Unequal alliance: Food-truck-marketing controversy

Co-owner Jessica Iannuzzi's Sum Pig truck served for a month as a marketing vehicle for Glen Muir tomatoes. The deal worked for both sides - not always the case.
Co-owner Jessica Iannuzzi's Sum Pig truck served for a month as a marketing vehicle for Glen Muir tomatoes. The deal worked for both sides - not always the case. (JOSEPH KACZMAREK)
Posted: January 24, 2014

The food-truck business is known for grueling hours and razor-thin margins. So, when Jessica Iannuzzi was offered a windfall of free tomatoes for her Sum Pig food truck, she couldn't pass it up.

Those tomatoes, though, came with a catch: The truck would become, quite literally, a marketing vehicle for Muir Glen organic canned tomatoes.

"We feel that people connect with food trucks," Muir Glen's Katie Proctor said.

In Philly's maturing food-truck economy, promotions tied to trucks are a booming business - but a somewhat controversial one, given that large companies are invading entrepreneurs' turf. If mobile vendors don't choose their partners carefully, they can be in for a perilous ride.

For Iannuzzi, 32, who owns Sum Pig with her fiance, Stephen Koste, 37, the Muir Glen promotion was a major boost for their year-old business. For about a month, the truck displayed Muir Glen posters, distributed coupons, and incorporated the tomatoes into menu items like vegetarian chili, crawfish étouffée, and buffalo-chicken nachos.

At an event at City Hall last fall, Muir Glen gave pallets of canned tomatoes to Philabundance and also laid out a trail of 300 gift boxes, each containing a can of tomatoes and a coupon for a free meal at Sum Pig or a second truck, Street Food Philly.

"It was great exposure," Iannuzzi said. "Typically, we don't vend in City Hall, so it was great to be able to vend there. And we loved using the product."

As a marketing strategy, Proctor said, the company selected trucks that shared its philosophy and devotion to organic foods.

"We really wanted to have a mutually beneficial partnership, so that Muir Glen became a featured ingredient rather than a Muir Glen-branded truck," she said. "We thought it would be more authentic."

Of course, not every company doing food-truck marketing goes that route.

Stouffer's, for example, wanted a total truck takeover to promote its macaroni and cheese in King of Prussia on Black Friday. The company hired USA Mobile Commissary, a local company specializing in food-truck marketing.

"We gave out over 4,000 samples of product in front of Neiman Marcus on that day," said USA Mobile's Gary Koppelman. On subsequent days, Stouffer's actually sold servings of mac and cheese out of the truck.

He said the promotional work required significant resources: a backup truck to supply all that mac and cheese, plus extra staff to serve it for nearly 24 hours.

Koppelman, who is building out a 30,000-square-foot commissary in Brewerytown, also recently distributed bagels, coffee, and doughnuts from a truck branded to promote Fox's new comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

While he does some one-off promotions, he said, more corporations now see trucks as an ongoing part of their marketing efforts.

For example, he said, he is working with Johnsonville Sausage to put 200 trucks on the street in the next five years. Burger King also has a fleet of 40 trucks. And in the last few years, Sizzler, Applebee's, and Taco Bell have all rolled out trucks.

As far as George Bieber, 45, is concerned, all that traffic is not good news. The president of the Philadelphia Mobile Food Association and owner of the Sunflower Truck Stop said he has received inquiries about wrapping his truck with ads, but he declined.

After all, his truck is already advertising something: his restaurant, Shorty's Sunflower Cafe in Pottstown. He doesn't want to compromise that.

"I think my truck looks awesome," he said. "I don't want to pimp myself out to hand out bagels for a TV show. I like cooking."

More than that, he worries about corporations' invading a marketplace populated by entrepreneurs. "The mobile-food business, to me, is a good way for an independent person to get into being their own boss," he said. "When big businesses step on that, it's not good."

For example, major corporations could easily outbid independent vendors for slots at high-traffic locations, such as LOVE Park.

Jeff Henretig has experience with the problems that can arise from asymmetrical partnerships between small vendors and big companies.

In 2010, a marketing firm hired Henretig and his partners at a truck called Coup de Taco to promote the syndication of the HBO series Entourage. They'd wrap the truck with the show's signage and hand out free tacos at two events.

"It seemed like a dream come true, to get paid to get our product out there," he said. "We were maybe a little too eager. The idea conceptually sounded so good that we kind of overlooked some things in the nitty-gritty details of the documents we signed."

Instead of a few days, the wrap remained on the truck for a month. Customers were confused and accused Coup de Taco of selling out. And when the wrap came off, the truck's paint job was destroyed. Worse, Henretig said, the marketing firm claimed Coup de Taco hadn't fulfilled its contract, and shorted the pay.

"We had no recourse, really," said Henretig. After the damage to the truck and the brand, the partners decided to close.

Henretig, who's now a small-business consultant at New York's East Fourth Partners, said he still believed food-truck marketing could work - in theory.

"If you're going to do something like this, it should be, above all, a partnership."


Sum Pig Food Truck's Crawfish Étouffée

Makes 6 to 8 servings

10 tablespoons butter, divided use

2 tablespoons flour

4 cups chopped onion

3 cups chopped celery

3 cups chopped bell pepper

6 cloves garlic, minced

2 bay leaves

2 sprigs fresh thyme

1 cup canned diced tomatoes

4 1/2 teaspoons salt

½ teaspoon crushed red pepper

2 tablespoons hot sauce

4 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce

1 1/2 teaspoons cayenne

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 pound crawfish tails (or substitute shrimp)

Juice of 1/4 lemon

1 cup sliced green onions

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

12 to 16 mini pie-crust shells (2 per serving)

1. In a large, heavy saucepan, melt 4 tablespoons of butter, and whisk in flour to combine well. Cook, stirring occasionally, until roux is a peanut-butter color.

2. Add onion, celery, bell pepper, garlic, bay leaves, and thyme, and cook until soft, 6 to 8 minutes. Add tomatoes, salt, red pepper, hot sauce, Worcestershire sauce, cayenne, and black pepper, and bring to a boil.

3. Skim surface, reduce heat to a simmer, and cook uncovered for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

4. Add crawfish tails (with their orange fat), lemon juice, green onions, and parsley, and cook for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add remaining butter, and stir to combine well.

5. Fill mini pie-crust shells, top with crushed pie shell and chopped green onion or parsley.

- From Jessica Iannuzzi of Sum Pig food truck

Per serving (based on 8): 279 calories; 15.6 grams protein; 15.9 grams carbohydrates; 5.6 grams sugar; 17.1 grams fat;

140 milligrams cholesterol; 1,553 milligrams sodium; 3.2 grams dietary fiber.


Street Food Philly's Tomato Sauce

Makes 6 cups

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 Spanish onion, ¼-inch dice

4 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced

3 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme

½ medium carrot, finely grated

½ cup celery, diced

2 (28-ounce) cans fire-roasted tomatoes, crushed by hand, juices reserved

Salt and black pepper to taste

1. In a 3-quart saucepan, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add onion and garlic, and cook until soft and light golden brown, about 8 to 10 minutes.

2. Add the thyme, carrot, and celery and cook 5 minutes more, until the carrot is quite soft. Add tomatoes and juice, and bring to a boil, stirring often.

3. Lower heat, and simmer for 30 minutes.

4. Taste and add salt, if needed, and freshly ground black pepper to taste.

- Michael Sultan of Street Food Philly food truck

Per Serving (based on 1/2 cup): 76 calories; 1.3 grams protein; 8.3 grams carbohydrates; 3.8 grams sugar; 4.3 grams fat; 0 milligrams cholesterol; 498 milligrams sodium; 2.7 grams dietary fiber.


Sum Pig's Fire-Roasted Chili

Makes 6 to 8 servings

11/2 cups yellow onion, chopped

2 tablespoons garlic, minced

1 medium zucchini, ends trimmed and diced

2 cups corn kernels

2 tablespoons chili powder

1 tablespoon ground cumin

1 1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon cayenne

1 28-ounce can fire-roasted, diced tomatoes

1 14.5-ounce can fire-roasted, diced tomatoes with green chilies

3 cups cooked black beans, rinsed and drained

1 cup cooked kidney beans, rinsed and drained

1 cup vegetable stock or water

1/4 cup chopped cilantro leaves

Sour cream and sharp grated cheddar, for garnish

1. In a large, heavy pot, heat oil over medium-high heat.

2. Add onion, garlic, zucchini, and corn and cook, stirring, until vegetables are soft and begin to brown around the edges, about 9 minutes.

3. Add chili powder, cumin, salt, and cayenne, and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds.

4. Add both cans of tomatoes, and stir well. Then add beans and vegetable stock or water, and bring to a boil.

5. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring occasionally, about 20 minutes.

6. Remove from heat, and stir in cilantro. Adjust seasoning and serve, garnishing with sour cream and cheddar.

- Jessica Iannuzzi, Sum Pig food truck  

Per serving (based on 8, with 1 tablespoon each of cheese and sour cream): 453 calories; 26 grams protein; 79 grams carbohydrates; 8 grams sugar; 5 grams fat; 7 milligrams cholesterol; 3,577 milligrams sodium; 18 grams dietary fiber.


smelamed@phillynews.com

215-854-5053

@samanthamelamed

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