On the recent and warm Friday night when Raleigh's Red Hat Amphitheater launched its 2015 concert season, the lines for Becky Jo Cascio's pizza-slinging food truck were so long she couldn't tell where the queues ended and the crowds began.
In only four hours, Pie Pushers peddled nearly 800 slices of pizza, with receipts totaling more than $3,000. Cascio was so busy that, at show's end, she suggested to organizers that they recruit more food trucks for the next concert.
But Cascio and Pie Pushers weren't actually in Raleigh. Instead, they were working in Carrboro, selling their pies to a sold-out crowd of 4,500 at an outdoor Sylvan Esso show. Back in Raleigh, where the British band alt-j had sold all 6,000 tickets to its outdoor set, Red Hat had a food truck of its own. Despite the bigger audience, however, the Taco Bell truck—making its third appearance in the city-owned amphitheater—sold only $320 worth of tacos, bean burritos and platters of nachos.
"Those sales figures aren't exactly where we'd like them to be," says Teresa Eberwein, the director of marketing at Luihn Four. The Morrisville-based company owns 83 fast food restaurants throughout the Southeast, and one of its most recent acquisitions is the Taco Bell truck. "But we want to have it available for people who haven't had the chance to taste Taco Bell lately."
What the Taco Bell truck lacked in sales, it made up for in controversy, generating a flood of online snark during and after the concert. Several posts by the blog New Raleigh, for instance, criticized the venue's choice to go with a global fast-food chain when more than 100 locally based food trucks now roam the streets of the Triangle. Subsequent commenters didn't take it any easier on Red Hat. But venue management maintains the food truck arrangement is part of a sponsorship deal that's essential to its bottom line. City records suggest, however, it's possible for the amphitheater to make more money by using local vendors.
"It's not that we're pushing everyone out, but these concerts are not a huge profit opportunity for anybody," says Taylor Traversari, who manages the amphitheater on behalf of the Raleigh Convention Center. "Taco Bell is looking for exposure, and I don't think a food truck is looking for exposure. They're looking to make money."
The truck's appearance, says Traversari, is part of a $40,000 sponsorship contract between Taco Bell, Pepsi and Live Nation. After $5,000 of that sum is reimbursed through free tickets, the venue and Live Nation split the remaining $35,000 evenly. In exchange for that money, Taco Bell's name appears on concert announcements and promotional materials. They hang four banners inside the amphitheater. And then, at every show, they park their food truck alongside an open amphitheater gate on Lenoir Street, with more signs directing people to spend $6 for a "Nachos Bell Grande."
By allowing the truck on the amphitheater grounds, Traversari says he's able to limit the number of Taco Bell banners he must hang in the space while supplementing the venue's existing, largely local eats.
"We were talking about food options, and we needed more. It was a good sponsorship activation for them, and it kept them online as a sponsor. That money is important to us," Traversari says. "We used that activation as solving somewhat of a problem of needing more food options."
The amphitheater has only three key sponsorships—a six-figure deal with Red Hat, a smaller one with beer distributor Mims and Taco Bell. Traversari says the $17,500 sum is necessary for sustaining the amphitheater's operations. The venue also pads its bottom line with a 30 percent cut of the truck's net profits, or $112.11 (including tax) at the season opener.
But the amphitheater could actually surpass that sponsorship number with some extra effort, with or without Taco Bell. Though Traversari initially claimed Red Hat could only accommodate one food truck, he admits that a little reconfiguration would allow two or three operating at once. They've previously experimented with small food truck rodeos outside of the gate.
For the space, each truck either pays a $300 flat fee or, as Taco Bell does, forks over 30 percent of its income at the end of each gig. Traversari estimates that Red Hat will host 37 shows this year. If the venue booked two food trucks for each show and both vendors paid the $300 fee, they would generate $22,200, nearly $5,000 more than it receives from Taco Bell's sponsorship. This sum wouldn't need to be split with Live Nation.
Four food truck owners and employees agree that those terms are high but not unreasonable. And no one worries that Taco Bell's low sales figures suggest a market for food trucks at these concerts doesn't exist; the option simply has to be marketed, so that people can expect to eat at the show instead of before it.
"Whenever we go to a new location or someone does an event for the first time, you have to build the audience up," says Cascio, a key organizer of Durham's successful food truck rodeos. "If Red Hat hasn't had a lot of food trucks, people just aren't used to it. The more they put in a solid effort to have them and promote them, it becomes another fun part of the event."
Brian Bottger owns Only Burger, a Triangle truck staple for so long it has spawned two brick-and-mortar locations. The market is so crowded with trucks, he says, their owners are clamoring for new events to try. They'd happily take a chance on a rock concert. But no one has ever contacted him about the chance to park Only Burger at Red Hat.
"You could have a different truck out there every week, but that requires someone to do it. Someone has to book it. Someone has to make sure they have insurance and have had health inspections," says Bottger. "But you can stick a corporate sponsor in there and say, 'You've got the gig, and I don't have to do any more work.' But what are you really trying to accomplish?"