How to Run a Food Truck 02: Practice Plating and Presentation

In last week’s “How to Run a Food Truck” lesson, we helped you establish what your new employees need to learn and went over some of the best training strategies to ramp up your team for success. This new blog series is all about teaching you everything you need to know to make your food truck as great as it can be, so today we’re excited to present a very special lesson that’s guaranteed to make your menu even more appetizing.

How could it be possible for your marinara-and-mozzarella-drenched meatball sub to be even more mouthwatering? The secret is all in how you plate and present the dish—and we’ve got the scoop on what you can do to make every meal look even more picturesque. Let’s start out by taking a quick look at why presentation is so important.

Why Food Presentation Matters

How many times have you seen an advertisement like this…

burgerad

…and then headed to your favorite fast food chain only to receive a burger that looked more like this?

realburger

The difference between the burger you expected to get and the burger you actually received lies in plating and presentation. See, when restaurants prepare meals to be photographed for commercials or advertisements, they put a lot of effort into making sure the dish looks its absolute best. That means putting on plenty of garnishes, using the plumpest and freshest hamburger buns, and pulling a juicy burger right off the grill. The actual burger you receive is almost certainly going to look a lot different from the way it was advertised, because these restaurants don’t put the same effort into the way they prepare each burger.

Of course, the disappointing reality of what you’re served doesn’t necessarily keep you from coming back, as it’s something that most people are conditioned to accept. But can you imagine how excited you would feel if you found a restaurant that served bountiful burgers as beautiful as those on TV? You’d be getting cravings all the time and telling all your friends about the incredible place you discovered.

That’s the feeling we want to aim for with your food truck’s meals. We want your customers to be blown away by the incredible-looking meals they’re handed at your window, and we want them to never feel disappointed by the way something on your menu looks. Whether you’re advertising photos of your food on social media or simply allowing customers to paint pictures in their minds from your menu’s descriptions, it’s up to you to make sure that the actual dish each person receives looks as good or even better than he or she expected.

Seven Plating Strategies to Increase Your Food’s Aesthetic Appeal

Okay—so you don’t have to be an expert chef to understand that food that looks good will be more appealing to your customers than a dish that is thrown together sloppily. It’s pretty clear that attractive meals are appetizing, and that many people are willing to pay more for pleasing aesthetics. But what exactly can you do to improve the way your food looks?

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Follow these seven plating and presentation principles to take your food truck’s meals from plain to pizazz!

1. Color

One of the easiest ways to bring a little drama to your dish is through the use of varied colors. Meals that make use of ingredients in multiple hues are inherently a little more interesting to the eye and will subconsciously perk up your customer’s appetite.

Instead of serving a plain chicken breast over white rice with a creamy gravy or cheese sauce, try adding some fresh green veggies on the side, a few juicy tomato slices, and some carrot curls as a garnish. Obviously, any ingredient you add should not detract from the flavor of the dish—but a few bonus elements or a simple decorative touch that coordinate with your meal’s existing flavors and add some color to the plate can go a long way toward making a meal more visually appealing.

2. Placement

Whether you’re adding extra elements to your meal for a burst of color or you’re looking for the best way to serve your existing meal, it’s important to consider how you place each item on the customer’s plate. Food placement has a big impact on how the customer perceives his or her meal. When items are spaced too far apart, the customer might feel like your portions aren’t big enough—but if everything is crowded together, the meal might start to look a little messy and jumbled.

Typically, it’s best to start out by placing the main portion of the meal on the plate first and then spacing the other sides and ingredients around it. If you’re adding a sauce or dressing to the meal, drizzle or spoon it on last so that you can control the flow and prevent it from getting all over another part of the dish.

3. Texture and Consistency

Over the months and years you’ve spent perfecting your recipes, you’ve probably given a lot of attention to the texture and consistency of your recipes—making sure that each dish is not too runny, too crunchy, or too tough. Now that you’re working on presenting your meals in the best fashion, it’s also important to think about how different textures and consistencies work together. Just like the color of each item on your customer’s plate, variety is best when it comes to serving different textures and consistencies.

Many great chefs incorporate multiple textures and consistencies into one dish, while others opt to strike a balance through the various items they serve. Think about how your customers will eat the dish and try to introduce several variations into each meal. If you’re serving a juicy, messy sandwich that’s covered in dripping sauces, add a scoop of crispy French fries to the side. Similarly, creamy soups pair well with toasted sandwiches. The juxtaposition of varied textures and consistencies will definitely be noticed by hungry customers who have a craving for quality.

4. Dishes and Utensils

We’ve explained before that your truck’s dishes and utensils are an extension of your brand—but they can also have a major effect on how your customers perceive their meals. Food that is tossed hastily into a plain white Styrofoam container maintains a pretty casual air about it, while a cardboard box printed with your food truck’s logo and a clever tagline will look like you put a little more thought into your food’s presentation. There is no right or wrong answer as to how you serve your food, but it is important to think about the message you’re sending about your brand before you begin ordering plates, to-go boxes, and utensils.

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It’s also important to choose dishes and utensils that make eating a pleasant experience for the customer. Though a hulking burrito that drips out of its paper wrapping when you eat it might sound delicious and decadent, it’s not a very practical choice for someone who needs to grab a meal they can eat at their desk—and as such, many customers will avoid your truck when they’re in a hurry or eating with company. Serve your food in appropriately sized containers and make sure to offer all of the utensils (and napkins!) that someone will need to properly enjoy a meal from your truck.

5. Temperature and Freshness

Plating and presentation aren’t exclusively about how the food looks—it’s also about the condition the food is in when it reaches your customer. That’s where temperature and freshness come in.

Clearly, you want each dish you serve to be as fresh and delicious as possible when it reaches your customer. However, that’s often a lot easier said than done when it comes to preparing food on a food truck (or when you’re preparing the food in a commissary and then transporting it via your truck). To get the temperatures and quality levels right, you’ll need to be especially careful with how you store your ingredients and how you prepare each meal. No customer wants to order a plate of your famous fried chicken mac and cheese only to receive a dish with a hot piece of chicken and lukewarm noodles with gloppy cheese sauce. Keep hot foods on the burner right up until the moment you’re ready to plate the food and have your garnishes and side dishes ready to go. Ideally, food should be handed to the customer within just a couple minutes of coming off the grill in order to keep everything fresh and at the proper temperatures.

6. Garnish

We discussed the idea of adding garnishes to your meals briefly in the section on color, but it’s also important to mention garnishes that are simply added to bring a little drama to your meal. As we mentioned before, garnishes should never compete with the other flavors going on in your dish—they should simply enhance the ingredients or add a bit of aesthetic appeal without detracting from the recipe.

Parsley leaves are one of the most common garnishes you’ll see at a restaurant, but you should feel free to get a lot more creative in your food truck’s kitchen. Think about adding small touches like a drizzle of sauce over a dessert, a few thin apple or pear slices atop a barbecued piece of meat, or some fresh veggies cut into floret shapes served on the side of a sandwich and fries. Each of these garnishes can be added to a dish in less than 10 seconds (if you’ve prepped them ahead of time), and they can leave a big impression on customers who are new to your truck.

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7. The Little Extras

On a similar note, adding little extras to the presentation of your meal can really make a standard dish stand out. The idea here is to get as creative as you want while still keeping the meal’s presentation functional. Consider everything your customer needs to eat the meal and how you can make the experience of eating at your truck even better.

For example, instead of keeping a plastic container of ketchup packets by your truck’s window, take the time to pump the ketchup from a large jug in the back of your truck into a small plastic container that’s served on the side of the dish. Add a small bonus like a free cookie or a fun-sized piece of candy to each customer’s order. Slip a small piece of paper with a “thought for the day” or an inspirational quote in the bottom of each to-go sack. These small extras are simple to execute, but they can leave a lasting memory in your customer’s mind and make him or her more likely to return (and to bring some friends along!).

Keep Your Food Truck Moving

We know that as a new food truck owner, there are lots of struggles you’re facing each day to keep your business running and to manage your (hopefully steady) stream of customers. If you feel like you’re struggling just to keep up with the line of orders even without adding on these extra steps, that’s okay—plating and presentation are areas that most chefs and restaurateurs perfect over many months and years of service. You can practice these strategies on your days off and focus on adding in one element at a time. As with all of the lessons in this unit on your first few weeks on the streets, these are simply tips to help you make your truck even better as you get more comfortable in your daily routine.

Coming up next week, we’ll move on to Lesson 03—a section that’s all about updating your location so that fans always know where to find you. Consistent, reliable location updates are essential to your food truck’s long-term success, so you won’t want to miss this one!

Until then, we’d love to hear about how you’re currently presenting your food. Where did you find your truck’s dishes and utensils? How long does it take each dish to make it from the grill to the customer’s hands? Share your experiences with us in the comments below or on Facebook or Twitter!

images by Nancy Xu, choko (image was cropped for this post), and Mike V

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About the Author

FoodTruckr

FoodTruckr is the #1 online destination for current and aspiring food truck owners looking to succeed in the mobile food industry. Self described “food truck devotees,” the FoodTruckr team enjoys reading about successful entrepreneurs, salivating over photos of burritos on Twitter, and long walks through food truck parks. Chat with FoodTruckr on Facebook or check out the FoodTruckr School podcast for more awesome tips to level up your business.

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