To be frank, moving from a food tent to food truck to a full service restaurant is no walk in the park. But when the perfect combination of hard work, entrepreneurial zeal, a comfort-inducing creative product, and a little bit of luck come together, anything is possible. Toronto-based hot dog bar, Let’s Be Frank, knows from experience how true this is.
In a time when craft burgers emerged as the hot-to-trot food trend, the founders of Let’s Be Frank were thinking about hot dogs. Not your average park-side hot dog vendor, Let’s Be Frank’s menu is anything but domestic North American food. The Mac Daddy is a fusion of comfort foods: Mac n’ Cheese on a hot dog, the Dogfather has an Italian twist, and the Doritos Taco Hot Dog is a hot dog breaded with Doritos then deep fried and topped with taco accoutrements. Let’s Be Frank has a wild side, and they’re not afraid to show it. Their customers aren’t afraid to show their love. They’ve followed them from food tent to their food truck and now to their restaurant.
We spoke with co-owner Simon Colyer who’s only too thrilled that the long time vision to make Let’s be Frank a Toronto fixture has finally come to fruition. “Our goal was to have a pub-like space with live music; a place where we’d hang out. After seven years, we’re now a licensed venue with live music and an assortment of comfort food.”
Indeed, while Let’s Be Frank has always had the vision, the ideas, and the product quality, it was finding (and financing) a flagship location in Toronto that proved to be a challenge. Rent prices were skyrocketing and adequate facilities were few and far between. To find out exactly how Let’s Be Frank thrived against the odds, Simon shed some light on the process and the hurdles he overcame and provided some much-needed advice for other food trucks looking to make the same leap.
TouchBistro: How long was Let’s Be Frank in the food tent / food truck circuit?
Simon Colyer: We did the tent for two years and then at the end of the second year, we found that people still loved the food and we were still in love with the concept, but we also realized we were killing ourselves trying to rent U-Haul trucks and carry food around to the festivals, so we thought, let’s get a food truck so everything is self-contained and we don’t have to physically carry fridges anymore.
We ended up running the food truck for two years. At the end of the first year, we took stock again: ok, we’ve done a half dozen festivals out of the truck, we’ve tested the concept. Let’s jump in. We realized at this point that one of us would have to leave their day job to start a full restaurant.
TB: Why was opening a full restaurant the next logical step?
SC: There were a lot of challenges with solely running a food truck. Lots of things you don’t think of, like cooking oil. The companies that pick up your used oil want to meet you at a specific location, not at a random intersection. Receiving deliveries was also a challenge. We couldn’t have giant transport trucks dropping off food orders outside of my small town house. Then there were things like cold storage. Once you turn the truck off at the end of the night, the cold storage shuts off too so you have to have a place to store everything. We were lucky enough to know enough people in the restaurant industry so we would rent fridge space every night and use those kitchens in their off-hours to do our prep. It was nice to have a supportive community because otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to make it as a food truck business.
TB: When you decided to jump in with two feet, quit your day job and establish a permanent base, what did that process look like?
SC: The brick and mortar establishment emerged in year six, last January. The second year with the food truck, we’d had a pop-up at the same time, so we ended up there for six months. While this temporary space was in use, I was spending about 30% of my time looking for a permanent location.
There’s a lot of competition in Toronto for restaurants right now. There’s a lot of retail spaces available, so if you have the money to put in, you can convert the space. But we just didn’t have that kind of capital, so we had to find a place that was already a restaurant. They are few and far between and when they do emerge, they quickly get snapped up.
One day we were walking to a restaurant supply store and saw an eviction notice with the landlord’s name and phone number at the bottom of it. We called and ended up being one of five parties bidding on the place. The landlord came into our pop-up for a bite, liked the concept, liked how clean we kept the place and thought we’d do a good job, so we ended up getting it.
TB: Would you say that was your biggest obstacle?
SC: For sure. I looked at somewhere in the area of 200 establishments. I basically went door-to-door asking restaurants if they knew anyone in the neighborhood who would like to get out of their lease or sell their business. It was certainly a challenge.
Also, the renovations to the space itself were a significant obstacle. They ended up being a lot bigger than we thought. We planned for overage, but instead of three months, it took six. It cost three times the budget we’d allocated. It was a huge job and not one that you can always investigate well enough ahead of time to foresee all the problems you might have.
TB: How did you find the transition from the food truck operating model to a fully fleshed out, dine-in service model?
SC: The restaurant is easier on the whole to run than the food truck. You don’t need to look for a location for your restaurant to be every day. You don’t have to negotiate for location rates. It’s physically a lot less running around and less demanding in those ways. That said, the food truck service to full service change was more challenging for our customers. People weren’t sure whether to sit down and stay or grab food at the bar, so the concept at first was a little hard to shift.
TB: What about brand recognition? Did the food truck brand translate to the restaurant?
SC: I would say it was basically starting from scratch. There was some online brand recognition where people share and interact because they know us already. But as for actual traffic, customers come in because they live in, or are visiting the area.
Once we started doing delivery, we saw the benefit of the brand recognition and social following we’d acquired. Now, people less inclined to drive across town can find us online.
TB: Why did you go with a mobile POS and how has having it made running your brick and mortar establishment easier?
SC: We went with a mobile POS because we weren't sure how our business would grow and it seemed to offer the most flexibility. It has benefited us in several key ways:
When serving large groups, we carry the POS around right to the table and enter orders as they are given which reduces the time required to get chits to the kitchen and food to the table.
The ability to receive email orders through the same hardware reduces the overall number of devices we use and minimizes bar top clutter.
The ability to carry the iPad with you while verifying inventory levels helps reduce human error as well as helps us reduce consumption of office supplies - thus we leave a smaller environmental footprint.
TB: Based on all of this, if you had three pieces of advice to give to a food truck or pop up operator looking to go full service, what would they be?
SC: My three best pieces of advice would be:
Expect everything to take longer and cost more (which you already know if you’re running a food truck!)
Focus on marketing. With the food truck, when you show up at festivals, you have a captive audience. You show up, people are hungry, they buy your product. With brick and mortar, you need to pay a lot of attention to your marketing and promotions and the ways your entice people to come into your shop. That was a significant shift.
Work with delivery companies. Don’t underestimate the value of delivery and what it can do for your business.
TB: Thanks Simon!
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