As the world slowly and tentatively re-opens in the wake of the coronavirus lock-downs, restaurants continue to be among the hardest-hit businesses. Closed for months to “slow the spread,” even as they get back into business they suffer from painful restrictions, including reduced capacities to conform to distancing mandates, extra sanitation and the costs associated with it, and tighter scrutiny than ever from local health departments.
That gives a boost for what’s always been a fairly minor competitor to brick-and-mortar restaurants: food trucks and trailers. “Restaurants would need three or four times as much space to accommodate their old customer numbers,” said Angel Gonzalez, General Manager of Quality Trailers Inc. in Portland, Oregon. “A trailer can serve as many customers as the operator wants to come through the line, and the trailer is organized to handle. It’s built to be easily sanitized, and there’s a barrier between the customer and the servers.”
Quality Trailers is a family-owned business that was originally founded in 2001 to serve the construction industry, building flatbeds, dump trailers, goosenecks and car haulers. When the economic downturn of 2008 happened, the construction industry faltered, so the company shifted gears. Since Portland is a city renowned for its food carts, Quality began building custom trailers for food concessions. They’ve never looked back. They remain a small company, with ten employees, and they rely on independent contractors for a good portion of their work.
Gonzalez, whose whole career has been in the food service industry, first worked with Quality during an unpaid three-month internship for his Supply Chain and Logistics BBA study at Portland State University. He created a marketing and business plan at the time that must have impressed the owners – they hired him on permanently in 2016.
Since then, he’s continued to work to put the company on a more sustainable business path. “Back then, we were buying all our equipment from distributors and paying retail prices,” he explained. “I’d worked previously with some of the manufacturers, so I helped us go directly to them. We started with Imperial [a high-end commercial cooking equipment manufacturer]. We struck a deal with them, and it’s been very successful. That’s served as the model for other partnerships.”
Gonzalez also helped put the company on a firmer financial footing. “We used to buy everything with credit cards,” he said. “Now we’ve negotiated credit terms with all our suppliers, with net 30 or 45 day payments.” He also focused on improving the manufacturing operation. “We’ve built several shop areas and added a warehouse now. We’re functioning very professionally.”
On the sales side, Gonzalez noticed that there was a seasonality to the business that ate into business during the winter. “I had to get really creative in improving sales during the slow period,” he said. “I introduced a CRM database system to keep track of all customer information, and to create price quotes and promotion mailings and help improve sales, which it did.” As a result of those efforts, sales rose from $1.2 million in 2016 to $4.8 million last year.
While the results of the pandemic may well boost that growth, as with most businesses it made things rocky in the mobile food business for a while. “This past February and after the pandemic shutdown, sales dipped to very alarming levels, continuing through May,” Gonzalez said. The company was forced to lay off two employees. But it was also the crisis that brought them their turn-around. “One fine morning, I met a customer who was really lit up about a wood-fired pizza trailer idea,” explained Gonzalez. “He was developing a deep-fried wood-fired pizza concept and realized that the opportunity to open his own unique pizza business during the pandemic was right there and then, where he, as an operator, can be perfectly safe in his own sanitized stainless steel environment inside the trailer, while a Plexiglas window serves as a barrier between him and his customers, and his customers are safely waiting on the outside with an almost touchless food pick-up process.”
Gonzales also saw how the food service business was rapidly changing. “I believe that the pandemic inspired many food service operators to think differently about their product offerings while dealing with COVID-19 and considered menu simplification, improving service speed and keeping premises safe and sanitized. As they do this, they are achieving inventory reduction and better cash flow. Nowadays I rarely see a mobile food business offering full menus. Ethnic plays a big roll more so now than before. Customers want food trailers to make pupusas, others want Oaxacan tamales, pav bhaji, Poke bowls, gourmet grilled cheese, ramen noodles, and so on. The sky is the limit. You can go to a food trailer pod and experience a wide variety of international cuisines in one area the size of a normal brick-and-mortar restaurant.”
Gonzalez saw the potential in all of that and began aggressively approaching operators of existing restaurants that were either closed or restricted and presented them with the concept of focusing on unique and special items, and business took off. Quality also became a valuable collaborator for a large company. “We partnered with REEF Technologies Inc. [an urban space transformation company that mobilizes neighborhood kitchens as part of its revitalization strategy]. They’re a very large user of food trailers that is truly working out extremely well, due to our unsurpassed knowledge and expertise with environmental health throughout the West Coast.” Just recently began the conversation for four special food trailer designs for Sheraton Hotels to expand their business.
Quality Trailers is focused on leveraging the opportunities the pandemic has brought to continue their growth, while also continuing the refine their business model. “Our big plan for the future is vertical integration,” said Gonzalez. “Right now we buy the actual structure of the food trailers, and we want to get to building those for ourselves. We’ll need more room to do it, but that would make us completely vertically integrated. We’d have better control of our costs, and since every trailer is custom, more flexibility to make our customers happy.”
Geographic growth is another plan. “First, we want to grow east to the Rockies,” Gonzalez said. “We don’t intend to stop here on the West coast. We see lots more opportunity out there–Texas, the Midwest–who knows?”
He sees tremendous potential in the business going forward. “It is my belief that as long as the supply and demand for food service exists and mobile food operators are thinking outside the box in delivering their product to their customers, food trailers will win big during and after the pandemic.”