The Great Race

Well we’re coming up on an alpha launch, wherein we’ll see who is excited about my take on a mobile vendor tools platform (heretofore called a “food truck web app” but it isn’t really that anymore). Having been a member of a Credit Union or two since age 7, I’m taking the approach that this project will be in business for its membership, and to be honest I’m hoping we can get some members to agree with that with the minimal monthly subscription we’re aiming for.

A couple of trends I’m seeing now that weren’t so popular back in 2011 when I was stirring these ideas around, include real-time location information, online ordering, and of course the interposed booker or organizer service behind the scenes that has always been common but seems to be exploding. That last one has always been a component of the platform I’m designing so I’ll leave that, and real-time location is really useful if I’m looking for mobile vending right now, but it’s a part of the picture with the other parts missing if I’m visiting a new city tomorrow or having some friends visiting in three days, where real-time location won’t answer my question. It’s a piece but not the whole and certainly not a magic bullet.

Online ordering.

I had a discussion about this a few years ago and it went something like this: If I have a lean team on my food truck and I can retire an order every 3–5 minutes, I’m probably doing pretty good. As the retire time goes up, customer frustration goes up, so it’s essential to keep that pipeline moving, and that can be throttled at the front of the queue by slowing down order-taking. Think about it, a food truck (or anything) with a reasonable line of customers waiting to place orders shows interest and demand, so slowing down order intake doesn’t always hurt. Theoretically.

When the crowd is visible outside, the order queue is visible near the window, and the order tickets are stacked up, the workflow will benefit from a general increase in pace. That lean team has seen this before, they know what to do, they know how long things take, they know what to account for to shave off some seconds, and those customers outside waiting can see the hard work. While there are always unreasonable people in the world, I’ve seen time and time again a measured response to extended delays as long as the machine is humming.

I should point out here that I’ve been involved somewhat in manufacturing process engineering, and both queue and process management are both software and real-world problems that engineers like to take on. A real-world production line likes to have a predictable retire rate and if there are problems along the line then the input to the line can be throttled, as I suggested above for customer ordering. Similar to software problems, where input buffers can be adjusted and handshake signals used to stop and start incoming data… we don’t want to lose data, production units, or customers because of our output gets bogged down!

That long setup brings me to this: If I have a lean team that can manage a production line to deliver my product to my customer at a comfortable rate, and react to a sudden surge in ordering and recover from the backlog, what happens if I inject another invisible order stream? Online ordering introduces one or more parallel customer lines that your team cannot see… parallel because where you can have one person at the front of the house working with customers in a single line, online orders can come in on top of each other and there is no throttle!

I’ll point you to this article about fast food and fast casual restaurant automation, and if you read down a bit you will see that Panera Bread is apparently finding that kiosks that enable automated customer ordering are actually increasing their need to hire because of the increase order rate and volume. Something to think about!

The other thing I’ve seen in general is an increase in the number of competitors on the “mobile food app” field. When I was putting together the owners’ association in the Bay Area with the help of Matt Geller (he founded the Southern California Mobile Food Vendors’ Association, SoCalMFVA, and he’s gone on to found the National Food Truck Association, and of course he’s also working on a food truck tool online), I found that the applications I was seeing as people came to pitch to the various food truck owners, were written from a customer point of view. Totally valid, as a lot of the application authors were food truck fans themselves. These are still out there, but they have grown up a bit (some are including online ordering, but I have my own opinion on that).

In my opinion, Roaming Hunger broke some interesting ground many years ago by enabling people to find food trucks for a meal today (and I think they added Tomorrow at some point), and also to organize an event with one or more food trucks participating. RH took on the role of event coordinator or organizer and put together the event specifics, booked the vendors, and collected a fee. Though RH was (and I believe still is) based in the Los Angeles area, they could coordinate and organize events all over the country, and they did so. I’m seeing more people write these apps as a way to compete in that area… to enable booking more easily, and ostensibly to aid in coordinating the event before, during, and after. I have to admit, I’ve never used an app to do this but I’m hoping it works.

As well there’s a trend creating mobile applications for vendors as a customer engagement tool. This seems also to be written from the customer’s viewpoint, until we realize something important: if I’m a fan of a food truck and I want to install an application on my phone, then I might be a fan of a few food trucks… now what? I was asked by one of our members of the owners’ association a while back whether it made sense to have someone write an app for his truck, my answer was simply, “I follow 90+ food trucks on Twitter, should I install an application for each of those?”

My take is a little bit different, and I’m hoping people will notice. First of all, no application to install, this is all web-based and will take advantage of Progressive Web Apps technologies as we roll out. There is almost no compelling reason to have a full mobile application running for most of the features I’m implementing, and if there’s a need for one at some point, that’s a bridge we can cross later. Now, being found with search engines and linked-to by others trumps on-device applications.

The feature that I’m hoping will earn me that “lean-forward moment” that you entrepreneurs out there have heard about, is that I’ve been developing a platform rather than an app, where anyone can use the tools to coordinate an event with one or more vendors, and then engage customers through various channels to connect food truck fans to their favorite spots! I think one of the vendors here in Vegas said it best when he said, “I want to do something like what Roaming Hunger is doing,” and my answer is, “that’s precisely what I hope to enable.” That and more… it is a platform, after all.

The last nugget I’ll mention here is probably not so obviously valuable at first, but here goes: Everything is published with a Creative Commons Attribution license. That means, if you want to write an application or build a website or publish a blog or update a review website page with current location information (ahem Yelp cough), all of the tool output is available specifically for that kind of use, unencumbered, except for that attribution (and you can’t alter the content… this is to maintain the integrity of schedules and logos and whatnot more than anything, exceptions can be granted as needed).

I’m pointing this out at 1:45am as I take a break from coding, because it occurs to me that I’m not sure how this platform fits into the race I’m referring to in the title. I believe the spirit of “coopetition” raises the tide for all food trucks and mobile food vendors, and certainly everything I’m implementing has been enabled in one way or another by open source software and open standards that open the flood gates of innovation. Similarly, as a supporter in various ways of mobile food vending (and of mobile entrepreneurs in general), I see the value in enabling the tools and moving parts that raise that tide and thus lift all of them. Strictly speaking, the subscription fee at launch time should be enough to pay the bills but will not make anyone rich… luckily there are no big investors on Sand Hill Road to satisfy; that requirement is left to the subscribing members. If I satisfy my customers, then they will have more customers to satisfy and everybody wins.

This was a bit of a ramble but having just come out of some tumult in the “Maker Community” I’m hoping to be a part of that rising tide and maybe even be some of that tide-raising gravity that we usually get from the Moon.