Food trucks may seem to be the most easy to run operations in the restaurant industry, but in fact, running a brick and mortar restaurant is a piece of cake after street food.
At least according to Josh Henderson, who opened Skillet Diner in Seattle last May, almost four years after launching his first food truck, Skillet Street Food.
The trucks (a second was added last year) were doing well, “but I felt like our revenue ceiling was too low and it’s a tricky business doing street food,” Henderson says. There’s a ceiling, he adds, because of the amount of food the truck can hold and the hours it can operate.
“I also wanted to expand our brand. We had the ability to be more than just a truck. I felt that we had an actual brand being developed, and the way to expand that brand and really solidify it was to do something like this and diversify.
“I also wanted people to know we could do more than a truck. I think people look at truck food as an easy way out so I wanted to show that we could compete with the big boys, and also beat the big boys.”
Skillet Diner is an expansion of the truck but also offers much more.
Dishes are comfort food: Chicken Sammy with maple braised pork belly and waffle with a fried egg on top; Goat Cheese and Ricotta Dumplings with gulf rock shrimp, garlic scampi sauce, sweet corn, heirloom tomatoes; and Moroccan Spiced Sockeye Salmon with harissa aioli, fried preserved lemon, and arugula.
“The style, the approach that we take, is the same,” Henderson says. “The diner just gives us the ability to create a bit more and give more choices all the time because that’s what America does.”
And the experimentation that the diner allows has also meant new items on the food trucks’ menus.
But the restaurant is quite simply an easier operation, Henderson explains.
Day to day business is more dependable. If something breaks in the truck, business is done for the day and revenue is lost, although he still has to pay for the day’s labor.
The weather is also a huge factor affecting business. And there’s no consistency, Henderson says. “It’s a tricky market to have to go out and find your customer. There are a lot of variables to it and you have to connect all these dots that are constantly moving.”
Despite it being a difficult way to make a living, the truck has been worth it.
“It’s been great for brand building but it may not have been a great bank account builder,” Henderson says. “I think we use it to our greatest advantage as a marketing tool and it sets the tone for who we are, and I think that alone is worth it.”
And it’s because of this that Skillet Diner took off immediately, Henderson believes.
“It goes back to the fact that we had a brand, and had 20,000 people through Facebook, email, and Twitter, who we were able to communicate with.”
As soon as Henderson had signed the lease on the building that would become Skillet Diner, in the fall of 2010, he started using social media to promote the future restaurant.
He showed photographs of the build-out of the restaurant, to talk about it and petition consumers for their skillets to adorn the walls, for months before the restaurant opened.
And this has been key to Skillet Diner’s success from day one and throughout the past year.
“Our customers were kept in the loop from the beginning,” Henderson says. “We were engaging with them and I think people felt a part of it and part of the ups and downs of what was going on.
“I think business people try to create this happy-go-lucky vibe but people like to know the bad side, too, what made a business what it was. It makes them feel connected to us.”