In entering the St. Louis market with its 25th restaurant, Garbanzo Mediterranean Fresh has made its mark in a big way. The Denver, Colorado-based chain used the occasion to launch its first company-owned food truck this past November.
Since James Park, president, and Devin Handler, director of marketing, are both St. Louis natives, the two were familiar with the market and were able to tap the services of a local food truck operator to make sure the chain's first food truck got the brand off to a promising start.
They contracted a former employee, Tommy Lee, who had moved to St. Louis and was already operating two food trucks there, to manage the Garbanzo truck and help familiarize Missourians with its fresh Mediterranean cuisine.
"Our mission to the world is to make our fresh Mediterranean cuisine a mainstream favorite across the United States, and we like to say our old world recipes are inspired by tradition, but not bounded by them," Handler told Food Truck Operator.
The Colorado/Missouri connection
Lee had worked for Garbanzo in Colorado five years ago before moving back to his native St. Louis two and a half years later to start his food truck business. He had an extensive foodservice background, including serving as an assistant general manager for Garbanzo in Lakewood, Colorado. By the time Garbanzo contacted him about helping them with a food truck, Lee was already operating two trucks under the name Slide Piece, serving gourmet sliders.
"I already had my slider trucks, and they thought it would be a good idea for me to run their Garbanzo truck for them," Lee told Food Truck Operator.
Garbanzo purchased a used truck with 101,000 miles on it and outfitted it for total cost of $47,500. The truck has a flattop grill, a two-burner range, a fryer, a steam table, a stand-alone refrigerator, a sandwich table, a 3-compartment sink and a hand washing sink.
The St. Louis city and county health departments inspected the truck.
"Tommy had a lot of input in helping to guide us along the way," Handler said.
Lee hired a full-time person for the Garbanzo truck, and so far he's spent much of his time helping that person on the truck. He has six to eight employees during the peak summer season for his two slider trucks, and as few as four during the off season.
Lee orders and prepares the Garbanzo food in his own commissary. He also schedules the events for the Garbanzo truck, which goes to many of the same events as his two slider trucks.
A promising start
The Garbanzo truck's first location was an office park in Clayton, Missouri, one of eight events in its first two weeks, including a birthday party and office park servings. The first event was to support a charity called Lift for Life.
"I believe the vehicle itself is one of our primary advertising vehicles that's out there helping us build brand awareness," Handler said. "We don't feel there's any cannibalization at all (between the food truck and the restaurant)."
In the short time the Garbanzo truck has been in business, it has won its fair share of special requests, Lee said. One of the biggest microbreweries in Missouri has tapped the Garbanzo truck for its largest event.
"They're going to be right on par with each other," Lee said for the two food truck brands he manages. "It (the Garbanzo truck) has exceeded expectations." He anticipates hiring another employee for the truck in the summer.
Lee has found the Garbanzo truck easier to manage than his slider trucks. The Garbanzo truck uses three serving formats — bowls, wraps and pita pocket sandwiches.
"The main components in those are the same," Lee said. His slider trucks, by contrast, serve five different sandwiches, each with its own type of protein.
Handler, for his part, has been surprised by the number of special requests the truck has received for private catering events.
"This food truck is another great step forward," he said.
"We thought St. Louis would be an interesting market for the food truck," Handler said, due to the number of business parks in the area. There are many worksites in the business parks that only allow employees half an hour for lunch, particularly the medical businesses.
"We wanted to be able to satiate their needs with healthy, delicious and nutritious food, but not have to go out (from the park) and get it," he said.
"We always say we want to go out and try stuff, but we don't necessarily do it," Handler said. "We fall into patterns of convenience and proximity. What we wanted to do was disrupt that." The food truck gives customers a chance to try something new and create top of mind awareness for the Garbanzo brand.
The Garbanzo offering
The truck offers a limited menu, consisting of bowls, wraps and pita pocket sandwiches. The customer chooses which of the three they want, then fills it with the desired protein.
The menu states that all items are served the "Garbanzo way," which means loaded with all of the fill-in items, including Romaine lettuce, tomato cucumber salad, tabbouleh, red cabbage, pickled onions and feta cheese. The customer can choose any combination of items.
They also choose the sauce – a white sauce, a red sauce, a yogurt cucumber sauce, Greek vinaigrette, cilantro or tahini.
"All of the sauces are made from scratch every day," Handler said. "You pick your entrée and your protein and you fill it and sauce it."
The bowl option is unique to the food truck, Handler said. The bowl makes sense for the truck since customers have to carry the food farther than if they were in a restaurant.
The truck also follows the brick-and-mortar restaurants' practice of offering customers a free sample of its falafel.
The prices on the truck menu are similar to those in the restaurant, but they are rounded to a dollar or 50 cents.
Truck customers pay using the Square app, which integrates with the restaurant's Aloha POS system.
“Square is just an easier POS system in that environment," Handler said.
The company hopes the truck can deliver 20 percent of gross revenue as profit, Handler said. They hope to be able to recover the investment in the truck in three to five years.
The company plans to introduce food trucks in other markets.
"We'll take the insights from it and turn it into action," Handler said.
James Park will be speaking at the Fast Casual Executive Summit, which will be Oct. 7-9 in Seattle. Park will be speaking on a CEO Roundtable about the state of the fast casual industry on Oct. 9.
Elliot Maras Elliot Maras is the editor of KioskMarketplace.com and FoodTruckOperator.com.