Food Trucks Offer Retail Healthcare Hints

Posted on June 8, 2011

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If the term food truck is foreign to you, let me catch you up on one of the hottest food and entrepreneurial trends in the past three years, and see if you can make the parallels to retail healthcare.

A food truck is the generic term for a mobile vehicle (could be a converted camper or trailer) that serves food ready-to-eat. A food truck is more than the hot sausage vendor most people think of in a typical big city;  it is really a miniature restaurant on wheels. They are especially prominent in large cities like New York City and Chicago, but also smaller cities.  Jacksonville even has one that comes to our office neighborhood a couple times a week.

Food trucks are gaining popularity for several reasons.  First, they are mobile, meaning they can change locations to meet demand; this works especially well with free ‘word-of-mouth’ marketing popular from Facebook, Twitter and texting. Second, they are much less expensive to operate than a restaurant and are governed by less stringent health department rules, which make the barrier to entry into the retail food market easier. Third, their quality is excellent for the price paid, which means a good value for the customer. Finally, the uniqueness of each vendor is very high; the food offered is not a commodity item like a hot dog.

A few weeks back I was in Austin, Texas for the first time, and Austin has a very strong food truck culture. Prior to my visit, I knew food trucks were a big deal, so I made sure to check them out. With the help of some friends who were locals, we ended up at a ‘trailer park’ of food trucks.  In this case, five or six food trucks rented space in a lot and built a permanent covered eating area to be shared by the collective customers—dining al fresco. I had excellent Indian ‘take out’, with fresh naan better than most Indian restaurants I have been to, for a very affordable price. I was pleasantly surprised.

Fast Company has an article in this month’s issue called “Redesigning Food Trucks”, which examines how to maximize the utility of this compact yet complex pop creation. After all, food trucks as a cultural phenomenon currently fall in the crosshairs of both entrepreneurial and design zeitgeists. It made me think about retail healthcare.

Food trucks are a great source of retail healthcare lessons, and a potential metaphor for how to think entrepreneurially about delivering a traditional service in a non-traditional way. Food trucks operate in a highly competitive market and must differentiate themselves while also selling value. They must innovate everything about their business to survive—operations, communication with customers, marketing strategy—and do it with passion. Food, like any other service industry, is something people need a passion for, and it must be evident in the experience, which is the service.

On a physcial construction level, there are probably retail healthcare lessons to learn from food trucks, but the Bloodmobile has been-there, done-that. What healthcare must tap into is the energy, passion and entrepreneurial drive to make something work that, on the surface, frankly should not be that popular or successful. If retail healthcare providers use this approach, they are more likely to make it the market force they, and we the patients, hope it will be.

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