People surely thought they were witnessing some kind of secret drug deal when the silver Saturn Vue pulled up in front of a downtown office building. The driver rolled down his passenger-side window, leaned over, and said, “Are you Julia?”
“Yes. Are you Ron?”
In response, the driver simply handed over a large brown paper bag. “Here you go,” he said. Then, as swiftly as the Vue arrived, it slipped back into the flow of lunch-hour traffic.
The entire transaction took less than 15 seconds. It was painless, anonymous, and Ron didn’t seem like the kind of guy who would judge me for the contents of that bag: plastic containers stacked to the fold, steaming with starchy, cheesy grub from the base of Guy Fieri’s food pyramid. But even as I stood there with the bag of ClusterTruck goods in my hands, I was no closer to understanding the company’s business model than I was when tech entrepreneur and food-sourcing visionary Chris Baggott rolled out the idea—with a live-streamed crowd-funding pitch to potential investors—back in May 2015.
I had a lot of questions. Is ClusterTruck a consortium of movable kitchens, as the catchy name implies? Is this one big, smartly packaged gimmick preying on the desk-bound? And what kind of wrinkle in the time-space continuum must occur for an online order of food to arrive, hot and fresh at my curb, barely 20 minutes after clicking on the “place order” button, which is faster than I could walk to City Market?
The blanket answer is that, as with any successful tech startup with a hashtag-friendly URL and a projected value of $1 billion, somebody with savvy had it all figured out—Baggott, to be exact. He had founded email marketing provider ExactTarget before starting his own content-marketing platform, Compendium. At his Tyner Pond Farm in Hancock County, he raises non-GMO livestock, and he runs the local-food distribution company Husk. Two summers ago, Baggott turned Greenfield’s beloved Frosty Mug drive-in into The Mug, coining the term “farm-to-curb dining” and rewriting the rulebook on greasy-spoon standards, and he’s opening an Irvington satellite this summer. Suffice it to say, he knows what he’s doing.
If you try to order something healthy, you’ll probably wind up staring longingly at your office mate’s massive breaded pork tenderloin.
All of the food on ClusterTruck’s online menu is prepared in one location, the former Indiana Pharmacists Alliance building, a two-story across the street from the American Legion Mall, its exterior adorned with a mural of ClusterTruck’s winged box van logo and its interior converted into an office space and bustling commercial kitchen. There, a staff of about 20 chefs and cooks assemble fewer than 100 transportable items, many with cute names like The Walking Egg Sandwich, What the Pho!, and Tot-Chos. “Everything is data-driven,” says Travis Hall, ClusterTruck’s VP of marketing. “We can see what items people are ordering, what time they are ordering them, and what items they are reordering. A regular restaurant can’t look out the window at the parking lot and get that kind of information.”
The original idea (which has since been tweaked) was that participating food trucks would share their proprietary recipes with the company and receive a percentage of the order price. As it stands, The Mug and Bru Burger (owned by a ClusterTruck partner, Mike Cunningham of Cunningham Restaurant Group) are the headline acts among a menu of offerings from virtual food trucks with legitimate-sounding names that seem to have followed the same guidelines as Designer Imposters perfumes. If you like Groovy Guys Fries, you’ll love our Tots Tots Tots. If you like Duos Mobile, you’ll love our Urban Grazers Salad.
But the genius of ClusterTruck lies in its tech-geeky delivery system, which can be described most accurately as Uber for food. Combining logistical software similar to the driver-for-hire model with a team of free-agent couriers like Ron in his Saturn Vue (and Matt in his black Toyota Camry and even Drew on a chrome 6KU track bike), the cyber restaurant can produce an entire spread of dishes, all presented at their proper serving temperatures—a Herculean feat that even some brick-and-mortar places struggle to achieve. Within the next year, a network of other strategically placed locations will join the downtown flagship with its three-mile delivery radius. When it hits its stride, ClusterTruck will spread to other downtown markets across the Midwest, Baggott says.
So that is how the sausage is made. But how does the sausage taste? Surprisingly, pretty good. Those Tot-Chos, a happy marriage of tater tots and nachos heavy with seasoned ground beef, charred salsa, guacamole, cilantro cream, and a fresh kick of pico de gallo, are worth every decimated Weight Watchers point—at once crisp and molten with hot white queso. Memphis dry-rub wings encased in a zesty coat of paprika and cayenne release that nice puff of steam when you bite into the meat. And a respectable casserole version of chilaquiles gets a punch of succulence from Tyner Pond Farm pork smoked on-site and the added marvel of a runny-yolked fried egg that somehow survives the trip perfectly intact.
If you try to order something healthy, you’ll probably wind up staring longingly at your office mate’s massive breaded pork tenderloin, comically sandwiched between a standard-sized bun that looks more like a bread garnish. It’s one of the nine items (including a pork-laden Cuban and a grilled cheese layered with pulled pork, pimento cheese, and macaroni and cheese) that originated at The Mug. But even more than the Tyner Pond–inflected menu that practically oinks, Baggott’s influence permeates the online ordering experience. The interface is so chatty and intuitive, with “Still hungry?” prompts encouraging users to fill their electronic shopping bags with more selections and “Make it even better!” with a pint of Graeter’s ice cream—asking if they would like to add a side of black beans or some packets of Sriracha—and then following up with endearing text messages like “cluster truck has arrived. yum yum!”
Clicking through your order, you might start to feel less like you are talking to a computer and more like a very cute and engaging server wearing a denim apron has just visited your cubicle. Or, at the very least, a Tinder match with potential.
Although, if that’s the case, maybe you actually need to get out a little more.