Many new business owners looking to break into the market have made fast friends with social media options, especially Twitter. But a smart, quirky Twitter strategy can't erase the barriers to entry that have crippled many small business owners in the past.
For instance, Twitter has eradicated the old problem of foot traffic for many street vendors, by letting foodies tweet their whereabouts to potential (and loyal) custoemrs. In the past year, street vending has become something of a phenomenon. New vendors have learned quickly: If you’ve got quality food and a cellphone, you can send out a Twitter and tell your customers where to find you.
But social media can’t solve all the problems for new owners in what was once a very downmarket business demographic. For starters, not everyone is a fan of upwardly mobile trucks.
This is something that the owner of the Schnitzel & Things truck learned recently in New York when he parked his truck near a longtime vending stalwart on a Midtown Manhattan block.
The problem started when the Schnitzel & Things Truck drove up to start selling food and found some of the established vendors on the block didn't appreciate his presence. The Schnitzel owner tells Midtown Lunch:
“We got harassed by 4 different dudes as soon as we showed up.. But we weren’t having it man.. Whatever, it was the usual, you know the “I’ve been on this block for 15 years” routine:) and??? You want us to move because??? Take a walk.. They wouldn’t leave us alone, I called the cops on them for harassment:) then they brought their own cops, it was a freaking mess but funny, cuz they couldn’t do anything.. We reasoned with the cops and they didn’t do anything but leave and the guys were left in bewilderment .."
While street turf wars may seem like an antiquated form of competition, it's a reality for business owners who make their living on wheels. And the world of street vendors represents a marked clash between old school and new school ways of doing business.
Street vendors have spent years staking out their territory on city blocks. And while Twitter may make it easier to get in touch with customers, it doesn't change the difficulties of finding a place to park, or help businesses deal with their competition.
The creation of Twitter has been a boon to foodies looking to start a business with low overhead. John Bowler, a vending cart owner in Los Angeles, says that he shredded his startup costs by opening a cart instead of a full fledged restaurant, spending about $40,000 to get started, compared to the $200,000 it would cost to start a restaurant.
And by simply sending out a tweet about their location, vendors can keep foot traffic headed their way no matter where they travel. Starting with the Kogi Korean taco truck in Los Angeles, urban areas have been inundated with trucks that tweet. And the list of street vendors using Twitter just keeps getting longer.
But as the economy has continued to dwindle, bargain food sales haven't stayed so lucrative. In Los Angeles, for instance, many laid off employees have turned to street vending to earn cash. But as more vendors have entered seemingly recession proof markets like ice cream sales, ice cream truck sales have actually declined 25% in the city.
Flooding the vending market could soon be a bigger problem. James Rojas, founder of the Latino Urban Forum in LA tells the LATimes:
“Traditionally, taco trucks were very working class—janitors, secretaries, people on public transit—but now they’ve been adopted by the middle class as a legitimate way to buy and sell food. I think people under 30 want to bike and walk and take transit. These aren’t Latinos that have to take transit. These are privileged, middle-class kids. So taco trucks are targeting this group.”
The recent proliferation of mobile gourmet options has been great for urban residents. But it may not be such an awesome business model. Even the Kogi truck, with all of the major media coverage it has received, is constantly fending off imitators (the most recent? Baja Fresh).
But the vending wars point to a good lesson: If you’ve heard of an innovative way to use social media to boost sales, you’re probably not the only one. And a good social media strategy isn't going to help businesses sale by real world problems that have plagued new companies for years.
From Midtown Lunch:
"While Twitter can be a monster marketing tool that can create instant crowds (and profits) it’s not usually the case. Like any business you have to pay your dues, and build up your customer base over time. It’s not going to be easy at the beginning, but the key (as it has always been with street vending) is consistency. Don’t be lured in by the freedoms that you think twitter affords you."
Image: Midtown Lunch