Fifty years ago, Jane Jacobs wrote "New ideas must use old buildings." Today she might write "New ideas need old trucks." It's an important trend that mixes an old idea with new technology, that is changing the way people start and run businesses.
It used to be, if you wanted to start a business, that you needed an address so that you could get a land line and a Yellow Pages listing. You slowly built your business in your neighborhood, slowly building word-of-mouth. The only really mobile truck-based businesses were the "roach coaches", mobile tool or work-clothing trucks that followed construction sites.
The internet, and more importantly the smart phone, are changing everything. Just as people are no longer tied to the office or home phone and computer to be in touch, the mobile business can follow its customers and the customers can follow it. Word-of-mouth can be generated in minutes, not years.
They aren't just food anymore, either. The Consumerist, which is hot on this trend, points to two new businesses unrelated to food:
In Minnesota, David and Theresa Grim ran a traditional bricks and mortar store and couldn't make it work. But outfitting a truck costs a lot less, so they built the Fashion Mobile. They write:
Realistically you can start a mobile store for about $20,000 or less. If you do a lot of the work you can save even more. There is absolutely no way that you could open a retail store for that amount when you figure in the long term lease, utilities and build outs. Plus, you are probably going to have employees to hire as you can’t work there every single second its open. That really gets expensive.
The Consumerist notes that there are advantages to having such a small store.
And though the truck is not as spacious as your average clothing store, the owners turn that to their advantage by having a high turnover of their small inventory. This not only keeps customers coming back to the truck to see what new items are available, but lends itself to more impulse buys as customers fear the item might not be there the next time the truck rolls through.
The Consumerist also points to another truck-based business that brings a gym and a personal trainer to your door.
“The truck itself became a training apparatus and an opportunity for me to take my workouts and my programs and my ideas directly to my clients,” the mobile gym's owner tells CBS Boston. “I’m set up with the gym and everything you would need in your driveway."
Only in Las Vegas would you find the Wedding Wagon, where they come when you call or text and do the whole thing, including photos, for $99.
By providing couples with an unforgettable way to tie the knot in Sin City, the two reverends have found their calling in "mobile Matrimony." From its inception, the Wedding Wagon experience was designed to be simple and affordable while also being innovative.
None of this would have been possible before the mobile phone, but the smart phone, with twitter and mapping, creates even more ways to keep the customer in touch with the truck. It is not without implications; the old building on the main street was often the place where people started new businesses because the rent was cheap and the big box competition was in the 'burbs. Trucks don't pay property taxes, the main income for most municipalities. In Chicago, the police follow facebook and twitter and often show up before the food trucks to ticket them before they even start selling. One vendor complained in the Chicago Sun-times:
Lupita Kuri, owner of the mobile bakery Sweet Ride, said in one such incident her driver had just pulled up but had yet to serve any customers when a police officer approached and told her he was ticketing her — based on her Facebook posting.
“You can’t get me for premeditated selling of a cupcake,” Kuri said her driver protested.
I am afraid that The Chicago Police are fighting a losing battle. Christopher Mims recently listed all of the things that the Smart phone has or is in the process of replacing; he might want to add the bricks and mortar retail store to the list. What started with food will probably soon affect every business, as the mobile smart phone makes the fixed business location an expensive anachronism.