Food Truck Pairs Tasty Cuisine, Appetizing Content

“No shirt, no shoes, no service” may still apply at many restaurants, but a new food truck near the University of Delaware operates with a new set of rules: “no forks, great service, good content.”

I Don’t Give a Fork, opened by recent Delaware graduate Leigh Ann Tona, serves a variety of 6-inch breakfast and lunch sandwiches that include veggie options — grilled zucchini cakes with chipotle mayo — and more traditional choices like the Mac & Cheese-steak.

For Tona, starting a business was always a matter of when, not if.

“A lot of what I learned wasn’t during classes, but entrepreneurial events and networking,” she said. “The advice I heard most frequently was ‘just do it’ or ‘take a risk,’ so I did.”

Without the funding or experience to open a restaurant, Tona used personal savings and a $1,000 grant from Delaware’s Entrepreneurial Studies Program Business Idea Pitch Competition to launch her mobile eatery. The aggressive approach taught Tona to make quick, creative adjustments, a philosophy that carried over to her advertising strategy.

Tona may not have the capital to spend on traditional advertising, but she’s found ways to maximize her resources through social media. She manages her company Facebook and Twitter profiles during down time in the truck.

She also sells I Don’t Give a Fork t-shirts and encourages customers to post pictures in the merchandise around the globe. The truck only opened a few weeks ago, but the “World Travelers” link on the official website already features responses from Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Wales.

“Social media is huge in food trucking and the students are really tuned in to that sort of thing, as is the University of Delaware, which has a big following,” she said. “My short-term goal is to raise awareness around campus, and over the next year, I want most people at the university to know I Don’t Give a Fork by name.”

To help generate buzz before the grand opening, Tona blogged about the process of starting her own business from scratch. She wrote weekly articles about topics such as customer responses to her menu selections and the process of buying a food truck. In her last post, Tona discussed how it felt for the president of the University of Delaware to mention I Don’t Give a Fork during his graduation speech.

Tona continues to search for new avenues of creative advertising. In September, she was briefly featured in Mobile Cuisine’s “New Food Trucks You May Have Missed” article, and a few weeks later, Mobile Cuisine selected the Mac & Cheese-steak for it’s favorite entrée competition. Tona’s signature sandwich came in second place out of eleven entries with almost 400 votes.

Measuring success means more than gaining a few fans on Facebook or followers on Twitter. Tona has parlayed her growing presence into new opportunities for exposure. On weekdays, she serves 40-50 customers, and on Saturdays during college football games, she averages more than 100 customers. However, the impact from her publicity helped her land spots in events like the Wilmington Making Strides Against Breast Cancer 5k. At large events, Tona gets more than 200 customers per day.

“I have a lot of repeat customers, and I think it is because I serve high-quality food, which sets me apart from other restaurants and food carts. It’s risky for a twenty-two year-old college graduate to start a food truck with her own money, but I have a pretty extensive menu and everything is homemade. I try to talk to as many customers as possible and try to do word-of-mouth advertising as much as possible. I want to keep building off of my initial success.”

Tona hopes to franchise I Don’t Give a Fork and move to other locations. Her challenge is to find a balance between developing an online identity and satisfying the hunger pangs of her collegiate diners.

Think of it as The Social Network meets the Food Network, a successful recipe thus far.

Image by Flickr

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