Food Trucks Roll In to the Anaheim Convention Center

While some venues are still puzzling over how to compete with food trucks, the Anaheim Convention Center has found a popular, profitable way to work with them.

Like many Southern California locales, Anaheim is blessed with year-round sunshine, lush greenery, and — especially in recent years — a growing army of food trucks. And like many convention centers, for a time the Anaheim Convention Center saw those ever-popular trucks as competition for its own on-site concessions. Due to the local fire code, food trucks aren’t allowed inside the center — and if they parked around the center’s perimeter, they might siphon F&B dollars away from the venue and its in-house caterer, Aramark.

It was a puzzle. Then in 2013, the center renovated 100,000 square feet of previously unused outdoor space and anointed it the Grand Plaza. Staff began marketing the parcel to meeting planners as a unique, ancillary venue for events. “We had to come up with a way to get food [to attendees] out there,” said Patrick Smart, senior sales manager for the center.

Smart and his colleagues were well aware of Anaheim’s expanding portfolio of food trucks. So why not bring them to the Grand Plaza?

Rethinking a Challenge

Convention centers and food trucks are not always at odds. For instance, the Tampa Convention Center has had success with a monthly Brews & Bites Food Truck Rally, a standalone event that occasionally coincides with — and enhances — events at the center.

Attendees often leave the premises for their on-the-go lunches; the online foodie forum Chowhound.com is filled with users exchanging tips about food trucks, carts, and windows near meeting venues such as the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle.

In Anaheim, staff decided to test out a new partnership with food trucks during the 90,000-attendee National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) Show in January 2013, inviting what Smart calls “an embarrassingly low” number of trucks — three, precisely — to feed attendees. That trio of trucks ended up making money for everyone — the mobile eateries and the convention center. “We did total revenue over four days of about $60,000,” Smart said.

The event was such an early and solid success that the center began calling the trucks in for more events — a total of 31 in 2014. “We brought them in for volleyball events. We brought them in for association shows,” Smart said. The most recent NAMM Show, this past January, earned the center $343,000 in revenue from 11 food trucks. Total cash sales at the trucks were $1.7 million in 2014. “Two years in,” Smart said, “it’s been a massive victory, and mutually beneficial.”

Mutually beneficial, indeed. Even as food-truck sales on the Grand Plaza skyrocketed — participating trucks agree to share profits with the center — catering sales inside the center spiked, from $354,000 in 2013 to $1.2 million in 2014. “Some of the concerns about food trucks are that they will draw attendees away from concessions,” said Aramark’s Debbie Juliani, director of marketing and VIP events for the center. “That simply hasn’t been the case [in Anaheim]. These people aren’t going into Anaheim to grab lunch — they’re staying here. It’s a really unique, great thing that we’re able to offer.”

“It’s certainly something that my clients get excited about,” Smart said. “And we have a core group [of food trucks] that’s very versatile,” including the Tasting Spoon, whose chef won on the cooking-competition TV show “Chopped” last year, and the Devilicious Food Truck, which serves morsels such as pork-belly grilled-cheese sandwiches. “Sometimes we pair [the food] with local craft breweries.”

Time Is of the Essence

Both the trucks and the center’s management are careful to keep service moving swiftly. Indeed, the center requires trucks to scale down their menus to two or three items, especially during big events. “People kind of freak out, thinking about lines,” Juliani said. “It’s a very quick process. We actually get them through the lines quickly.”

Of course, there are worse things than waiting for a Nutella-topped waffle from the Waffles De Liege truck in the Anaheim sunshine, surrounded by swaying palm trees. “[The trucks] also allow attendees to stay close to the building and close to the exhibits, and they create a festival environment,” Smart said. “It also enables planners with less money [to spend] to utilize the central plaza as a networking space.”

The center actively promotes the Grand Plaza on its website via videos, a “Grand PlazaVille” interactive space planner, and a live web cam. The food trucks are an added bonus to the vibrant space. “When you’re out there, it almost feels like the space was designed for food trucks,” Smart said. “All things being equal, it’s something we’re doing here that is very unique.”

Corin Hirsch

Corin Hirsch is a writer who specializes in food and drink.