New Delivery Channels: Where to Eat Now
José Andrés (ThinkFoodGroup); Michael Symon (Lola, Bar Symon, B-Spot); Susan Feniger (Border Grill, Street); Lidia Bastianich (Felidia, Becco, Esca, Del Posto, Eataly)

We have three Border Grill trucks with the same artwork as the restaurant, and when they’re driving down the I-10 freeway they’re an amazing marketing tool. Social media – Twitter and Facebook – drives the truck business and it attracts a young clientele, a clientele that we don’t reach as much with the restaurant. One goal with the truck is to cross promote, so we give out cards to bring to the restaurant for free margaritas, tacos, or churro bites.

We’re serving food of the same quality on the trucks – like our hand-made tortillas; the fish we serve is sustainable, the beans and rice are organic, meats are hormone free. What’s very cool is that the trucks bring your food into neighborhoods where you’re not necessarily opening a restaurant, giving someone who may not be able to afford to eat in your restaurant this amazing opportunity to eat great food. I love that people can eat Border Grill food and spend eight bucks.

LOGISTICS For us, it makes sense to go where there are 800 to 1,000 people – to Art Walk in downtown LA or First Friday in Venice Beach – rather than be with 15 trucks in front of an office building. What we really love is using the trucks as catering vehicles – for weddings, private parties, studio lots, movie openings, bar mitzvahs. We do tons of weddings off the truck for people who don’t want to spend a lot of money, but if they have the truck it becomes sort of cool and hip. The biggest nightmare is the red tape with the city, and then booking the truck.

THE NUMBERS The cost of a custom truck is between $125,000 and $150,000, and you can wrap a truck for $4,000/month. Our check average is about $7.50 or $8. For 500 to 600 people, you need six people in the truck. It’s very intense to keep up with the amount of volume you have to do to make it worthwhile.

CHALLENGES Personally, I have been to a couple of pop-ups and I left 10 minutes into the meal because I can barely cook well with my kitchens and with a very prepared brigade. The cooking business is a very serious business – imagine people who are cooking out of places where they don’t even have a kitchen. I think if anyone wants to be doing pop-ups in places around Washington D.C., around the country, I’m fine, but I want them to pay the same taxes I pay, to pay the same salaries I pay, and abide by the same rules that we all do.

OPPORTUNITY When I found out that the National Archives is having an exhibition called What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam? about the influence of the government and the way America eats, I saw a business opportunity and more. I joined the National Archives, became advisor on food matters, and thought why don’t we open a restaurant [for the six months the exhibition is open] that would tell the history of food in America? I’m using a space that my partner and I own where we’re renovating Mini Bar. All the profits are going back to the National Archives Foundation, and we are getting corporate partners to help fund it.

THE RIGHT PARTNER We were in a fantastic position to bid on food stands and food for luxury boxes at the Q Arena because we knew the owner, who wanted us there. He wanted our full-blown B-Spot restaurant, but we needed to scale down the menu from 13 to three burgers to make it work for us. We ended up partnering with Aramark [they had been in the arena for 15 years] because they were the only ones we felt were committed enough to our concept and to our brand to make it work. We work directly with the Aramark staff, but the deal we cut with them is that they had to bring in one of our chefs to work directly for them. It works for everybody – we gave Aramark and the Q the kind of cache they wanted, and there was no financial risk for us. It’s more or less a management contract; they pay us off topline.

DEALING WITH HIGH VOLUME Our biggest worry was that it’s such a different formula – the regular B-Spot will do 1,300 burgers in a day, at the Q we’ll do 1,300 burgers in 30 minutes. Aramark taught us how to put out food quickly, and we taught them how to keep the integrity and product level high. We learned that we couldn’t make burgers à la minute, they all need to come out medium. The other thing is how you cue a line – 95% of what we sell are burgers with different toppings, a couple of brats, and baloney. Aramark has a person counting heads in the line, so if there are 300 people, we fire 100-150 burgers at once.

THE CONCEPT I visited Eataly Torino – a very exciting and interesting concept combining retail and restaurants – and met the owner, who wanted to come to New York. What got Mario, Joe, and me interested is that Slow Food is behind it; the products from all the presidios of Slow Food are sold there, and we could bring these products to the U.S. Forty percent of the products we are bringing from Italy are being sold in America for the first time. The challenge and the beauty is that we have 50,000 square feet with a 360-degree approach to food. You can buy raw meat, vegetables, fresh fish, and pasta, etc. and take it home to cook, or you can eat at one of seven restaurants.

Each restaurant has a chef and a manager who are veterans in our organization. To open we overprepared, overstaffed, overtrained, because we had our name to protect, and it was a mega project. We did tremendous training, including six months in Italy for our key people. We brought specialists back from Italy for every one of the departments – the butcher, the bread baker, the pastry chef, etc. The specialists stayed with us and they still rotate to ensure authenticity