What is ClusterTruck? Well, it’s hard to say. To the people of Indianapolis it is the perfect solution to the question, what am I having for lunch? To the food delivery industry, it is the company that is setting standards for how food should be delivered. To me, it is the perfect blend of a tech start-up and a restaurant and it is exciting. It allows diners to get quality food from nearly any restaurant concept delivered to their door and for it to taste fresh. You may, much like I originally did, think it is like any of the other meal delivery options in the city, but after a trip to see behind-the-scenes, I can attest that it is unlike any other dining option in Indy. In their own words, “ClusterTruck is made of people revolutionizing the way meals are ordered, prepared, and delivered. We are technologists, culinary experts, and logistics savants; all unified for the cause of creating a food delivery experience worthy of our community.”
“We opened The Mug in Greenfield to help move our product from the farm [Tyner Pond Farm] and along the way we started doing online orders, we quickly realized how painful online orders are and how much friction it caused in the restaurant,” Chris Baggot, ClusterTruck’s founder, says to me as I mow down on a Mug Double, “about that time is when GrubHub went public and I looked into it and wondered, why would restaurants do this?” What he means is why would a restaurant pay 26 percent to GrubHub, they’re charging their customer a delivery fee, and they are just the middle man. It hurts the restaurant and hurts the customer.
Baggot has a history in software companies and in the food industry — he started Exact Target, Tyner Pond Farm (which means you're getting the best locally-sourced meat when you eat ClusterTruck) and The Mug amongst other things — and he had an idea of how these companies are more or less screwing over the small restaurant businesses.
Baggot continues, “The reason restaurants turn to the GrubHubs and OrderUps, is because these companies promise to get the restaurants food to a new audience, to basically do marketing for them. It’s not working for the restaurants though … so, I got to thinking, who are the best marketers in the food industry and my mind automatically went to food trucks. You have to be a good marketer to run a successful food truck. They move everyday and so, they have to have a direct relationship with the customer. So I started talking to food truck owners.”
What Chris found is that running a food truck is a hard business. But, one thing that helps is when a group of food trucks come together and form a “cluster truck” and allow people to eat this or that. Having multiple trucks in one locale allows for the customers to be happy because each person in a group can get what they want and for the food trucks it brings in a client base that maybe they would have never seen. From this idea ClusterTruck was born, a mashing of multiple worlds. Unlike with the limited size of a food truck, this business model allows for one kitchen to cook and serve meals from any food truck style, whether it be burgers, burritos, or breakfast. It also allows the team the ability to create brand new concepts with the changing wants of customers.
That queso fundido I’m eating, Chris suggested it when we were downstairs ten minutes ago. It wasn’t on their menu, it wasn’t something they had tested before, it was just something he suggested. Ten minutes later it was a reality. This to me is the beauty of ClusterTruck; there is no limit to what the team can come up with and dish out. Their kitchen is massive and with the creative, business-minded Baggot at the helm, they have the opportunity to be inventive and to grow and adapt to the tastes of their clientele.
Travis Hall, Vice-President of Marketing, is showing me around their kitchen when he explains just how adaptable the kitchen is. During their first few weeks they noticed they were doing well on the weekdays when people were downtown for work, but on the weekends it slowed down considerably. But, this being a tech company, they pay close attention to analytics. Travis was noticing spikes early on the weekends, during breakfast time. So, now they have their new Lazy Breakfast from 9 a.m. through 3 p.m. and you have the amazing option of having it delivered to your curb. Short Rib Hash in bed is the perfect solution to a Saturday hangover.
This blending of tech and restaurant savvy, while beneficial to the consumer, is also paying off huge dividends for the company as well. If you look at an average restaurant, think of any run of the mill restaurant, they are most-likely selling somewhere between $300 and $600 per square foot. Even top contenders like Chipotle (before they had a few fiascos) are selling about $840 per square foot. In fact, when you look at the most profitable well-known restaurant in the world, Cheesecake Factory, they are selling right around $1,000 per square foot. “When you look at the Cheesecake Factory here in Indy,” says Baggot, “they are doing something like 13 million in sales a year. Which no one does, no one even breaks 10 million. It’s because of their broad menu, they have 210 items on their menu and many of those use the same ingredients. Which is the same idea here at ClusterTruck.” ClusterTruck, in case you’re wondering, is selling about $1,600 per square foot.
So how is it different from all the other delivery options in the city? Well, first off, the fact that it is a blending of two worlds. Stepping through the door of the ClusterTruck operation, a glance to your left shows you a sprawling kitchen of stainless steel counters, burning broilers, fast-paced cooks, and computer screens flashing with names and orders. If you keep walking straight ahead and up a narrow staircase, you will be greeted by a room full of computers and a group of people typing away and monitoring ever-changing numbers and graphs on screens. It feels more like walking into a small Silicon Valley operation. If it weren’t for the savory smell wafting up from downstairs you would have no idea you were in a the presence of a food-minded company. This is the part you don’t see. All of the algorithms that go on to get you fresh, tasty food.
Another aspect that sets them apart, you’ll never get food that isn’t fresh. This isn't a restaurant making a dish and then waiting for a driver from a separate company to show up and an indeterminate time. This is the benefit of ClusterTruck being a tech company. It is the middle of a lunch rush and I’m amazed to see how fluidly all of the moving parts of this operation work. Travis explains the process as I’m watching it. Say for example you order a bowl of What the Pho!, and say it takes the kitchen 7 minutes to make a bowl. You also order a side of Sriracha Blue Tots (why wouldn’t you?) and those take 3 minutes to make. But, the closest driver is still twelve minutes away. In your average delivery system, there is no accounting for when a driver will arrive, and there is a good chance that your tots are dropped at the same time as they start building your pho. So, your food has been under a heat lamp, tots getting soggy, pho getting cold, before the driver even arrives.
The software that keeps ClusterTruck running smoothly and proficiently knows that driver is twelve minutes away. So, your pho doesn’t even show on the screen until the driver is seven minutes away, that is when it kicks off. Then, when the driver is three minutes away, that’s when the tots drop. As your driver is arriving your food is being bagged, taken out of the kitchen and in the driver’s hand. Five minutes later it is at your curb and a minute later you’re sitting on your couch, slurping fresh pho, munching on crispy, spicy tots and watching Daredevil.
It’s a work of art and all you have to do is enjoy.
To find out if you are in their delivery area head to clustertruck.com/location
and type in your address.
A still-bubbling pan of cheese makes its way to the tabletop by my elbow. I look to my left and see the fresh chopped herbs and veggies on top and the hint of spicy chorizo under the yellow surface. ClusterTruck’s Executive Chef, Tim Mcintosh, sits down a large hotel pan full of chips, “Queso fundido.” Despite being stuffed from the insanely good Mug Double I just inhaled, I can’t pass up a bite and then another, and another.