Eight Must-Haves For Food Truck POSTrending by Angela Diffly
Outside The Box
According to Mobile-Cuisine.com, an online resource for the food truck industry, in 2015, annual food truck revenues hit $1.2B, with over 4,000 food tuck businesses in the U.S. generating just under $300K each. If you’re a food truck business owner, or if you’re thinking about becoming one, you’ll need to support some pretty unique demands. Not only is the physical environment a factor, but daily workflows must also be factored into the technology equation. We reached out to some of the top technology vendors* and a few of their food truck customers to find out which technologies are most relevant to this unique business model, and how each technology benefit translates to real-world success.
Must Have #1: Affordability & Ease Of Use
Most (if not all) companies offer a free trial of their systems, and are pay-as-you-go, allowing food truck operators to avoid big-ticket initial investments, and pay for the technology as a monthly operating expense.
With tens of thousands of small business customers in North America, and hundreds of food trucks in 150 cities across the U.S., NCR’s Silver fits well into the food truck dynamic, one of the company’s fastest growing segments. Puerta al Paraiso, an Indiana-based food truck company, selected NCR Silver because of its low monthly fees, vast reporting features and ease of use. Its young entrepreneur Ricardo Garcia used to work in a restaurant, so he had some familiarity with restaurant systems. He told NCR he didn’t want to invest a ton into the technology, because most of his start-up expenses were used towards the truck itself. The cost-conscious decision paid off. Garcia and his business partners recently expanded their business to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant by the same name.
Setting up menu items should be extremely simple on your tablet point-of-sale. “If I own a food truck, I’m changing my menu items every day,” said NCR’s Chris Poelma, general manager and VP of the company’s SMB Division. “They use the freshest ingredients, so it varies by what’s available that day at the fish market or the vegetable stand. If it takes more than 60 seconds to update a single item on a food truck point-of-sale, you probably have the wrong system.”
For Paul Baity, owner of Carolina Firehouse BBQ food truck in North Carolina, preparation is everything – from pit-cooking his delicious BBQ 12 hours before an event to setting up his TouchBistro point-of-sale menu options. He told us he has to be ready to serve approximately 2,000+ people a day at festivals that draw nearly 200K people per event. “There’s a lot of technology out there that just doesn’t work like it’s supposed to. TouchBistro is simple to use, learn and setup. I can spend an hour before a big event and get everything set up the way I want it, with menu changes and taxes, and I’m ready to go when I get there. The interface being easy to use is a big deal.”
Must Have #2: No Down Time
Food trucks need the ability to work offline, so if your Internet connection goes down, you won’t lose the ability to process transactions. “With food tucks, there are lots of dead spots where you could easily lose a connection,” NCR’s Poelma told us. “Believe it or not, there are many point-of-sale apps you can download on a mobile device, but if you lose your Wi-Fi connection, you can’t check anyone out. How do you process transactions on a point-of-sale with no Internet connectivity? That’s the number one thing you need to look for when evaluating systems,” he told us.
Revel Systems customer and COO of Sajj Mediterranean restaurants and food trucks, Sal Khoury uses Revel’s “Always On Mode” to avoid any loss of sales due to Internet slow-down or a power outage, especially with their food trucks. He said, “What we had before was a hardwired, DSL system prior to Revel. Right now, Revel is a cloud-based POS that is valuable especially to food trucks. The cool thing is the offline mode works and we’re still able to generate all the data if the Internet is not available in the truck’s location. It could mean a lot of money if we’re at a food truck outing that has no Internet. Any outing for us can generate sales between $1-$5K, so there’s a substantial amount of money lost if we don’t have that feature. Always On Mode is definitely crucial for our food truck business.”
Revel Systems has a few thousand food truck customers, which make up about 10-15 percent of its business. “Most food trucks are made of metal,” Chris Ciabarra, CTO and Co-founder of Revel Systems told us. “That’s something we saw early on, which means the Wi-Fi doesn’t work well.” Revel solved this problem by developing its Ethernet Connect, which links the Apple iPad to a network via a wired connection, providing reliability, heightened security and speedy installation.
ShopKeep has over 20,000 customers, with roughly 10 percent being food truck owners. According to year-over-year data, its food truck customers saw an average increase of 26 percent in revenue and 21 percent in number of transactions. “It’s so important for food truck owners to be able to work offline,” Ansar Khan, ShopKeep’s director of indirect sales told us. “Since we’re cloud-based, if there is a disruption in connectivity, all the information is stored locally and when back online, the transactions get pushed to the cloud.”
Must Have #3: Speed
Food trucks have a finite amount of time to transact business, like during lunch hours in a busy corporate area. For this reason, it’s nice for customers to have the ability to order and pay ahead inside a customer-facing app, which means no waiting in line and faster service for them, and fewer people to serve at once for the food truck operator (especially in inclement weather when people are loathe to patronize outside food establishments).
Bill Fultz, VP of operations for Heartland Commerce at Heartland Payments, pointed out that since food truck operators cannot expand their physical space, they can use this type of order and pay ahead functionality to expand their business reach. Heartland Payments enjoys approximately 25 percent market share of total food service point-of-sale operations in North America.
“Our customer-facing app allows users to order and pay ahead, so they can pick it up when they get there without waiting,” Revel’s Ciabarra told us. This is a big deal with food trucks, since lines can get long and speed is everything in catching a sale where there is so much competition in close proximity (since many food trucks operate at the same time at the same general location). Revel also allows food truck operators to white label the app, with customized brand, look and feel.
“We really can’t slow the process down,” Carolina Firehouse’s owner Baity told us. “When I open the window, I have a line at least 30 people deep. It stays like that throughout the entire event. You’ve got to move them through there and you can’t have glitches with your system, or you’ll lose a lot of revenue. It takes me less than 30 seconds to take their order, get paid and move to the next person in line [with his TouchBistro system].”
“When we get busy, it can be really crazy,” said Nena Sierra, co-owner of Palenque Home Made Colombian Food, a ShopKeep food truck customer. “It will be really quiet, then all of a sudden a huge line will form out of nowhere. Before, with our cash register, we’d struggle to process everyone and we’d have people leaving our line. With ShopKeep, the system is so smooth and reliable that each transaction happens so much more quickly. The extra customers we put through every lunchtime means the system really pays for itself.”
Lavu designs iPad POS for restaurants and food trucks. Food truck customer Walter’s Coffee Now really likes Lavu’s guest-facing feature that allows his patrons to enter customized orders and send them directly form the iPad to the kitchen. This helps maintain order accuracy while keeping the lines moving.
Must Have #4: Payments Flexibility & Tipping
Speed has become a real issue when it comes to payments. Heartland’s Fultz told us they’ve seen a backlash from EMV (chip card technology). “The transaction times are longer, and in the food truck space, it’s critical. It’s about a three-second difference [between swiping a card and inserting a chip card]. So it’s noticeable, but it’s not end-of-the-world disruption.”
“However the customer wants to pay, we take it,” Revel’s Ciabarra told us. He noted that a lot of their clients are complaining that EMV is too slow, and food trucks are all about volume. “We’re seeing a lot of pushback on EMV because of that. The more people push them to do EMV, the more we think mobile payments will take off. It’s a generational thing, but it’s also a convenience thing,” he pointed out.
“Over half of our merchants have EMV capable readers, but the industry is taking a lot of time to roll out EMV,” commented ShopKeep’s Khan. “For food truck operators, it’s not such a big deal because there’s not that big of a problem with chargebacks since their transactions are so small.” He told us that if you’re using an EMV capable reader, even if you are not officially EMV certified, the company offers a guarantee that you will not be liable for chargeback costs. “We don’t want our merchants to be at risk,” he told us. “And really, we prefer Apple Pay, and so do our merchants.”
Even though Heartland Payments’ DNA lies in payment processing, it has adopted an open architecture policy with its merchants. “We’re a payments company; it’s one of our groups. We have a very open policy. We like to give our merchants choice,” commented Fultz. “We’d like our customers to use our products, but we don’t penalize them for not using them. We keep a level playing field with it all.” The company also offers merchant protection from chargebacks. “We definitely want our merchants to have an EMV solution because with the products we service, all of those deployments are done in a semi-integrated fashion,” he told us. “It’s a fancy word for saying reduced scope for our merchants. Even if there’s a suspicion of a compromise in their credit card information, we have programs to cover costs for them.”
Tablets should be used seamlessly for payments, and the systems should be capable of handling multiple payment methods, including cash, credit, debit, NFC mobile payments, etc. “There are 11 major POS processors in the U.S., and we’re certified with about half of them, meaning we have the widest number of integrations with acquiring banks,” NCR’s Poelma told us. He warns to stay away from those who certify with just one processor, and to look for “agnostic” tablet POS providers to make sure you can use your preferred payments processor with your chosen system.
With over $50 million spent at food trucks with Square, the company has a vested interest in making sure its application is not only customer friendly, but also employee friendly. On its website, the company quoted customer Jeremy Lyman of Birch Coffee, New York, “The day we started using Square, our tips went up 100%.” Because Square allows operators to set tips to present dollar amounts or percentages, customers see a convenient tick box before they sign, upping the odds they’ll select from the options rather than leave a lower tip, or no tip at all.
Research by Gartner consultancy Software Advice found that iPads with an opt-out tip option actually increase the chances customers will tip. “Instead of not tipping, customers have to select a button on a screen not to tip… Do you just not tip, or would you feel guilty doing so? We found that these buttons increase the likelihood to tip by 29 percent of our respondents,” commented Software Advice researcher Justin Guinn.
Must Have #5: Mobility & Compatibility
Not only are point-of-sale food truck tablets used for order taking and transaction processing, they also should be able to talk to one another. NCR’s Poelma provided this example. If you have two different people working the queues – one on the left for drinks and one on the right for food, you need the ability within the truck to open a ticket, save it and open up another one, then go back to the former ticket. Various tablets need be able to open and close the same ticket, regardless of which tablet was used to initiate the order.
“Since the iPads communicate with each other, without a server, we call it server-less sync,” said ShopKeep’s Khan. “We make it very easy for them to use the iPad on the truck or the iPad that’s roaming around, and you can close out any order on any iPad. You can accept payments in line, as well.”
Some operators also use tablets outside the truck to alert customers when to pick up the orders. Some kitchen display systems (KDS) also allow food truck staff to text customers directly from the kitchen when the food is ready.
Heartland’s Fultz told us, “We support wireless printers, like Epson’s Mobilink. And our customers can use tablets and low-profile solutions. We’re also tablet agnostic, so they can use Apple, Android or even Microsoft Surface. We have a hardware agnostic approach for maximum flexibility.”
Must Have #6: Analytics
Most food truck owners will tell you the first thing they do at the end of the work day (or night) is to run their analytic reports. Reports can help them make better business decisions, like deciding which locations produced more revenues, which products were hot (and not), and which times of the day seemed to be the busiest.
“With order and location tracking, our customers can track sales by location,” commented Ohad Jehassi, COO of Lavu. “For example, let’s say you routinely sell more orders at 1st and Central, but your average order is 20 percent higher at 2nd and Lead. We give food truck owners the data they need to make informed business decision and maximize their ROI.”
Carolina Firehouse BBQ’s Baity explained how TouchBistro’s reporting helps him run his business better. “I’ve been doing this a couple of years now, and regardless of what I think will sell at these events, there’s always variation in what people are buying. I need to know how much of each item I sell on average because it helps me know how much of what to buy and bring. At the end of the day, when I close that window, I look at how much we sold for the day, the totals and the breakdown. I show our staff and we manage the business based on that information. It would just be crazy to me not to have that.”
“One of the features we’re using right now is forecasting labor,” said Zaid Ayoub, CMO of Sajj Mediterranean. Using Revel Systems’ iPad POS, Ayoub said, “puts us at an advantage by having the right analytics in our hands to make wise business decisions.”
Must Have #7: Social Integration
Food trucks survive and thrive on social platforms. It’s important for the tablet point-of-sale to integrate seamlessly into Twitter, Facebook and other social platforms that allow operators to “shout out” to followers where they’ll be that day, what the special menu items are, etc. to make sure loyal fans can find them. Everyone we talked to had this capability, but we felt it was an important must-have to mention.
Must Have #8: Scalability
Some food truck operators open brick-and-mortar stores, and then there are brick-and-mortar stores that decide to open food trucks to expand their reach. “It’s really cool to see operators moving in both directions right now,” Revel’s Ciabarra told us. “There are movements in different cities that have a lot of food trucks where consultants are coming in and helping them get a brick-and-mortar store.”
Revel’s customer, Sajj Mediterranean is a perfect example of this growth. “We’re built to scale,” commented COO Khoury. “When we first opened, we had one location and one food truck, and now we have three different locations and two food trucks. Once you set up the system, you just upload it to all the stores at once. It also allows us to have consistency, which is very important to our business.”
“Our point-of-sale products are not dumbed down for food trucks,” Heartland’s Fultz shared with us. “They have everything they’d have with an in-store POS, things like time clock functionality, gift card capabilities, EMV options, enterprise cloud reporting, etc. It’s nice for food truck operators to leverage this functionality as they grow, yet they can turn off anything they’re not using and only use what they need. It’s a very portable solution from a platform standpoint. It’s not just a dumbed-down iPad. It’s a true, fully-vetted business solution.”
With ShopKeep, you can have a seasonal food truck business and not have to pay full price for the month you’re not in operation. “Whenever you’re offline, you just pay $10 per month to keep your account active, and whenever you’re ready, you just start back up,” commented Khan.
With Lavu, you can easily add accounts for new trucks and link them to an existing profile. With linked accounts, food truck owners can make changes to one device and automatically update every account in the profile. Lavu also allows owners to keep tabs on real-time sales data from every food truck on their mobile device. If food truck is seasonal, Lavu will pause the account so owners do not pay for inactive months.
Keep On Truckin’
It’s no wonder so many entrepreneurs are looking at opening a food truck business as opposed to a brick-and-mortar restaurant. According to Forbes, you can open a food truck for $50,000 – $80,000, but if you’re looking to open a full-fledged restaurant, you’ll need about $100,000 – $300,000. Like any business, food trucks come with a unique set of challenges that require technologies designed to work for them, whenever and wherever they set up shop. The good news is there are lots of solid solutions out there for running a successful food truck business. So know your vision, take a careful look at your business model, and find the right technologies to keep on truckin’.
*In the interest of editorial time and real estate, this article provides a collection of ideas, not meant to be inclusive of every solution on the market. In addition, solutions mentioned are likely to have functionality not mentioned in every section.
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