Why a Detroit foodservice operator is steering into Asian food truck cuisine

| by Elliot Maras
Why a Detroit foodservice operator is steering into Asian food truck cuisine

Photo courtesy of Sterling Services Inc.

After partnering with local food trucks to serve his corporate dining clients for several years, foodservice operator Ray Friedrich finally decided it was time to jump into the fray. In the next three months, his company, Canton, Michigan-based Sterling Services Inc., will introduce Flavor Dragon, a food truck serving Asian fare to customers in the greater Detroit area.

Karl Boston, left, of The Food Truck Shop, is helping Ray Friedrich launch his first food truck.

Friedrich's entrée into the greater Detroit food truck scene puts him in competition with some of the food trucks he has partnered with over the years. He established several such partnerships after learning how popular food trucks are with his corporate foodservice accounts.

But what's most noteworthy about his foray into mobile catering is that his truck's menu will not include the signature sandwiches, soups, salads and entrees he markets in his corporate cafeterias. Instead, Flavor Dragon will invite customers to order their ingredients — chunks of meat, vegetables, sauces, etc. — and have his servers assemble the meals from the truck.

Where many of today's restaurants see food trucks as a way to extend their brand to new customers, Friedrich evaluated the food truck as a new business opportunity, and developed his concept based on what he saw as a local market need.

"We didn't fall in love with the idea of doing an Asian truck so much as there aren't any good Asian trucks here in town," he said.

Identifying the need

As a longtime member of the local foodservice industry, Friedrich frequently consults with people looking to get into the food truck business. 

"We've had two people approach us who wanted to do Asian influenced food, but neither one of them were prepared," he said. "We said, that's one of the things we wanted to do, so why don't we just do one?'" 

Friedrich's truck will offer "build your own" servings of proteins, sauces and meats, which is different from the food on the menus in Sterling Services' corporate cafeterias.

"This is completely different," he said.

"We try not to drift out of our ‘lane' too much," he said. "Doing this isn't drifting too much out of our lane. It's food, just on wheels." 

He first considered launching a food truck eight years ago when food trucks were starting to become popular. Some of his largest customers — automobile manufacturers — wanted to have food trucks on their premises as special treats for their employees.

"The employees wanted it," he said. "It's a fashionable thing now."

Partnering with food trucks

Friedrich worked with Karl Boston, a local food truck builder operating under the name The Food Truck Shop, in finding reputable food trucks to cater these corporate events. As the organizer, Friedrich would get 10 to 20 percent of the trucks' sales, which can range from $1,000 to $2,000 in a two-hour lunch period. There are usually three to six trucks per event.

"Instead of giving it all to other guys, we'll put our own truck into the mix as well," Friedrich said.

In partnering with food trucks, Friedrich pre-empted the competition he might have otherwise faced had he not offered to bring food trucks to some of his corporate foodservice clients. 

He also gained a lot of insight about what makes them successful.

"We've watched these guys over the years, and we kind of have an idea of what they do right and what they do wrong," Friedrich said.

One food truck that produces outstanding sandwiches, for instance, takes seven minutes to serve a customer. 

"People won't wait that long," Friedrich said. "We're going to go with more of the assembly approach. You pick the starch, you pick the sauce, you pick the meat and we put it together for you." There will be four choices for each of these three types of food.

Readying the truck

Working with the Food Truck Shop, Friedrich has converted one of his vending route trucks to a food truck, which will be propane powered.

Boston has already installed the cooking equipment, including hot wells, chill wells, a prep station, fryer, rice cooker, two-burner stove, refrigerator and freezer. The next step is to wrap the graphics around the truck's body.

One advantage Friedrich has over the average food truck startup is an existing labor supply. 

"We already have these catering people, so to be able to pull people out of the catering operation and put them on the truck is not a real big deal," he said. He may hire a truck manager who will be the only dedicated truck employee.

The truck will serve Sterling Services' existing clients during the day. In the evenings and on weekends, it will participate in food truck festivals and special events.

Friedrich has spent just under $100,000 on the truck. He expects to recover this in the first six months if the truck can meet his target revenue of $1,400 per day five days a week.

"Anything above $1,400 times five a week would be good for us," he said.

In the meantime, he will continue to tab other food trucks to cater his clients' special events. He currently works with six other trucks.

A foodservice pioneer

Friedrich is no ordinary foodservice operator. Ten years ago, his was one of the first foodservice operations in the country to offer self-serve micro markets — self-contained stores where patrons pay for goods at a self-checkout kiosk.

This past year, he introduced a self-order cafeteria kiosk to some of his largest corporate accounts. The kiosk removes the need for the patron to place orders at the counter.

Sterling Services operates close to 30 corporate cafeterias, 13 vending routes, two dedicated micro market routes and a catering operation. In the next few months, there will also be a food truck.

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

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

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