Editor's note: This is part 2 in a series called innovator of the year. Click here to read part 1.
Keith Hill, co-owner of I Love Bacon in Huntsville, Alabama, gained a lot of notoriety from being named Food Truck Operator's first Influencer of the Year, but he warns his fellow business owners not to try to offer him a job.
"I'm a much better entrepreneur than I am an employee," he said.
The son of a flooring business owner, Hill has always been an entrepreneur. He started an auto accessories store when he was 21, and later got into in the nightclub business, working as a DJ and doing lighting, sound and videos for concert tours.
One business leads to another
Once he got into the nightclub business, he began noticing food trucks at concert venues throughout the country and eventually Josh Patrick. Patrick, who was a chef, and Hill launched the food truck together.
They wanted to focus on a product that has an element of novelty to it, so they came up with bacon.
Hill initially saw the food truck as a way to get into the foodservice business. He realized it made more sense to spend $50,000 to start a food truck as opposed to having to take on a much larger investment to open a restaurant.
They bought a used truck at a pretty cheap price, but the second truck was a much larger investment of $54,000 and took about 18 months to pay for itself. It was all part of an education in a new industry.
As more trucks have emerged in recent years, hub type venues have become critical to food trucks in many locales, Hill noted. He regularly uses a food truck hub in Huntsville — the NASA Food Truck Corral — featuring 10 to 14 food trucks daily, in addition to other events.
"I think having those multiple truck days or locations are super important to us," he said. "We wouldn't do nearly as well as we do."
Expansion into brick and mortar
Now that he has two trucks, six full-time employees (including the owners) and is looking to grow, his business plan has changed a bit. Hill thinks he can operate a restaurant with fewer employees than it would take to operate three food trucks and make more money.
The trucks are doing about $250,000 each per year, and Hill expects the new restaurant to do at least double that amount.
He's testing his theory with a new location inside a food hall — Mae's — in Cullman, Alabamal. The investment for opening the 10,000-square-foot restaurant was only about 20 percent more than an additional food truck would have cost, a total of about $60,000.
"We were looking at building another truck for another market, and this popped up," Hill said. "If you can utilize everyone's social media presence and let everybody move in the same direction as one, it's a lot easier to get the word out, it's a lot easier to get people excited about it."
Cullman, situated between Birmingham and Huntsville, the two towns where Hill has food trucks, has been undergoing a renaissance of sorts recently.
The next step will be to have a free-standing brick-and-mortar restaurant. The colleagues Hill has met from larger restaurant chains have stressed the importance of experimenting with different types of locations in his quest to someday operate a chain of restaurants.
"You might discover something that works much better than what you're (already) doing, so I think a free-standing location in the future is definitely a smart idea."
He aspires to be in both the food truck and restaurant businesses.
"For us, the truck business and the restaurant business go hand in hand," he said. "I want to try to use our trucks to explore new markets. I'd like to take a truck, go into a market, create some brand awareness, see if it's going to be good for us to go into that market, and then come into it with a fast casual space while maintaining the truck as well."
"Being able to take the food to the people wherever they may be, whether it's a music festival or a downtown Octoberfest, any kind of outdoor gathering, that's a pretty good place to take food to people."
He believes a food truck can add 25 percent to a restaurant's gross sales.
The truck also allows him to win lucrative catering work.
"Having a truck allows us to take a mobile kitchen to the event, and everything be tremendously fresh when the guests get it," he said.
Long-term expansion planned
Hill has aspirations to expand to a nationwide franchise chain with 200 to 300 stores over the next 20 years. He would also like to acquire real estate that would allow him to offer a location to a franchisee.
"Then they always have that real estate in the background as an asset," he said.
His biggest challenge, however, is raising capital to grow the business, along with finding competent employees.
He plans to offer franchisees the choice of having just a restaurant or a truck in addition to a restaurant.
He also plans to accept bitcoin and he is hopeful that Square will soon add it as a payment form.
"I think it's coming very quickly," he said.
Elliot Maras Elliot Maras is the editor of KioskMarketplace.com and FoodTruckOperator.com.