March 4, 2014
Matthew Heaggans is a busy guy.
He and his business partners Rosa Gaerlan and Lyle Bigelow run Swoop Food Group, the company behind the Swoop! food cart, the Press food cart, the Crepes a la Carte food cart and their latest project: a pop-up restaurant called Bebe, inside the Hey Hey Bar & Grill at 361 Whittier St.
They’re gearing up for another season of serving crab and sweet pea falafel and fried jerk chicken sandwiches at the Swoop! truck; ham and cheese crepes and honey and cinnamon crepes at Crepes a la Carte, and small plates such as yak burgers and sauerkraut balls at the Hey Hey.
In a way, Heaggans and Swoop Food Group are prime examples of a new post-recession business model for the restaurant industry. That model views bricks-and-mortar locations as too-risky and too-expensive entry points into the business and seeks more-creative, less-expensive ways to get their food to diners.
“Brick and mortar standalone is what we are definitely pushing for. It’s in our future, and Bebe is kind of a small-scale version of what we would do,” Heaggans said.
But “Food trucks give people an opportunity to make an introduction, to figure out what is going to work and how people will respond. I know a lot of people who operate trucks and carts, who love it and put all of themselves into it, but a lot of us want to do more.”
Why trucks, then?
“They have a lower overhead entry into the business, and they’re a way to make a reputation and build a client base so you can eventually build something bigger,” Heaggans said.
A pop-up restaurant, which is essentially a restaurant operating out of a rented kitchen inside another venue, is another steppingstone to a traditional restaurant, he said.
Bebe, on the fringes of German Village, has allowed the group to serve a larger menu with more variety than at the trucks, because the kitchen and the refrigerator are larger, Heaggans said.
“It looks different, but, in a lot of ways, it’s the same as the trucks. We still make everything by hand, but now we can do it on a larger scale.”
The partners can see “how our larger-scale plans will work. We can practice and see who our clientele (is) and how often they will come back,” he said.
“We’re making connections so that, down the road, people will come to see us wherever we are or whatever we’re doing. If they get good food at our pop-up and our food truck, they will hopefully seek us out as a restaurant.”
A lot of other young food entrepreneurs also see potential in food trucks.
By 2017, food trucks in the U.S. are expected to generate about $2.7 billion in revenue, up from $650 million in 2012, says the industry firm Emergent Research. The firm attributes the growth in food trucks to the lower cost of starting and running them, and to owners’ ability to quickly test new concepts and menus as well as interact regularly with customers.
The firm pegs the startup costs of a food truck at about $75,000, and the cost of opening a traditional restaurant at $250,000 to $500,000.
Food trucks as an industry have grown about 8 percent each year between 2008 and 2013, the research firm IBISWorld says.
On the surface, it seems that sales in traditional restaurants overall also have risen during the same time, hovering between 3 and 4 percent each year, the National Restaurant Association says.
But a new report by NPD Group paints a different picture: While the number of bricks-and-mortar restaurant locations overall rose an anemic 0.7 percent nationwide in the past year, the growth was concentrated primarily in chain restaurants, with chains adding three times as many new locations as independently owned restaurants. Indies had virtually no growth at all.
Enter the food truck as an affordable and viable way for independent owners to make a name for themselves.
There is no doubt that food-truck fever has gripped Columbus. The city is now home to the annual Food Truck Festival. The Dinin’ Hall, a sit-down eating area featuring local food trucks, opened in Franklinton in 2012. Columbus Food Adventures, a culinary tour company, built its business around a tour of Columbus taco trucks.
Heaggans didn’t plan to be part of the food-truck world. He had been living in Washington, D.C., and working in fine dining, but decided to move home to Columbus in 2010.
“Oddly, I tried to get jobs in kitchens here and couldn’t get an interview,” he said.
A friend suggested a food truck, and eventually Heaggans bought a truck, set up shop and opened for business on June 12, 2012.
“It went pretty horribly, honestly, but we were really excited to be on the street and sell some food,” he said. “You hope people will jump on right away, but reality doesn’t always meet that. It took us a while to get around and inform people about our food and quality, until eventually we had a hard-core following.”
Food carts and trucks aren’t perfect. “If they were any smaller businesses, we’d be lemonade stands,” Heaggans said. “It seems more affordable when you look at no rent, but inside of that framework, we have smaller access to revenue.”
Yet he sees plenty of upside.
“People are more comfortable with mobile food and understand we aren’t just out to sell them fast food; we’re interested in putting out a progressive and quality product at the best price we can. There will always be competition, but there is plenty of room for growth in Columbus, as long as everyone is committed to giving people a good experience.”
Off the menu
• Cameron Mitchell Restaurants has tapped Brian Scheren as general manager and Jonathan Basch as executive chef of its newest restaurant concept, Hudson 29. The first Hudson 29 will open at 1600 W. Lane Ave. in Upper Arlington in the spring. The company plans to open a second Hudson 29 in the New Albany Company’s Market & Main development in 2015. Cameron Mitchell Restaurants also will open its 11th Ocean Prime location, in Beverly Hills, Calif., and its 16th Rusty Bucket, in Naples, Fla., this spring.
• The Son of Thurman, a version of the Thurman Cafe in German Village, is now open at 5 N. Sandusky St. in Delaware. Call 740-417-9614 or go to www.sonofthurman.com for more information.
• Phatt Taco is now open at 50 N. High St., in the former Fresh 50 location. For more information, call 614-404-9326.
Famosa Cuisine, 5445 Roberts Rd. in Hilliard, has closed, and the contents are being auctioned online. Bidding ends Wednesday. The auction is being handled by Paul Delphia, 614-267-5100 or www.auctionbydelphia.com.
Dispatch restaurant columnist Denise Trowbridge can be reached at email@example.com.