Features // Mobile Pizza Units
Mobile pizza units add sales, street cred
Pamela Mills-Senn
Photos by Josh Keown

Lloyd Helber owns six Pizza Cottage restaurants located throughout Central Ohio, but ask him about the wave of the future and he’ll tell you mobile kitchens. “Food trucks are the next generation of restaurant,” says Helber, who launched his first mobile unit this April. “We see a trend that’s starting to explode and we want to be in on the mix early.”

Helber explains that today’s time stressed consumers want their food on-the-go and also like it coming to them — a mindset he believes is changing the entire “restaurant dynamic.” Although adding a mobile component to a brick-and mortar operation isn’t challenge free, nor for everyone, the pros can be attractive.

“The ability to have your products hot and fresh on the spot, anywhere at any time — there’s no better marketing tool,” says Helber, who uses his food truck (a converted 36-foot step van outfitted with fullsize conveyor oven and griddle) to heighten brand awareness, reach new markets and do new-market testing. The unit lands at corporate offices for lunch, charity and private events and other venues.

A mobile kitchen can drive patrons to a brick-and-mortar location who otherwise may never have stumbled across the restaurant. Josh Holderness, co-owner of Des Moines, Iowa based Gusto Pizza Company, says he’s poised to open a second site, thanks in part to his traveling kitchen.

“People try our pizza off our mobile kitchen and come to the restaurant because of that,” says Holderness. “It’s been an effective marketing tool for us, giving us a way of getting our brand out rather than waiting for people to come to us. It’s a nice way to invest in marketing while still generating revenue.”

Holderness added his mobile unit in 2011, shortly after opening his restaurant. Initially, he booked any and all events to build awareness. Now, he’s able to set a minimum for the kitchen. Last year he did about 70 events — a big part of the market for him are private and corporate functions, weddings, graduations and so on — generating about $60,000 from the unit.

One of the first decisions is whether to purchase a trailer or truck/van. Holderness opted for a trailer; if Mike Stenke, owner of Klausie’s Pizza in Raleigh North Carolina, had it to do over again that’s what he’d do. Stenke has a mobile kitchen only — a converted step van — but is checking out potential restaurant locations, inspired by the popularity of his food truck. Currently, he’s doing about 10 jobs weekly. Although he started in 2010 with lunches, community events and microbreweries, now much of his business comes from catering events.

“Go with a trailer,” Stenke advises. “When it’s a truck and you have a mechanical failure, you’re in trouble. But if you’re towing a trailer, you can rent a truck and still get there.”

On the other hand, finding someone who can tow a trailer is challenging, says Holderness. In fact, mobile units in general complicate training and staffing. “Most kitchen staff aren’t used to operating equipment that needs to be taken care of,” explains Doug Coffin. The owner of Big Green Truck Pizza has five kitchens roaming throughout Connecticut. “Learning to check the oil, checking the tire pressure, greasing the chassis, and treating custom-made equipment with a higher degree of skill requires some training.”

Another decision is whether to go with a new unit, a used unit or convert one on your own. Coffin recommends looking for one that someone else built and is selling, explaining this could give a better ROI. Holderness worked with a local company to design and build his eight by 20-foot trailer, spending about $30,000 for trailer and equipment. Steven Cohn, co-owner of Stony’s Pizza, took two approaches. Based in Austin, Stony’s consists of two mobile units.

Cohn, whose trucks are out daily and three evenings weekly, purchased his first unit new six years ago from a company specializing in mobile pizza kitchens. He wasn’t thrilled with the results of his $82,000 outlay. Why? At just two by two feet, the serving window was too small, the exhaust fan too weak and he had to cut into the side of the truck to fix plumbing problems. He corrected these flaws with his second truck, a modified step van, doing his own conversion at a cost of $35,000, and considers this unit a huge improvement over the first.

Operating in tight quarters is another consideration. “You have to be very conscious of practices. There’s a lot more planning involved,” Holderness explains. He, like Helber, does most of the prep work for the mobile unit at his restaurant. He’ll carry up to five restaurant employees depending on the event, with the menu varying accordingly.

Helber staffs anywhere from three to seven employees, and can produce in his unit 95 percent of what he offers in his restaurant. Still, his regular menu is scaled down to his best sellers. His advice for those considering a mobile unit?

“Do your homework and be willing to put the hours in,” Helber says. “The mobile food market is demanding — just like restaurants but with longer hours at times and with fewer people around you.

Going Mobile

What people first need to remember is that a mobile unit will need everything a regular kitchen requires, says Doug Coffin, owner of Big Green Truck Pizza. “None of this is less expensive because it’s on a truck,” Coffin says. “In fact, given that most trucks aren’t designed (for this), installation costs are going to be much more.”

Other considerations:

  • Vehicle weight. Try not to exceed specific load ranges/limits. “If total weight exceeds 24,000 pounds, a CDL will be required to operate it,” says Coffin.
  • Securing items/equipment. A mobile kitchen bounces around, stops abruptly, etc. Drawers, doors and shelves must be secured. Vibration can damage equipment designed for more stable environments.
  • Design with repairs in mind, building in easy access to mechanical parts for maintenance and repair. “We put in some nice cabinets in front of the grease nipples on the spring shackle,” Coffin recalls. “They had to be cut to grease the springs.”

Pamela Mills-Senn is a freelancer specializing in writing on topics of interest to all manner of businesses. She is based in Long Beach, California.

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