Urban food trucks do not operate like traditional restaurants, and they cannot market like them, either.
Many food trucks move from place to place. They may offer niche foods or specialized cuisine that does not neatly fit into a simple category. Some food truck owners operate in cities with unclear or labyrinthine laws working against them.
In recent years, social media and increased interconnectivity have allowed these small businesses to greatly increase their exposure and build loyal fanbases.
Representatives from three nationally known food trucks—James DiSabatino (Roxy's Grilled Cheese Truck), Stephanie Morgan (Seabirds Truck) and Daniel Shemtob (The Lime Truck)—weighed in on the best practices for using social media during "Food Trucks Share Social Media Tips" on March 11 during South by Southwest Interactive.
They were interviewed by Bob Madden, general manager and vice president of online brands at Food Network.
Here are six take-aways from the panel. While the advice may not be particularly ground-breaking to the savvy social media user, the strategies pay large dividends when applied to the food truck industry.
These strategies are being used by food trucks here in Austin as well.
1. Cover the basics
Panel members agreed that first and foremost, food trucks must use social media to explain who they are, what they are serving and where they are.
Morgan said she often posted and tweeted menu items, since her menu changes frequently.
2. Be transparent
DiSabatino said he plainly and honestly chronicled his food truck's early successes and failures, and that caught people's attention.
"The idea is to let people see inside your business, and that gains trust," he said.
3. Put your own personality into it
"We might write something like, 'By the Beard of Zeus, we will be here by 2 p.m..' Just funny stuff," Shemtob said.
Morgan said Seabirds employees refer to themselves as birds.
The staff filmed a YouTube video of themselves lip-syncing to The Darkness' "I Believe in a Thing Called Love." The video, while entertaining, also serves as a tour of the food truck and the commissary where Seabirds sources its food.
She said it was popular among the food truck's fans and was reposted many times.
4. Converse early and often
The panelists all agreed that social media should be used to converse and connect, not just broadcast information.
Food trucks should engage their Twitter followers with new and interesting content on a consistent basis.
Morgan said trucks should not just respond to happy fans with a simple "Thanks!" but mix it up and keep it interesting.
She said that being a niche vegan food vendor, she follows and communicates with like-minded groups and helps foster community that way.
Responding to Yelp reviews and connecting with dissatisfied customers is important, Shemtob said, since many customers find food trailers through the site.
"When you respond, you always have to give the [dissatisfied] customer the upper hand, no matter what. 'I'm sorry. Please let us know whatever we can do to make your experience better,'" he said.
5. Social media is one tool among many
At the end of the day, social media is what you make of it. It can alert new customers to your business. It can engage and excite existing fans. It can get people involved in a growing brand.
"One of my favorite actors is Jack Black," Shemtob said. "We actually got him to the truck and he is wearing a Lime Truck headband. It was really fun. Also, celebrities boost your business."
"You should do a couple types of social media well, instead of doing a lot of them [poorly]," Morgan said.
6. Be careful what you post
Morgan said to follow the bar rule: no politics or religion when posting on the business's channels.
She took a picture of Occupy Irvine, Calif. and jokingly posted it to the company's Facebook. It ended up starting a huge conversation about politics. While Seabirds did not respond, it distracted from the conversation about the business, she said.
Social media is very important to the food trailer business, said Eric Silverstein, founder of The Peached Tortilla and cofounder of Yumé Burger.
"For instance, with Twitter or Facebook, you've got a captive audience to communicate with. You know you have good listeners to what you're sending out," he said. "If they follow you or 'like' you on Facebook, they have an interest in your product."
He said that kind of marketing is more effective than an email list.
Silverstein said that when it opened, Yumé Burger could draw from The Peached Tortilla's existing fanbase despite serving dissimilar foods.
"Social media cannot be underestimated. It's free, so there's no reason why people shouldn't use it. It just takes time, and that's part of the job. It can be as great, and you can have a presence, as big as you want it to be," he said.
William Pearce, owner/operator of Way South Philly, said he uses Twitter mostly to keep his fans in the loop about what's going on.
Matt Portwood, general manager of Spartan Pizza, said the trailer uses all types of social media for all of the usual reasons.
He said it will be especially relevant during South by Southwest.
"Last year, we weren't as on top of our game, and we made a lot of money," he said. "This year, we are way ahead of the game, and we hope to make a lot more money."