When people in St. Louis, Missouri, think of roast beef, they often think of Lion's Choice. The 50 year-old QSR has stayed true to its mission of serving thinly sliced roast beef.
The owners of the 25-store chain now think the time has come for the iconic lion to extend its roar to new geographic markets, considering the growing demand of healthier fare that also tastes good.
To this end, they've enlisted a 2016 Isuzu truck to carry the white, hand-drawn image of the Lion's Choice lion, offering the restaurant's top selling items, made to order and served within five minutes. The menu includes roast beef, turkey and ham sandwiches; French fries; custard; and all the restaurants' sauces.
|Mike Kupstas believes the food truck will expose people in new markets to Lion's Choice.|
Lion's Choice will focus first on expanding to nearby markets, where people are more likely to be familiar with the brand than more distant markets. To this end, the truck, dubbed "the lean roast beef machine," recently served an event in Springfield, Missouri, which is 300 miles away.
A proven concept
"It's been around and proven," Mike Kupstas, the company's new CEO, said for its signature roast beef. Kupstas brings 35 years of senior executive and marketing experience at Panera Bread, Long John Silver's and Red Lobster.
"Lion's Choice is St. Louis," Kupstas said. "It's a brand that is incredibly identified with this city. The fan base is unbelievably loyal."
In addition to thinly sliced roast beef, the brand is also known for Provel cheese and frozen custard.
"Today, what makes it so viable, so meaningful to the customers, is it's real roast beef, slowly roasted every day, sliced medium rare," Kupstas said. "People see that as real food, low fat, and something that has the level of nutrition that is easy to put your arms around, as opposed to a lot of other alternatives that exist."
When fast food burgers began dominating the QSR market in the late 1960s, Lion's Choice was among the few roast beef chains that successfully held to its market distinction.
The company's founders saw the need for a healthy alternative to burgers when large numbers of women were entering the work force.
According to Kupstas, the target audience today isn't much different: women, who are still the primary family meal decision maker; men with big appetites; and millennials looking for healthy food that tastes good.
"The thing that all three of them have (a need for) is real food with a healthier, more nutritious connotation," he said.
Why a food truck?
"One of the values of a food truck in our mind is to help pre-sell or expose people in other markets to this product in a smart way," he said. "It's a great vehicle to expose people to the brand."
The food truck isn't the company's first mobile kitchen. There was a food trailer that exhibited at local fairs.
But as food trucks became popular in recent years, Becky Fine, chief operating officer, suggested a truck would be more practical for serving customers in dense, urban environments.
"We could not serve a lunch crowd in downtown St. Louis with a trailer being pulled by a truck," Kupstas said.
Schantz Manufacturing, a mobile kitchen manufacturer in Highland, Illinois, designed the kitchen layout for the truck on a CAD system. Schantz then fabricated the kitchen from the floor up, including a 30-kilowatt diesel generator that runs the ovens and the air conditioning, a ventless fryer, a custard making machine, a POS system and a three-compartment sink.
The truck's POS system, Square, integrates with the restaurant POS system.
The company's advertising agency, Cannonball in St. Louis, designed the truck's graphics, which incorporate the restaurant's logo.
All truck team members – which include a dedicated manager and two to three restaurant employees who work the truck on rotating basis – undergo the company's in-store certification, in addition to the National Restaurant Association's ServeSafe training.
Food truck education begins
Once the truck was up and running, it took time to learn things like how long the generator would operate with all the kitchen equipment it has to support. And how to meet safety requirements for different local governments.
"We had to learn everything," he said. They learned, for instance, that it makes sense to have the truck cleaned before taking it back to the garage.
Establishing a presence on social media has helped make people aware of the truck. It wasn't long before businesses, organizations and events began requesting the truck.
"It's really interesting how that dynamic has changed," Kupstas said. "We're getting requests daily right now. It's turned from us trying to find places to go to handling peoples' request to be at different places."
The company has been pleasantly surprised by the camaraderie of the local food truck community. Food trucks make it a point to respect each others' territories.
Several area truck operators were helpful teaching them the ropes.
The company hopes to recover most of its investment in year two or three, Kupstas said. He did not wish to reveal financial information.
A portion of the cost is charged to marketing and promotion, although the truck is managed as a separate profit center.
The company recently introduced the truck to its employees at a company picnic.
"They were thrilled," Kupstas said.
As Lion's Choice expands geographically, they will consider adding trucks.
For the time being, the truck will focus on spreading the brand to adjacent markets.
Elliot Maras Elliot Maras is the editor of KioskMarketplace.com and FoodTruckOperator.com.