Gluten-free food trailer gains a foothold through trial and error

| by Elliot Maras
Gluten-free food trailer gains a foothold through trial and error

Photo courtesy of Aunty M's.

When Brian O'Konek tested his gluten-free food at a county fair, he knew right away that he was on to something. Customer feedback was great, as noted in part one of this two-part series on Aunty M's food trailer.

"Gluten-free is what gets us in pretty much anywhere," he said.

But having a good product is only one aspect of running a successful mobile food business. Once Aunty M's was up and running this spring, O'Konek's mobile food business education began.

A fortuitous beginning

Not knowing what events he should take the trailer to, O'Konek searched online for local businesses that might be interested in hosting a food trailer. He secured his first event with Burning Brothers Brewing, a gluten-free brewer in St. Paul, Minnesota.

The weather did not cooperate; there was a six-inch snowfall the night before. Nevertheless, he served more than 250 people from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Not bad for a first event.

The gluten-free logo is a key selling tool for the trailer.

"Things went over well," he said of that first event. "People waited in line for an hour to an hour-and-a-half in 25-degree weather."

Funnel cakes proved to be the most popular product, while the corn dog, a Midwestern favorite, was the second most popular item. There were also requests for cheese curds, onion rings and mini donuts, which have since been added to the menu.

The trailer has also been able to accommodate one-time requests, such as fish and chips served at a recent event.

Once O'Konek had served a few events, finding customers wasn't hard. Burning Brothers Brewing has become a regular customer.

"We haven't had to do a lot of legwork on our end. For the most part, it's been people reaching out to us," he said.

Finding the best opportunities

Assisted by his wife, Myndi, and their children, Cameron, 15, and Abigail, 13, O'Konek has taken the trailer to businesses and fairs, and even to the Minnesota Vikings training camp. They have also done catering events.

Deciding which events to attend has been the most challenging aspect of the job, O'Konek said. He's had to learn through trial and error.

For instance, O'Konek has found that participation fees at large fairs can run as high as $800 and, as a result, profits from these events aren't much different from profits at smaller events that do not charge participation fees.

Knowing how much food to bring is another challenge, since the food has to be prepared two hours prior to an event.

Oftentimes, O'Konek can tell from the activity on his Facebook page how many people will show up for an event. 

Facebook has been the trailer's main marketing tool. O'Konek posts a notice every few days and is careful not to "over-post." He has noticed that Facebook pages that post daily don't get as much of a response as his page does. Auntie M's Facebook following has grown to 1,900 since the start of the year. 

The trailer has proven to be a good supplemental business to O'Konek's main business, a graphics shop.

The trailer offers a variety of gluten-free desserts.

Because the graphics shop produces most of its work on a scheduled basis and does not have much walk-in traffic, he usually closes the shop when working on the trailer.

The trailer makes as much profit in one to two days a week as the graphics shop makes in five days, O'Konek said. The graphics shop has higher gross sales, but a lot more overhead.

O'Konek recovered his upfront investment in the trailer within three months, not including the van that hauls the trailer.

A promising future

O'Konek said he would consider adding another vehicle in the future but, for the time being, he wants to see how much the existing business can grow. And the opportunities are increasing.

Gluten-free onion rings have been a good seller.

"It's a little overwhelming from what I was anticipating," he said. "It is so great to see our customers able to eat the foods that they enjoy. It is a real delight to see children eating these fun foods for the first time."

 


Topics: Business Strategy and Profitability, Customer Service / Experience, Equipment & Supplies, Food & Beverage, Health & Nutrition, Independent Operators, Marketing / Branding / Promotion



Elliot Maras

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


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