Manila Machine Should Tell the Truth: They’re Closing (Their Truck) Because Running a Food Truck Sucks
April Fools Day never disappoints when it comes to outlandish news stories, but one sad story from Friday looks like it’s actually true. Manila Machine, the six ten month old Filipino food truck run by two food bloggers, will no longer be roaming the streets of Los Angeles, selling their delicious lumpia, sisig, and pork adobo. The news is disheartening for a few reasons, not least of which is the fact that I loved the truck. It was one of the few “gourmet” food trucks doing something truly unique (and it didn’t hurt that it was also delicious.)
But as much as I loved Manila Machine, and am sad to see them go, I was really upset by the letter they posted on their website announcing their “hiatus”. In it they list all their amazing accomplishments (press, awards and the such) and imply that the truck is closing because they’ve achieved all their goals- one of which was to make it to the 6 month mark. Sorry, but I call bullshit. And if they are completely satisfied with what they “accomplished”, they never should have opened a food truck in the first place and teased us with their delicious Filipino treats- only to pull them out from under from us once the very first “possibilities beyond the realm of food trucking” presented themselves.
Despite the sugar coated post on their website I think it is more likely that Manila Machine is closing because they weren’t making very much money, and running a food truck is a ton of work and a huge pain in the ass. And their letter really bothers me because nobody ever wants to talk about this. The media is all too happy to portray the gourmet food truck trend as this great, inexpensive way for innovative entrepreneurs to start their own business. And food truck operators are more than happy to play into the stereotype of the happy owner operator, throwing off the shackles of their oppressive desk job to get behind the wheel of a food truck and do something they always dreamed about.
But nobody wants to talk about the fact that gourmet food trucks are a terrible business model for making money. So before you decide to quit your miserable job, and open that food truck selling your grandmother’s amazing muffins, you should know that running a food truck is no easier, or more fun, than running a restaurant. In fact, in a lot of ways it’s less fun and more difficult to be successful. And here are five major reasons why:
1. There are two ways to make money opening a place that serves food: alcohol or sheer volume/franchising. Working out of a truck significantly limits the volume of food you can serve every day, and it’s not just because you have less storage. The limited space of a food truck means fewer employees to make the food. And fewer employees during peak services (like lunchtime) means less volume. And franchising food tuck concepts is notoriously difficult, and in some ways takes away from what makes food trucks seem so special to begin with.
2. Every minute you spend picking up the truck, driving from spot to spot, and taking the truck back to the commissary at night, is time you are working (or paying employees) but not selling anything. The little bit of money that brick and mortar businesses bring in during off peak times makes a difference in the bottom line
3. Twitter is a great marketing tool, but only a fraction of your customer base uses it. And only a fraction of that fraction uses it every day. In other words, in the food business there is no substitute for a stationary location that people can depend on.
4. Restaurants are never immediately profitable, and neither are food trucks. If anything food trucks take longer to become profitable because they’re constantly moving around (see #3). I think many food truck owners see the lines at Kogi and highly publicized food truck festivals and think they’re just going to open up and start making money. It takes a long time to build up a customer base that will support you long term. If you don’t have the capital to support you through the months (possibly years) of building up that business you’re not going to make it.
5. With very few exceptions, the only gourmet foods trucks that are making money are the ones that are using the truck as a marketing tool to build their brand for private events, lucrative corporate sponsorships, catering, or the eventual transition into a brick and mortar business. If your food doesn’t lend itself well to those kinds of things, or you don’t have plans to do more than just sell your food on the streets from a truck, you will not make money.
Each of these factor on their own might not be a huge deal. But in an industry where the margins are paper thin, these little bits add up over time. And if you’re not an owner operator, physically working on the truck 6-7 days a week, the money you pay an employee will cut into your bottom line even further. And this is what brings us back to Manila Machine.
I was super excited to hear about Marvin’s cookbook deal, and I’m sure Nastassia’s “business opportunities” are going to work out great for her as well. But I can’t for the life of me figure out why they wouldn’t hire more help and keep the business up and running, unless it wasn’t making enough money for it to be worth the massive amount of work required .
Now, I know what a lot of people will say. Hey- it’s their business. And not everything has to be about money. Maybe they really did accomplish all their goals, and who are you to decide what they should or shouldn’t do. This is a free country and everybody has every right to open a business for whatever reason they want, and close it for whatever reason they want.
But for me, street food is different… especially in Los Angeles. Starting a food truck in L.A. has an effect on the community unlike opening a regular brick and mortar restaurant. There are now a ridiculous number of food trucks hitting the streets every day, and the general public is already showing their first signs of fatigue. Why should we get excited about these small businesses if they’re just going to close up 10 months later because they got a cookbook deal, or it was too hard, or they weren’t making any money.
If you are serious about running a food truck, you need to do your research, and understand the business you are getting into. Don’t rely on the media to inform you, or other gourmet food trucks themselves- who seem to always want to paint a picture of success to the public. To not is to do a disservice to all of the food truck vendors who really are trying to make a living from selling food of a truck (and not just gourmet food truck owners, but old school loncheros as well.) Those whose goals extend beyond running a business for 6 months, or just wanting to see if they could do it. Because unlike brick and mortar restaurants, which operate independently of one another, food trucks are seen as a single entity. Manila Machine benefited from the popularity of food trucks before it, and future food trucks will suffer based on the mistakes of the ones that are poorly thought out or downright bad.
I don’t actually know the real reason Manila Machine is closing up their truck. They say they will continue to do catering, and that they’re not necessarily going away permanently. But my sense is that that is a cop out, a way to lessen the impact of their closing. I emailed them and urged them to go public with how difficult their journey has been, because as a very popular food truck run by two influential bloggers Manila Machine had a chance to turn this into a teachable moment. Use their disappointment to warn other would be entrepreneurs about the perils of running a gourmet food truck. I got no reply. Instead they took the easy way out, avoiding the embarrassment of describing how they failed in favor of focusing on the good things that came out of their time running the Manila Machine. Food trucks have no obligation to anybody to do this, but for once I wish one of them would.
I’m also mad Manila Machine didn’t give us advance notice! One more taste of their pork and pineapple adobo would have been nice. I wish Marvin and Nastassia the best of luck in the future, and hope that their closing will help convince at least some people that quitting your job and opening a food truck is not the greatest idea of all time (we all have at least one friend who’s thinking about it.)
UPDATE: I updated the title of this post for clarification. Manila Machine is NOT closing. They are only closing the truck. Their catering business is still going strong, and people who have booked them for catering gigs should not be worried. I apologize for my title, especially if it caused any potential Manila Machine customers to rethink using them for catering. It was nothing personal, and I fully admitted that I have NO IDEA whether or not making money was the reason for their closing. I was just using their Friday announcement to lament the fact that more food trucks aren’t completely open about how much it sucks to run a food truck. Their food itself is amazing, and everybody should use them for catering!