Photo by Tony Valainis
By any measure, 2020 was the most devastating year in history for the nation’s restaurants. It was a period that saw local gems and even some regional franchises shutter, while many longtime culinary professionals found more stable work in other fields. As the pandemic ends, restaurateurs struggle to find enough staff to serve eager diners, and many wonder if restaurants will ever see the crowds they once did. But Indy-based delivery-only scratch kitchen ClusterTruck was poised with a business model and a safety protocol that could provide hot, consistent dishes for thousands of hungry, homebound urbanites while expanding into new markets such as Carmel and, last month, Castleton. But does a burrito ordered from an online menu that also includes pad thai, loaded tots, and vegan chickpea bowls satisfy as much as the one at your neighborhood taqueria? Cofounder and food delivery guru Chris Baggott believes his food is every bit as good as the best restaurants, and he has legions of fans and online reviews to back him up.
You opened the eighth ClusterTruck kitchen in Castleton last month, to go with kitchens in downtown Indy, Kansas City, and Columbus, Ohio. You seem to be increasing your customer base. Not a lot of culinary executives can say that after what they went through last year.
We’re just getting better at this as we go. As you know, we don’t have a ton of restaurant experience, and over the pandemic we’ve really been building our bench as far as senior management and people with a lot of deep restaurant expertise managing multiple units and training. Let’s just say that ClusterTruck is very attractive to former Chipotle employees.
What is it about their model that is similar to yours?
Well, I think there’s a couple of things. First of all, there’s a lot of similarity to the model in the fact that they’re making real food, and we’re making real food. You know, our food is a fast-casual concept. We’re not a gourmet, sit-down restaurant. We’re kind of fast-casual except we have more than 100 different fast-casual items. But it’s all still made with fresh, whole ingredients, there’s a lot of food integrity, and there’s a lot of prep that happens in the kitchen. So, unlike a pizza place, everything is still hand-prepped at a Chipotle, and everything is still hand-prepped [at ClusterTruck]. As I think you know, we make all our stocks, all our sauces, all our dressings. Our salsas are made fresh every day. That’s the kind of people we’re targeting for our kitchens. If you missed the Chipotle wave of 15 years ago when this thing went from five units in Denver to 2,000 or more today nationwide, people can clearly see that kind of trajectory with ClusterTruck.
Do you think you’re more trendproof than, say, Chipotle, which offers one style of food like the Mission burrito?
Well, I do, but I think it’s maybe a bit different from that. It’s not just that we can jump from food trend to food trend. In our model, we can be very customer-centric. We can ask, “What do our customers want to eat?”A Chipotle, a Panera, or a Shake Shack has to focus on this one cuisine and how frequently they can get a customer to eat this cheeseburger or this burrito. And that’s pretty finite. When you focus on the customer and what they want to eat, well, now the customer becomes a lot more loyal and we’re much more loyal to that customer. Of course, there’s going to be a day when I’ll feel like going to Shake Shack and having that burger. But in the food delivery space, I feel that because the experience with ClusterTruck is so exceptional, we can feed the customer every day.
You probably have customers who eat with you every day.
We do. Somebody wrote me the other day and said, “I ate with you three times today, Chris.”Which I love.
You’ve made the bold claim that you were the busiest restaurant in the world during the pandemic. How do you support that assertion?
We were having this conversation in the office the other day, and I still think Indy might be the busiest restaurant in the world. Right now, not just during the height of the pandemic. But during the pandemic, we were doing over 1,000 orders a day in our Indy kitchen. So consider back in April and May [of 2020] when every other restaurant in the world was closed. There was nobody, not a corporate cafeteria and certainly not a restaurant, that was serving 1,000 orders a day. We’re still doing close to that volume, and our business is growing. Our benchmarks are always like Cheesecake Factory, like big, high-volume restaurants. I don’t think any of those are quite back to full capacity yet.
Obviously, at the beginning of the pandemic, you were positioned in a way that no other food provider or restaurant was. Did you go about business as usual, or did you have discussions about how to change and adapt?
Well, let me say that, yes, we fared better than any restaurant that was forced to close. But 30 percent of our business is serving the workforce. Group orders to offices represented almost a third of our business prior to COVID-19. So, immediately 30 percent of our business vanished in one day. And that hurt a lot. It really forced us, in a good way, to think about the business and what the future is. Like a lot of businesses, the pandemic drove us to make decisions that maybe we were putting off about how to get leaner, how to become more efficient.
But I think the biggest change for us was really the suburban push. We opened our first suburban kitchen in Carmel pretty close to January 2020 and immediately here came the pandemic. But luckily we had that test in the suburb where we could start feeding more households, and then what we thought was that these customers that were buying from us from their offices downtown had migrated back to Carmel or Fishers, so being able to follow them to the suburbs was a big pivot for us. Before, we had just been targeting high-density metro areas. We also had to think about how we cooked the food. How do we build a kitchen that isn’t doing 800 orders a day but maybe only 60 to 100 orders a day? It made us stronger, like a lot of businesses.
So you saw your orders creep from singles downtown to families in the suburbs?
Yes, but also group orders downtown. A very strong function of ClusterTruck is our ability to disrupt catering, if you will. I mean, are you really happy when you’re eating with your colleagues at lunch to have a pan of chafing-dish food that was made at 8 this morning and delivered to your office at 11 that’s served communally at room temperature? And everyone has to eat at 12:15? So, pre-pandemic, that was the largest-growing part of our business. With us, you could send a link as part of a meeting invite and everyone could get what they wanted. We don’t make the food at 8 a.m. We make it on demand.
Going back to families, we thought we would introduce family-style food. Like, let’s make meatloaf and mashed potatoes or a whole chicken. But what families loved was the idea that every- one could get what they wanted. It was the same thing that was disruptive to catering. Parents don’t have to worry about who’s eating paleo or who’s a vegetarian that day. Similarly, administrators don’t have to decide, the individual eater decides. We’re really going to revisit our marketing to focus on variety as a value proposition. No more of these arguments, no more of these vetoes in families. If someone in your family wants pizza and someone wants pad thai, we’re pretty much the only answer.
You were probably a good respite even for those families that were cooking more and maybe didn’t always want to eat the same thing at mealtime.
Right. But the interesting thing with the pandemic, especially with the schools closed, was the suburban lunchtime, which is normally led by workers. Now, Mom’s home, Dad’s home, the kids are home, it’s lunchtime, and the parents are still working. We ended up serving a lot of lunches to households, which we rarely did before the pandemic.
You’ve claimed that ClusterTruck is one of the best restaurants in any city where it delivers. So, philosophically, what do you think a restaurant is, and how does ClusterTruck qualify as a restaurant? Because the part of restaurants that so many people missed during the last year wasn’t just the food that was passed to them through a car window but the experience of being elbow to elbow with people, drinking cocktails, having someone else bring the food to the table.
I love the discussion we have on that subject. You know, we are a restaurant. We just don’t have tables and chairs. But we make among the best food in Indy. We have the best culinary talent. We prep, we are not buying bags of pre-made anything. I’m about to write this newsletter to my customers about processed food. And I’ll say that the only processed food we use is the macaroni in the macaroni and cheese. Everything else is essentially a raw ingredient. So, we’re really proud of our culinary efforts. And that’s a unique thing in a delivery space because nobody really orders from DoorDash looking for a culinary experience. They order from DoorDash to solve a problem, like they need these calories now and they can’t go out. But it’s not like they think this food is going to be hot and amazing. If you go look at our Google reviews, we’re five-star in every market. We sell more tacos than anybody in Indy, more burritos, more cheeseburgers, more salads, more vegetarian dishes. And that translates into people loving our food.
So where does the “experience” of the restaurant come in? Doesn’t the atmosphere, the service, the act of joining others in a lively communal space divide a restaurant from a delivery service?
I guess I think they’re different experiences. But it all starts with the food, right? Sure, I went to Nesso [Cunningham Restaurant Group’s Italian restaurant in the Alexander hotel] the other night with two other couples and my wife, six of us, drinking wine, eating a delicious dinner, and I loved it. But that’s a different experience than saying I want to have this quality lunch and we’re going to talk about race relationships and how to solve them. That doesn’t make the food any less, and I don’t need to sacrifice my food to make that conversation happen.
It’s fairly well known that your full-service restaurants The Mug and Bonna Station closed after somewhat short lives in Irvington on Indianapolis’s east side. How much did your focus on delivery lead to their closings, and what did you learn from the experience?
Obviously, I assessed where my time was best spent and that was at Cluster- Truck rather than dealing with staffing and front-of-house issues at two sit-down restaurants. But, honestly,
we were muddling through, and we weren’t looking to close until I met the Warner brothers [Neal and Paul Warner, owners of Provider, Coat Check Coffee, and three eastside spots Strange Bird, Heartbreaker, and Landlocked Baking Co.] and I had this conversation with them about a coffee concept I had. They mentioned that they were trying to get into the Irvington market, and I thought, wait a second, you guys are way better operators than I am. And that’s exactly what they’ve done. They’ve elevated the whole experience. I still own the building, so I can happily be a landlord, take all the equipment, and let them run their concepts, and they’re doing a phenomenal job. I admire those guys so much.
What have you learned about the Indy market from your forays into other cities?
We’re in Columbus and Kansas City, and we’re looking at new markets like Cincinnati and Louisville, but we’re not quite ready. I have no desire to go to New York, but we have big plans for expansion. I definitely appreciate the tailwind I get being in my home court. People know me, and I think I’ve built a reputation for innovation, and that has definitely helped us here. Still, we get about 350 to 450 new customers downtown each week, and I think, How can there be this many people who don’t already know about ClusterTruck? We just keep growing, and our only real marketing is word of mouth.