Will Delis Be Passed By Food Trucks?

If you want to win tomorrow’s business, look at what is happening today.

Consider a website called FindLAFoodTrucks.com — its purpose is to consolidate in one place the Twitter feeds from a large number of Los Angeles area food trucks.

That such a website exists at all should give supermarket deli operators pause, because all over the country people are not only dining at food trucks but also checking Twitter feeds and websites to find out what sounds interesting today and where their favorite food truck is going to be. This really points out that there are loads of opportunities, and the typical supermarket deli is just letting them pass by.

It is true that lots of supermarkets have Twitter feeds, and every once in a while some deli-related Tweet comes across. Unfortunately, it is typically about how cheap the deli wants to give away its ham. There is no personality, no connection.

In contrast, you read the Tweets from the food trucks and you see overflowing enthusiasm and connection. The food truck proprietors mention where they are going to be, of course, but they also mention the food: “The short rib tacos are so good!!!” says BoolBBq. Babys Badass Burgers asks “…will U B joining the BURGER BABES 4 some NITE BITES? Come 4 the SEXIEST JUCIEST BURGER IN LA.” BorderGrill announces, “Love Border Grill. The quinoa fritters are fabulous. Enjoy!” LouksToGo shouts out its feature: “LAMB BURGER lamb patty with melted kasseri cheese, honey-mustard tzatziki, spinach, sliced tomato and caramelized onions on a brioche bun!” IndiaJonesCT suggests folks come over and get “…great Indian veggie grub.”

It is rare to see a discount price promoted, although once in a while they will do free samples: Followthevan tweeted: “Short line for FREE grilled cheese?! C’mon out…”

And there is much more. They recommend each other, talk about music, street fairs, charity benefits and a lot more. They feel comfortable asking their followers to come out and show their support.

There is an obvious issue here: Those retailers in urban areas are losing lunch business to a bunch of trucks, vehicles that not long ago were popularly called roach coaches. Yet thinking only of that would be missing the forest for the trees. The real issue is that the world is changing, and the supermarket delis are not changing fast enough.

The deli in a supermarket serves a lot of roles. One of the most important is that it is that rare place in a supermarket where consumers and staff get to interact.

Although all supermarkets acknowledge the importance of micromarketing — recognizing that offering a uniform assortment against a highly diverse population is a recipe for disaster — most seem to stop micromarketing at the level of assortment.

The food truck phenomenon suggests a whole new level of connection with a community that supermarkets delis are neglecting.

The first is variation. You can’t study a neighborhood, determine it is Italian or Jewish or rich or poor, come up with an assortment and think you are all set. What the food truck phenomenon is reminding us is that, to paraphrase Walt Whitman, we are all large, and we contain multitudes. In this day and age, the fact that the neighborhood is Italian doesn’t mean shoppers don’t sometimes want sushi. But the key is that it is not sufficient just to serve shrimp scampi one day; you have to Tweet, blog, e-mail and text the community so the 5 percent of your shoppers who want shrimp scampi all come that day. Then the next day, you have to repeat it all with a short rib grilled cheese sandwich and reach out to the 5 percent that wants that.

The second issue is comfort and excitement. Food isn’t something that exists in isolation. You have shoppers who like music and art, great beer and sports, dogs and so much more. If you establish that you are connected to all this stuff customers want in their lives, the food also becomes an integral part of their existence, and so does your store.

The third issue is staffing. We are way underestimating the importance of people skills in hiring deli personnel. Now to be No. 1, you need a guy or gal who knows when something is just awesome and can Tweet from the street fair where your store has a booth about the incredible day, and the shoppers, because it is real and the person has credibility, want to head out and be a part of it. Then your employee has to know how to make the party continue the next day at the store.

A lot of executives see things like the food trucks and grumble that they are not paying their fair share of taxes or don’t have the rigorous food-safety standards the supermarket does. There is something to all this, but these trucks are tapping into youth, technology, flavor, and friendship, while most delis are just slicing the ham.