On the surface, food trucks and jewelers have little in common. Burgers and ice cream cones, after all, are nothing like diamond rings and custom pendants.
But dig deeper and these seemingly disparate businesses trek a similar path: Chasing consumers and battling intense competition in a fast-turning marketplace, both face comparable challenges in sales, operations, and planning.
“From connecting with your customers to presenting great products in a compelling way, the tenets of good business are generally universal,” says Josh Henderson, who launched Seattle’s popular Skillet food truck in 2007.
Over the last decade, food trucks have had a remarkable—even revolutionary, some would say—effect on the national landscape. These roving restaurants pushed innovation, showing their food-service industry peers and the greater retail marketplace new ways to engage customers, optimize sales channels, and leverage technology to boost operations and the bottom line.
There is, in fact, plenty jewelers can learn from their cuisine-peddling mobile retail brethren, particularly for operators willing to look beyond their four walls for fresh insights. “To be a good business owner, you have to monitor larger trends, consumers, and the economy, and you need to see a much broader picture of the world than just your own business,” says Natasha Case, cofounder of the Coolhaus ice cream food truck.
After making a splash in the Seattle street-food scene, Skillet opened a few local diners and began selling its signature condiments (bacon jam, anyone?).
Drawing inspiration from other consumer packaged goods brands, fast casual restaurants, and design-driven companies, Case and partner Freya Estreller have propelled Coolhaus from one Los Angeles–based truck in 2009 into 10 trucks spanning four cities, two brick-and-mortar locations, and wholesale distribution to more than 2,500 U.S. stores.
“If we had not been on the lookout for interesting ideas, we wouldn’t be where we are today,” Case says. “Success has come precisely because we were willing to learn from others.”
Similarly, Carrie Summer of Chef Shack, a revered Minneapolis-based enterprise that grew from a single food truck into three trucks and two restaurants, has leaned on architects, fashion designers, and glossy magazines for ideas. “There is creativity across industries that you can tap into to keep your business fresh,” Summer says.
Trendsetting food trucks stand as a prime example.
Lesson No. 1: Sell beyond the store.
By their very nature, food trucks are on the go. They roam, stopping on downtown streets, attending private functions, and gathering at meet-up events alongside other mobile vendors. While having a truck on the street remains chic and cool, it also drives awareness and spotlights new sales opportunities.
Noting rising demand for Coolhaus’ ice cream goods, specifically in certain locales, Case and Estreller sought other venues to sell their product, which led Coolhaus into the wholesale market and took the company to unforeseen levels.
The Takeaway: Brick-and-mortar retailers can feel anchored to their stores, but there are other ways to take product to the customer. New York City–based Styleliner, a high-end boutique fashioned from a potato chip delivery van, goes to private parties in the Hamptons and even spent two months at the Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington, Fla., this year.
By looking to alternative venues—home parties, special events, pop-up shops, and more—retailers can corral sales and expand their customer base.
“You’ll undoubtedly have hesitation at first as you step out of your comfort zone, but you’ll also see how many more sales possibilities there can be,” Case says.
Lesson No. 2: Be open to technology.
Given their nature and size, food trucks demand efficiency. Operators rely on everything from kitchen innovations to mobile point-of-sale systems to streamline operations and improve the customer experience. And while food trucks are basically restaurants on wheels, they rarely behave like their brick-and-mortar peers, particularly when it comes to technology. Without a willingness to test-drive new technologies, many food trucks would have undoubtedly failed, buried by consumer demands and aggressive competition.
The Takeaway: For some jewelry retailers, a POS system is the extent of their technological bravery. However, they can and should leverage technology—everything from 3-D printing to online reputation management tools—to strengthen their brand, product offerings, and marketplace positioning.
Lesson No. 3: Get creative with branding.
Many food trucks have mastered the art of branding, creating a bold, multi-platform image that includes the physical look, menu, and digital communications.
In Seattle, the Maximus/Minimus truck roves the Emerald City’s streets in an industrial-looking, pig-shape truck that speaks to its hearty meals, including the signature pulled-pork sandwich. It’s not only an eye-catching visual that inspires curiosity, but it’s also a lively branding mechanism that tells a larger story.
The Takeaway: Jewelry shops can tell a story in a similarly creative fashion. From exterior signage and the store website to the colors of the showroom and its physical layout, stores can evoke certain emotions, define themselves as classy or casual, and communicate a consistent, spirited message.
Lesson No. 4: Engage with your customers more authentically.
There’s no mistaking what’s on the menu at the pig-themed Maximus/Minimus truck. Hint: It’s the other white meat. (photo: Joel Wachs)
From both a physical standpoint as well as through social media, food trucks connect with customers in dynamic, uncommon ways. Many favor direct, casual interaction with their customers by way of Facebook, Twitter, and the truck window. With little room for error, given slim menus and slimmer margins, personal, one-on-one communications compel operators to listen and respond in sincere ways.
“Our customers had much more voice and input into the business, and that allowed us to create genuine connections,” Skillet’s Henderson says. “Frankly, I couldn’t imagine operating a business blindly and not having these customer insights so available.”
The Takeaway: Though most jewelry stores use social media, it too often exists as just another task on the to-do list. By leveraging social media—particularly highly visual outlets like Instagram—jewelry retailers have an opportunity to solicit customer feedback and garner firsthand insights that can heighten engagement and inform decision-making.
Lesson No. 5: Be fearless.
While food trucks weren’t really new to the American landscape, their recent rise in the 2008–2011 period was driven in part by the recession. More than a few businesspeople got in the food-truck game as a second career, catapulted by ambition and rather modest barriers to entry.
The entrepreneurial energy circling the scene was generally one of fearlessness. Operators pushed culinary boundaries with fusion cuisine and redefined traditional business planning using the truck as a proof-of-concept vehicle—literally—to propel brick-and-mortar development or wholesale accounts.
The Takeaway: Jewelers could easily stay in their lane and score solid results. But an ambitious spirit strategically applied to marketing, branding, and the customer experience can produce powerful results.
“The best entrepreneurs are willing to be adventurous,” Case says. “No risk, no reward.”
Top: Natasha Case inside the Coolhaus ice-cream truck, famous for such flavors as Avocado Sriracha and Dirty Mint Julep (photo: Viet Nyugen)