LAS VEGAS — Vending and OCS operators and mobile caterers had the opportunity to explore common ground as providers of food and beverage to away-from-home consumers during the recent co-located Convenience Caterers and Food Manufacturers Spring Conference and National Automatic Merchandising Association Spring Expo here.
Marking the first time a CCFMA representative has formally addressed the vending industry, CCFMA past-president Jim Pacino, Deli Wagon Food Service (North Royalton, OH), hosted a presentation at the NAMA “Hot Topics” booth. He brought vending operators up to speed on the mobile catering business, described its evolution and presented ways in which the two industries can collaborate on business to their mutual benefits.
“For years, mobile caterers and vending operators did not get along; the view was ‘You’re taking my money away every time you park your truck outside,’ and it was understandable that there was friction,” he remarked. “Times have changed, the customer has changed as there are fewer large industrial accounts, and now the two industries are finding more and more ways to complement each other. There are a lot of joint opportunities by working together.”
The Convenience Caterers and Food Manufacturers Association, established in 1965 as the Mobile Industrial Caterers Association, is an international organization representing foodservice professionals interested in improving mobile catering operations. Its members distinguished themselves by providing customers the convenience of prepared food at their workplace from health department-approved vehicles, and in the early days, primarily served industrial workplaces and construction sites with limited food and drink menus.
As the industry evolved, mobile caterers who ran industrial kitchens to supply their own trucks began to lease vehicles to independent contractors who also purchased prepared food from them, and to provide commissary items to vending operators and other resellers. Mobile caterers have also diversified by providing food for fundraising events, and raised the industry image by establishing themselves as experts at corporate and event catering. They have also found new opportunities by providing foodservice during disaster-relief efforts.
Pacino added that today’s range of catering vehicles has also advanced the industry’s capabilities. The most basic vehicles are “cold” trucks, which primarily sell prewrapped sandwiches and platters, cold and hot – the hot selections are sold from a heated reach-in “oven” in the back of the truck – as well as snacks at ambient temperature. Trucks equipped with steamtables offer the same capability, along with a “buffet line” that adds a variety of hot foods. The “Cadillac” of the industry is the “hot” truck, with a built-in grill, deep fryer and other cooking equipment that offers more menu flexibility since the caterer can prepare food to order as well as fresh foods in advance.
“What began as an industry serving factories and construction workers with sandwiches during their breaks is now capable of delivering such better product and variety, that we are serving the white-collar trade,” Pacino told the audience. “We can walk in the front door with a banana nut muffin and an apple and a smile and get the name of the decision-maker. We also serve special events that publicize the catering truck when people see all it has to offer.”
He noted that construction sites remain a key target of mobile caterers and that workers at one site will often refer caterers to the business at another. Mobile caterers also generate leads to a wider-than-ever range of clients through Yellow Pages listings under “Caterers,” and are increasingly making use of their websites to draw business. CCFMA regularly receives inquiries for mobile caterers through its website and refers the business leads to its members.
Full service “catering houses,” such as Pacino’s Deli Wagon, not only supply food with the assurance that it was prepared in a licensed kitchen, but offer independent mobile caterers such amenities as truck cleaning and propane service, in addition to providing individualized refrigerated and frozen storage space. “We’re a ‘big box’ store that offers everything to the caterer in a one-stop shop,” he explained. “In addition to food, they can buy their chips and soda from us.”
Underscoring the growing synergy between the vending and mobile catering industries, Pacino noted that he provides food to 45 vending companies throughout Ohio. “They don’t want to have their own kitchen because it’s not cost effective, but they want to keep competitors away and satisfy their customers,” he said. “Vending operators also use our commissary to provide food for special events and corporate catering for their clients. Their clients approach them and rather than saying ‘no,’ they come to me for 1,000 box lunches with their name on it, or to cater company picnics. Some vending companies just want the ability to satisfy their clients; others want to make money through the partnership, so we build it into the price. That’s how the two industries are starting to use each other.”
Many vending operators who lack refrigerated and frozen storage capacity also take advantage of the ability of full-service catering houses to perform that function. Pacino’s company prepares food for vending operators and sorts it by route, saving the vendor the labor involved in checking in and breaking out each shipment.
The diminishing base of large industrial accounts and onsite cafeterias has presented new challenges and changed the business model for both mobile caterers and vending operators. The two industries, the speaker emphasized, are in a prime position to pool their expertise and leverage their unique capabilities to gain business.
“Now major vending operators are partnering with us to serve customers with 400 or 500 people where it’s not profitable to run a cafeteria,” said Pacino. “They’re closing the cafeteria and using us during certain hours as a portable cafeteria, and the vending machines the rest of the time; we can approach an account as a team with a solution. We’re happy, the vending operator is happy and the customer is happy.”
Pacino emphasized to vending operators attending the NAMA confab the value of joining CCFMA. “It’s a close-knit group of people, it’s inexpensive to join and it gives you access to caterers across the country,” he said. “With one call, we can put you in touch with the nearest commissary – legitimate, high-quality caterers. We leverage the combined knowledge of our professional peers to maximize opportunities for everyone.”
One such example he cited is a mobile caterer who served General Motors headquarters. The car-maker planned to tour the country to showcase a new truck at construction sites and approached the caterer about providing foodservice at each stop.
“The mobile caterer followed the truck and we contacted CCFMA members along the way to help service people where it stopped,” he said. “The food provided by mobile catering houses has helped numerous vending companies get accounts, and your turning to us as your supplier for food and your referrals for catering when it’s something you don’t provide benefits us too. Our industry and yours are facing tough times and only the strongest are surviving. We need each other more than ever; it’s to our mutual benefit to communicate and collaborate to get the business.”
CCFMA is headquartered at 1205 Spartan Dr., Madison Heights, MI 48071; tel. (248) 982-5379. Information also can be found online at mobilecaterers.com.