To the streets: EatMobile to fully launch at Tampa Bay Startup Week

The Tampa-based company is easing the connection between food trucks and communities.

click to enlarge Stephanie Swanz of Empamamas is one local food trucker EatMobile is working closely with. - EatMobile
Stephanie Swanz of Empamamas is one local food trucker EatMobile is working closely with.

On a hot day in the middle of summer, Matt Land and Jacob Lishen were in desperate need of ice cream. Having seen an uninviting ice cream truck roll by (it was more of a sketchy-looking white van than the jingling sweets mobile you ran to as a kid), the best friends since eighth grade started brainstorming.

“Matt made the comment like, ‘I really wish that that was a better option for me to immediately stop and get a hold of,’” said Lishen, an co-founder of EatMobile alongside Land, Land’s mother Lori Townsend and Rob Vandaveer. “And we were able to, from that moment on, start leveraging just the imagination and developing what now is EatMobile.”

Through their Tampa-based company, they’re able to connect communities with food trucks, and vice versa, by alleviating what local food truckers see as an immediate need: booking. But that wasn’t what roommates Lishen and Land — who grew up together in a little town west of Daytona Beach called Pierson — originally envisioned for EatMobile, a two-year project that’s come together within the last six months.

Using their technology, sales and marketing backgrounds, the duo’s ideas transitioned from the ice cream truck business to the food truck industry, which got them thinking about Uber, Starbucks’ loyalty program and how mobile could be applied to food trucks. The co-founders took to the streets, speaking to food truckers around town and asking questions like, how are you running your business? What kind of advocates do you have? What are your challenges? What do you need on a day-to-day basis to be successful?

“With technology, we identified so many areas of opportunity. Food truckers today, they have no true technology partner, or even on the business development side, to help them do business. There’s no software that’s really made specifically for food trucks,” Land said.

“They’re using like 15 different things to run their business,” he continued, noting software like Square and QuickBooks, plus social media. “Just a really manual, gruesome process. There’s nothing that’s truly built for the food truck industry that’s done well and done right.”

After developing strategy for EatMobile for almost a year, “all these crazy ideas,” as Land describes, got them referred — and accepted — into Tampa Bay WaVE’s accelerator program. Access to high-level entrepreneurs, a coworking space and additional resources at the nonprofit startup incubator allowed the pair to really get to work.

Back in the streets at the Channel District’s monthly Flicks + Food Trucks gathering, Land and Lishen met Stephanie Swanz of Empamamas, who connected them to the Gulf to Bay Food Truck Association. The co-founders say Swanz and Surf and Turf Truck’s Adam and Beata Browne, also Gulf to Bay members, are their main point of contacts and part of the “EatMobile family.” Their partnership with the association and its 40-plus trucks, as well as other area food truckers like Blazin 28’s Dillon Walts, has given them the resources to evolve EatMobile into what the trucks want, rather than what they feel is best for the market.

That’s why they’ve put the tech side of their for-the-market, by-the-market company on the backburner in pursuit of event management. Essentially an advocate for the industry, they help food trucks and customers by finding catering and event opportunities (think company retreats and weddings), contacting trucks and coordinating schedules — a responsibility usually left to the food trucks themselves, with the exception of a few third-party vendors, according to the duo.

“People were dealing with the issues of finding and bringing trucks to their locations… and that ease of connection between the customer and the trucks themselves,” Lishen said. “There was a lack of that entirely on the platform side, which is what we originally based our steps forward into — and what we still have plans to do. But as of now what we’re really working on is more of the event management.”

How does it work? Clients contact EatMobile with event or catering details (location, date, time and general info) and an “EatMobile Professional” gets in touch with photos, reviews and menus for local trucks. All clients have to do is pick their truck, then chow down.

The company, which soft-launched in November for Startup Weekend, is set to fully launch during Tampa Bay Startup Week, held at venues on both sides of the bay. This five-day, conference-style event, a helpful (and inspirational) guide for entrepreneurs looking to transform an idea into a successful business model, will feature food trucks for lunch, as organized by EatMobile.

“We’re making sure that the food requirements that Startup Week has are met, their budgetary needs are met, all the backend management is met — the legal aspects behind that with parking and logistics, talking to the city,” Lishen said.

From Feb. 13 to 15, when the event takes place in Tampa Heights, theyll give the first 150 ticket holders who stop by their branded table a free voucher for a prepared food truck meal on behalf of Startup Week. They can use the $6.67 voucher as a credit for a more expensive item and pay the difference, or use cash or card at the order window, as can passersby.

On Feb. 16 and 17 at downtown St. Petes Station House, however, money transactions cant take place on the street where the trucks are parked. Once attendees scoop up the first-come, first-served vouchers at the EatMobile table, more will be for sale at $5, $10 and $15. Non-ticket holders arent permitted to enjoy the grub here, but a percentage of sales from the additional vouchers will benefit Feeding Tampa Bay.

“All the laws, there’s a lot of gray area and uncertainty because it’s a newer industry and people don’t really know how to regulate it yet. We’re working through it — that’s another thing that we do,” Land said. “So that’s kind of the [agreement] we worked out. But it’s the first time trucks have ever been allowed at Station House. It’s kind of our first step getting these trucks in better positions.”

Tampa is the beta market EatMobile has chosen to master. From here, they’ll spread to Orlando, Miami, Jacksonville, Atlanta and on. The plan is to spend a weekend, as they can, in a different location and educate the neighborhood — or “family of food trucks” in a local area, as Lishen puts it — on what they can offer, networking city by city.

Once the catering and events booking process is solid, the tech, or business-to-consumer, aspects of the company will re-emerge (think loyalty reward points and geolocation). Plus, the four co-founders can also begin building what they call the “food truck platform” with mobile point of sale and other software.

“We want to be the connection between the customers and the clients and the food trucks. We want the customers to enjoy the experience as much as the food trucks enjoy the opportunity to serve them,” Lishen said. “Because what we found was a lot of food trucks were people who didn’t want to be in corporate America, were very passionate about what they did, passionate about the food they made.”

Land added: “And that really blows me away, just the demographic and how they are. What we’re doing is accelerating spending at local businesses, which goes back into the local economy and grows the community and brings people together. And everyone loves food. It’s a happy medium.”

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