Crepes food truck finds its niche in Southern California

| by Elliot Maras
Crepes food truck finds its niche in Southern California

Christian and Danielle Murcia found success serving crepes in Southern California. Photo courtesy of Crepes Bonaparte.

Editor's Note: This is part one in a two-part series on Crepes Bonaparte

Christian Murcia wasn't thinking about food trucks in 2008. His idea was to start a street food catering business modeled on the street crepes he saw while vacationing in France. At the time, he was studying business at the University of Southern California.

"I wanted to start something that I could afford to start right out of school without having to line up investors," he told Food Truck Operator. Little did he know that his idea — Crepes Bonaparte — would grow into a multifaceted foodservice business — food trucks, catering and a restaurant — doing hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual sales.

It wasn't that southern California diners couldn't get crepes if they wanted them. Crepes were available in sit-down restaurants; but not as simple street food as in France.

Humble beginnings

Crepes Bonaparte servers prepare crepes at a catered event.

In 2008, Murcia and his wife, Danielle, began setting up crepe making stations at events in Fullerton, California. They placed a crepe griddle on a table and invited customers to choose from ingredients they kept in an ice chest. With crepes, watching the preparation is a big part of the experience. 

"The nice thing about crepes is everything is kind of made to order," Murcia said. "What we're trying to do is recreate the French crepe experience."

They set up a website, posted notices on Craigslist and party planner websites, and got their first catering booking in their first week. They were soon doing 10 to 20 events per weekend, and hired five or six part-time employees.

The business grew steadily from there, doubling in the second year, and doubling again in the third year. 

Food trucks enter the picture

The Murcias were getting into "street food" at an opportune time. Food trucks were just coming on the scene in southern California, and the Murcias had a product that lent itself well to on-site preparation.

The couple paid close attention to the food trucks that began appearing on the streets, and concluded that moving the crepe griddle from a table to a truck was almost a no-brainer.

Murcia spoke with food truck owners to learn about the business. He also met with the county health department to find out about food truck safety requirements.

By 2009, the recession was in full swing, which wasn't bad news for aspiring food truck owners. Good deals were to be had on trucks.

Breakfast crepes are prepared on the food truck.

Taking the plunge

The Murcias bought an unused, 25-foot, 2007 boxcar truck with a Morgan Olson shell, Workhorse chassis and Chevy engine for $30,000.

They hired MSM Catering Trucks Manufacturing in Paramount, California, to install a kitchen with a refrigerator, two crepe machines, a three-compartment sink, a hand wash sink, an ice bin and a freezer. The kitchen cost around $50,000.

Before launching the truck in March of 2010, Murcia identified several promising stops, including a hospital, a junior college and the downtown Fullerton business district. 

"Most food truck owners don't spend a lot of time thinking about where they're going to take their truck; they spend a lot of time on their menu," he said. "Menu is important, but it's a moot point if you don't know where you're going to be taking your truck."

When not in operation, the truck had to be kept in a commissary, which cost $800 to $900 a month, including the electricity.

Since the food truck could hold more ingredients than the ice chest used with the tabletop setup, the truck was able to offer a larger menu. Signature items include the Caprese (roasted tomato, seasoned chicken, mozzarella and garlic pesto), California Sunrise (avocado, slices of crisp bacon, roasted tomato, cheddar and a freshly cracked egg), and the HazelBerryAna (fresh strawberries, sliced banana and Nutella topped with whipped cream and a drizzle of chocolate).

The truck also meant hiring an additional five employees.

The positive cash flow from the catering business helped fund the food truck. But to cover the investment, Murcia took out a 5-year SBA loan, as well as a loan from his father. 

Demand fuels growth

Farmers markets have proven to be successful for the food truck.

It wasn't long before Murcia began to get invitations to take the truck to private businesses. He learned to expect business from 10 percent of the people at a location.

"In 2010 and 2011, food trucks started taking off as having this coolness factor," Murcia said.

After the first year, Danielle quite her full-time job as a marketing assistant to dedicate herself to the growing business.

As local businesses became more interested in having food trucks on their premises to feed their employees, property management firms began contracting food trucks for their properties.

"[Property management companies] plan to have food trucks as part of their amenities to the property," Murcia said. "Prior to the building being built, they have [food trucks] built in."

Other avenues of growth soon emerged for food trucks.

In 2011 and 2012, cities and various organizations started arranging food truck festivals, creating yet another avenue for food trucks. But as with private events, festivals required a learning curve.

"You're not necessarily going to make money at every festival because there are a lot of people there," Murcia said. "You've got to make sure you understand who the people are and that they want your product. It's a little bit of a learning curve to figure out where your niche is." He found that crepes did not go over well at music festivals. Farmers markets, however, have proven successful.

Food truck parks emerged shortly after the food truck festivals. But as with festivals and private events, finding the good ones takes trial and error, Murcia said.

By 2012, the Crepes Bonaparte food truck and catering business were on steady growth curves, driven in part by the rising popularity of food trucks. The Murcias would soon find new ways to capitalize on their brand, culminating in the opening of a brick-and-mortar restaurant.

Part two in this series will explore how they did it.


Topics: Business Strategy and Profitability, Food & Beverage, Independent Operators, Vehicles



Elliot Maras
Elliot Maras is the editor of KioskMarketplace.com and FoodTruckOperator.com.

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