Takin’ it to the streets

Roaming Hunger’s CEO Ross Resnick has positioned his company as the go-to source for food truck catering

Food line by truck

Food line by truck

When Ross Resnick was a college student studying abroad in Hong Kong, he fell in love with street food. “I ate my way through the streets of Southeast Asia,” he says.

A few years after returning to the States, he noticed food trucks popping up in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Inspired by the idea of a robust street food culture in the U.S., Resnick wondered who these vendors were and how to track them. That’s how he came up with the idea of Roaming Hunger, which started as a website directory of food truck vendors in 2009.

Since then, as food trucks have exploded in popularity, so has Roaming Hunger, which has become a one-stop shop for everything food truck-related. Vendors who want to reach food truck customers can add their food truck to the Roaming Hunger site. Customers can go to RoamingHunger.com if they want to book a food truck to cater their next event, brand a food truck for their next promotion, launch a food truck business, or find a food truck in their city (there’s even an app for that, providing real-time tracking for thousands of food trucks and food carts across the country).

Catering recently spoke to Resnick to find out why food truck catering has become such a big part of his business, and why he thinks the food-truck craze is just getting started.

CM: How much has the company grown since 2009?

Roaming Hunger partnered with the Laser Spine Institute in Tampa, Fla.,  and the Tampa Bay Lightning hockey team to create the Give & Grub truck, which donates one meal to hungry children and families for every meal sold.

Roaming Hunger partnered with the Laser Spine Institute in Tampa, Fla.,
and the Tampa Bay Lightning hockey team to create the Give & Grub truck, which donates one meal to hungry children and families for every meal sold.

RESNICK: We started out with around 200 vendors across the country, and now we have over 6,000 active food trucks and food carts across the United States, and even some in Canada and Europe. We went from one guy in his pajamas—me—staying up late at night, finding all the food trucks I possibly could, to having about 35 people on staff here, all working on various things, from catering to research to forging relationships with new vendors.

CM: How did you find the first 200 food trucks that you signed up?

RESNICK: Social media has been at the base layer of this entire movement, and the reason food trucks exploded around 2009 was because of the ability to broadcast locations digitally. Before social media, trucks had to be known by, “They’re at this one gas station,” or, “They’re always on this one corner.” The matchup of social media and mobile vending really created this unique opportunity for people to easily discover food trucks, and that’s what I was able to do—tap into that.

CM: What are your plans for growth?

RESNICK: We really see the food truck industry as still in its infancy, and it’s very exciting, because it’s constantly changing and evolving. If you break down the nature of a food truck, it really is a kitchen that can go anywhere. Catering is really the ideal scenario for food trucks, not only from the vendor’s perspective—it’s very nice to know where you’re going to be serving, how many people you’re going to serve, what to prepare, etc.—but also from the consumer’s. We’ve seen that there’s been a major shift in perception of what a food truck is and who it’s for, and more and more people are figuring out that food trucks are an excellent option to have fresh food prepared on site. That’s really where we’re getting big; people are going to continue to find new ways to integrate food trucks into their lives.

CM: Why do most people visit your website—to find food trucks near them or to book food truck catering?

RESNICK: It’s definitely a mix, but we see more and more people using our website to book food trucks, whereas in the beginning it was all finding food trucks.

CM: How many catering queries do you get each week?

RESNICK: It’s well over 1,000 a week. And when you add up all of our different divisions and everything that we do, Roaming Hunger is responsible for feeding over 100,000 people a week, which is really amazing, and we’re really proud of that.

CM: Are there certain parts of the country where demand is particularly strong for food truck catering?

RESNICK: Depending on the time of year, it shifts, but as we warm up and go from April through October, it’s countrywide. We still see very strong demand on the coasts, but more and more we’re seeing Middle America fill in and ask for food trucks. Texas is a great state for us. We’re seeing growth happen everywhere, not just in major cities but also in secondary and tertiary markets. If you look at the original food truck model, you really needed a lot of foot traffic to sustain it, but with catering, you can bring the food truck anywhere where people are congregating—a church, for instance, or a school; for fundraising, for catering after Sunday mass, for weddings, for corporate events. People are getting very creative in how they want to use food trucks.

CM: What are the main types of events for which customers are booking food trucks?

RESNICK: Weddings are huge for us. They represent about 30 percent of our requests. People are thinking about weddings very differently than even five years ago. DIY is becoming really popular as more and more Millennials are starting to getting married and paying for weddings themselves, and not doing it at the fancy hotels or country clubs. They’re thinking, “Hey, we have a great field, or a ranch, or a backyard,” and all you need to have a wedding is food, music, people, maybe a religious figure, maybe not. But if you can get people together, you can have a wedding, and food trucks are really great options for that. We see everything from brides and grooms lining up outside a taco truck, to dinner service, to, “Hey, we want an ice cream truck for late-night, after everybody’s done dancing and everyone’s on their way out.” Sit-down service requests from food trucks are very possible. It’s a kitchen on wheels, so all you really have to do is add waiters, and we have a great option for that. It’s a cost-effective way to get delicious food prepared on site.

Some of the other types of events that we see a lot of are corporate—employee appreciation, customer appreciation. We have at least one truck a week here [at Roaming Hunger’s headquarters in Los Angeles], and it gets everyone outside together hanging out, standing in line together, talking. By bringing a food truck or multiple food trucks to your office, you’re keeping people on site, and you’re keeping people together, fostering employee engagement and camaraderie. And then there are the timesavings of not having to figure out what you’re going to be doing for lunch. Employees are loving their employers for it. So we see a lot of major companies are looking to food trucks as a way to engage their employees, and that’s really exciting.

And then on top of that, [business is growing from] large events where there aren’t built-in concessions, or even events where there are concessions and they’re looking for a way to keep people in the parking lot, or as a diversity solution so people who are eating at the events aren’t just stuck with hot dogs and hamburgers.

CM: What do customers tell you about why they’re choosing food truck catering over traditional catering? What does the food truck element bring to an event?

RESNICK: We talk about this a lot…that there’s a food experience that happens with food trucks that makes an event so unique and so memorable. I always give this example: You pull up to your friend’s Super Bowl party and there’s a wing plate inside—OK, that’s sort of expected—versus pulling up to your friend’s Super Bowl party and there’s a wing truck outside. There’s an additional layer of experience that’s brought in. It’s a built-in atmosphere that really creates this social environment that takes the food experience one step beyond.

CM: Do you have vendors that started as traditional caterers and branched out into food trucks? Would you say that’s a growing trend?

RESNICK: Yes, definitely. In terms of traditional caterers that have gone into trucks, the food truck allows them to do something different. And what it all breaks down to is, are you pre-preparing the food offsite and transporting it, or are you preparing the food on-demand, on-site, and giving people freshly cooked food? More and more people are valuing that hot, fresh experience, and that’s what’s really propelling a lot of caterers to look at food trucks as an option, and at least include it as part of what they do. It might not totally replace their catering business, but it may be an add-on. Restaurants often have a food truck that does the catering for the restaurant, so the food truck becomes the restaurant’s catering arm. Especially with quick service, it makes a lot of sense to have a food truck that goes to events and parties. And because it’s branded, you’re promoting your company with a giant billboard on the side of a truck.

CM: If a caterer has a food truck and they want to be on the Roaming Hunger website, what steps should they take?

RESNICK: It’s very simple—they can go to vendor.roaminghunger.com, create an account with us, and add their truck. We will schedule a time to orient them with the Roaming Hunger toolkit and the platform, and we’ll collect their menu and any other items that we need to get them live on the site.

CM: How does the fee structure work?

RESNICK: We don’t charge the vendors to be listed on Roaming Hunger. We do charge a booking fee at the time of booking, and there are a number of event bookings that the vendors get from being a part of Roaming Hunger. They also get plugged into our maps and app to broadcast their location if they are going to do street service as well, and that is all completely free.

CM: What are the most popular cuisines offered by the food trucks you work with?

RESNICK: On the whole, the trucks we work with a lot, and that get booked a lot, are doing American classics, so some version of sliders and gourmet sandwiches; we see a lot of ethnic foods—Mediterranean, Indian; and a lot of fusion as well, when they’re taking Asian and Mexican food, for instance, and combining them. There are also a lot of dessert trucks—ice cream, shaved ice, cookies, ice cream sandwiches—that are very popular for events. Dessert trucks typically charge a lower minimum to come out, so if you’re on a really tight budget but you want the food truck vibe at your event, you might think about just bringing in a dessert truck.

CM: Could you explain your branded food truck promotions?

RESNICK: We can rebrand a food truck for a client, whether it’s a couple who wants to rebrand a food truck with their names on it for their wedding, or having a Shake Shack-branded food truck in front of the New York Stock Exchange [to celebrate the restaurant chain’s announcement of becoming a publicly traded company in January]. We partnered with the Laser Spine Institute in Tampa, Fla., a sponsor of the Tampa Bay Lightning, to create a truck that provides a gourmet menu of items inspired by the hockey players. Every time a meal is sold, a meal is donated to a hungry child. It’s called the Give & Grub truck.

CM: So a company like the Laser Spine Institute would come to you with an idea and you would help them get the truck?

RESNICK: Yes, we do everything. Sometimes we’re coming up with a strategy, sometimes we’re coming up with the culinary development, basing it on the demographic and what we think is going to work best. But really it’s our clients, who are using food trucks as a way to get deep engagement with a demographic that many times is very distracted. It’s really hard to get someone to sit down and stay in one place for five minutes. But when you have food, it’s really the great uniter, and it creates an engaging platform for a brand through food.

It all ties back into that food experience. You could be on a desert highway, and if you’re standing at a food truck, you’ll feel like you’re at an event. That is the power of food trucks. It’s a lasting memory; it’s something you want to tell other people about. Whether it’s catering or promotions or street service, it all comes back to the same big idea of having a really big food experience that you’ll remember. l

Ross Resnick (above) is the CEO and founder of Roaming Hunger. The company helped Shake Shack place a branded food truck in front of the New York Stock Exchange to celebrate the restaurant chain’s launch as a publicly traded company earlier this year (top).

Roaming Hunger’s business is growing at large events where there aren’t built-in concessions, such as a recent Tough Mudder obstacle course challenge.

Roaming Hunger partnered with the Laser Spine Institute in Tampa, Fla., and the Tampa Bay Lightning hockey team to create the Give & Grub truck, which donates one meal to hungry children and families for every meal sold.

Roaming Hunger food trucks fed attendees at the Humana Challenge golf tournament in La Quinta, Calif., in January.