TGI Fridays embraces the food truck trend – with just one minor snag

June 19

It’s young, it’s hip, and it’s not coming to a street corner near you.

Restaurant mega-chain TGI Fridays rolled a 16-foot-long food truck into D.C. this week. Staffed by 20-somethings and stocked with free samples, the truck is traveling across the country to convince customers to “rethink” the Fridays they once knew.

The promotion promises: ‘The tank is full. The grill is hot. The road is open,” and that the truck is in town most of the week.

But you won’t find it parked during the lunchtime rush at Farragut Square or Union Station. The truck is 8 feet too long to comply with D.C. regulations and the company didn’t take the necessary steps to purchase a street vending permit.

Fridays’ food truck has been in the District since Monday, a restaurant spokesperson said, but is “parked at a secure location near a hotel.” It won’t serve any food until the Safeway Barbecue Battle downtown this weekend.

In a city where food truck culture is booming, Fridays on wheels is everything you want from a food truck: freshly made dishes, hand-written specials, enthusiastic servers praising whatever you’re about to taste. And it’s everything you’re trying to avoid by going to a food truck in the first place: a super-chain (with more than 900 locations), an expensive advertising campaign and standard American food.

“Food trucks are traditionally the smallest of the small businesses,” said Che Ruddell-Tabisola, director of the District Maryland Virginia Food Truck Association. “Many are just guys operating by themselves, maybe with just one staff member.”

Fridays isn’t the first corporate eatery to attempt the food truck fad. Taco BellChick-fil-A and Red Robin have all taken to wheel-powered distribution, with varying success. Instead of trying to compete with local trucks, the rise of the chain-turned-food truck is mostly about reaching millennials, the ever-coveted group of potential customers.

“Brands that millennials experienced as a child with their parents, they might not consider as relevant to the type of experience they want to have now,” said Ricky Richardson, president of TGI Fridays USA.

So, Fridays wants to be the place where you celebrated a good report card with an order of loaded potato skins — and the place where you tweet about your strawberry Red Bull lemonade.

The food truck is one of the last steps in a years-long process to revamp the Fridays image to attract that group of late teens and 20-somethings. Along with improvements in “handcrafted” food quality, the chain is redecorating each one of its restaurants. Pop culture paraphernalia on the walls has been replaced with black and white photographs and modern light fixtures.  The menus — formerly laminated and crammed with photos of burgers and buttery pasta dishes — are now hardbacked with a matte finish and sleek design. The employee uniform of slacks and striped polos has been traded for jeans and black t-shirts. (It’s been years since Fridays ditched the suspenders and novelty buttons — a change that “Office Space” director Mike Judge recently took credit for. Though “flair”-clad Jennifer Aniston didn’t actually work at Fridays.)

The food truck’s chalkboard-style exterior and Instagram-inspired marketing is all part of Fridays’ new image, Richardson said. It will stop in 20 cities throughout the summer, passing out samples of slider hamburgers, cocktails and Oreo cookie sandwiches.

To see and taste for yourself, head to the Safeway Barbecue Battle on Saturday or Sunday. If one chain food truck isn’t incentive enough to make you buy a $15 ticket, be warned: the Nutella truck will be there too.

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