples of companies that were successfully using Twitter to promote their businesses. Kogi was featured in Newsweek, which then led to more interviews about their social media strategy, which in turn led to more customers, both with the publicity and increases in their Twitter following. It became self perpetuating. Now Kogi can be used as an example not just of use of social media, but the power of restaurant PR when done right (being an early adopter, giving good interviews, having a compelling story, etc), and also, of course, as an example of a highly successful mobile kitchen. The publicity wave continues and now Kogi has inspired a reality show (of which it will also be a star).

6. Franchises: There’s a tremendous opportunity to start franchising mobile kitchens. One of the keys to franchising is that the concept has to be very easy to execute, and not overly complex in terms of equipment or skills. A mobile kitchen with a short menu, limited ingredients, and a fully self-contained kitchen that doesn’t require many staff or much complexity in the operations could be the ideal franchise of the future. (For more on this, refer to my blog post on Culinary Trends: http://aaronallen.com/blog-post/trends/culinary-branding-thought-starters/)

Other thoughts on how to do mobile kitchens the “right way:”

• Be inventive. Don’t do a mobile kitchen as usual – don’t make it a simple “hot dog truck.” Some skeptics would say that mobile kitchens are nothing new, but I would argue – if you look at what Kogi BBQ has done in L.A., this is a higher level of sophistication than we’ve seen before from this kind of restaurant. Mobile kitchens in 2011 will be offering a relevant, contemporary “cool” new taste and customer experience, both in terms of the design and the way it’s marketed. Kogi BBQ is the ideal platform: they have a cool-looking truck, sophisticated marketing, and they’ve used social media to their best advantage.

• Specialize. To be profitable, these mobile kitchens need to be highly specialized in what they serve, compared to other categories. A typical fast food restaurant might have 15-20 items on the menu, and a casual dining restaurant might have 55 menu items. These trucks should have 5 items on the menu (or less!) – to keep it simple in operations and execution.

• Offer a signature flavor. Kogi BBQ has a really unique flavor profile. They’ve practiced and honed their recipe – their owner says “it’s like practicing violin for 1,000 hours just to play one note.” But people keep coming back because it’s a flavor that they can’t get anywhere else – plus there’s the whole experience of hunting down the Kogi truck, waiting in line with your fellow fans – they’ve taken buying a taco and turned it into a rock concert.

• Don’t be afraid to innovate. People who innovate usually get laughed at. Most of the best products and companies were not the result of a focus group – too much consensus can be a bad thing. People looking to start a successful mobile kitchen in 2011 should find something to offer that allows them to be the sole source provider. The first mobile kitchen in Tulsa or Boise or Peoria or Columbus might get laughed at – at first. But I think the concept that Kogi BBQ pioneered in L.A. can work nationwide – and that’s why mobile kitchens are on my list of the top restaurant trends of 2011.

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