Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Taking the food-truck concept and rolling with it

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NEW YORK -- These days, it's hard to cross the street in an urban centre without bumping into a food truck. There are food truck guilds and food truck trackers. There are acclaimed chefs who got their start in the food truck business.

Lucky Peach, the food magazine with hipster/intellectual cred, just devoted an entire issue to street food (a category that includes both cutting-edge food trucks and their old-fangled ancestors, food carts and ice cream trucks). In bookstores, you can buy The Food Truck Handbook, Running a Food Truck for Dummies and The Complete Idiots Guide to Starting a Food Truck Business.

Food trucks have gone mainstream for a variety of reasons. They're cheap to patronize, and, by virtue of their mobility, widely accessible. But their populist appeal accounts for only half of food trucks' success -- the other half is their flexible business model. Starting a food truck business requires nowhere near the initial investment of starting a restaurant. You don't have to pay rent, your equipment costs tend to be lower, and you don't have to pay employees to work all day long -- instead, you just close up shop during slow hours. Plus, you can go to wherever there's demand for your product, instead of trying to create demand and lure it to your doorstep.

Sure, there are usually government regulations to be hewn to, but on the whole, food trucks are far more accessible to would-be small business owners than shops or restaurants.

Outliers

This model is so appealing, in fact, that it's surprising that different kinds of entrepreneurs haven't embraced it. Sure, there have been some outliers who have taken their businesses on the road. There's a "wandering fashion boutique" -- in other words, a women's apparel truck -- in New York City. And one Las Vegas doctor has tricked out a bus to treat hangover sufferers, which is a decidedly more profit-minded endeavour. But fashion mavens and heavy drinkers aren't the only consumers who appreciate the convenience that trucks can offer.

So we're offering up five failsafe truck ideas for a resourceful entrepreneur-in-the-making to snatch up. Any of these five would have a leg up on food trucks, because their wares would have a longer shelf life -- no danger of spoiled or wasted goods. They have something else going for them, too: These imaginary trucks are geared toward people in desperate situations, and as we know, desperate people are willing to pay more of a markup than non-desperate people.

The Umbrella Truck

THERE are few things worse than leaving the office without realizing that it's pouring rain. The umbrella truck would eradicate that awful, soggy feeling. Cities like New York are already halfway to the umbrella truck: In Manhattan, raincoat-clad vendors magically appear during every thunderstorm shouting "Umbrella!" But moving their business to a truck would be a boon for the umbrella vendors and their customers: an umbrella truck could store far more types and price ranges of umbrella than an individual can carry, and also stock rain ponchos and spare socks. Plus, a manned vehicle could more easily follow storms to set up shop in neighbourhoods that are getting hammered the hardest. When it's not raining? On bright, hot days, the umbrella truck could sell sunscreen, sunglasses and brimmed hats; during the next polar vortex, it could sell hand warmers, heated insoles and balaclavas.

The Tights Truck

MOST women, and some men, have experienced the unique irritation of snagging their tights or pantyhose over the course of a day, usually just before having to give an important presentation or go on a first date. The tights truck would roam financial neighbourhoods and nightlife districts selling oven-fresh tights and pantyhose in all sizes and colours to save unlucky ladies from their torn undergarments. Bonus: a small changing area in back for maximum utility.

In keeping with its mission of fixing esthetic blemishes, the tights truck could also offer stain remover to blot out the coffee you spilled on your shirt this morning, concealer to cover up that emerging zit on your forehead and nail polish to touch up your chipped manicure.

The Toothbrush Truck

IN an ideal world, every public bathroom would provide complimentary floss and mouthwash. Until then, we'll need the toothbrush truck. Is there an undesirable aftertaste lingering in your mouth? Do you have something annoying stuck in your teeth? Are you trying to hide your drinking habit from your loved ones? Come brush your teeth in the back of the toothbrush truck! It would charge per disposable toothbrush, per dab of toothpaste (whitening varieties would cost extra), per inch of floss, and per minute of brushing time -- or, if you're in a rush, per stick of sugar-free gum. This truck would need some moderately complicated portable plumbing installed in the back, but it would no doubt recoup that investment within months.

The Tampon Truck

THIS is so obvious I cannot believe no one has done it yet. I know few women who are always prepared when their period arrives. Those tampon vending machines in public bathrooms are broken about half the time. And yet having one's period when one does not have access to pads or tampons constitutes a minor emergency. The tampon truck would sell tampons, pads, menstrual cups, painkillers, disposable heating pads and spare underwear. Would it be embarrassing to patronize the tampon truck? Maybe at the beginning, but I suspect the tampon truck would become so popular and universally beloved that the stigma would fade quickly.

The Cellphone-Charging Truck

A TRUCK for the truly desperate: those whose cellphone batteries are about to run out of power. The cellphone-charging truck would possess chargers for all popular cellphone models -- no more asking your co-worker to borrow his iPhone charger only to discover that he has an iPhone 5 to your iPhone 4. The truck would charge by the minute, and it would, granted, take at least a few minutes for patrons to finish their business there. This isn't a totally revolutionary idea: Vodaphone has already rolled out a phone-charging truck in Britain as a sort of marketing stunt during concerts, and a fleet of phone-storage trucks have been serving as electronic lockers for New York schoolkids. But the cellphone-charging truck we have in mind would be accessible to everyone, just like food trucks.

Come to think of it, the truck could make even more money if it offered customers something to nibble or sip on while they waited for their phones to charge. It could sell smoothies and call itself a juice truck -- in more than one sense of the word.

-- Slate

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 31, 2014 D5

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