Redwood Wagon food truck adapts to pandemic with 'cloud kitchen' concept

Stephen Borgna
ThisWeek group
Michael Laughlin (left) Redwood Wagon food truck and catering general manager, and Kyle Hood, co-owner of the business, are shown with one of their Americana bowls Jan. 13 at their prep kitchen in Worthington. Hood and his business partners opened a carryout and delivery service at the prep kitchen in December to help bolster sales in response to losses during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

Entrepreneur Kyle Hood, one of the owners and operators of the Redwood Wagon food truck based in Worthington, found himself in a similar position to business owners around the country when the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic took hold in March 2020.

The business was growing rapidly in the years since Hood, a Worthington Kilbourne High School graduate, launched it in fall 2017 with family members and relatives, he said.

But Hood said the pandemic presented Redwood Wagon with its biggest challenge yet. 

“We had a growing business," he said. "And because of the pandemic, everything came to a halt. We had to kind of evolve and figure out ways to continue to offer our services.”

Hood describes Redwood Wagon as an “Americana bowl concept” that allows customers to create custom bowls with a base of shredded beef, pulled chicken or pulled pork that is layered with such toppings as mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, caramelized onions, cheeses and jalapeños.

One of Redwood Wagon's create-your-own Americana bowls filled with macaroni and cheese, pork, corn, pepperjack cheese, yellow squash, zucchini, red onions and topped with barbecue sauce and chipotle aioli is shown Jan. 13 at the business' prep kitchen in Worthington. Redwood's owners opened a carryout and delivery service at the prep kitchen in December.

Customers also may opt for a sandwich instead of a bowl or go for a savory garlic and chive waffle bowl, if they wish.

“We always call ourselves the Americana Chipotle,” Hood said.

As they seek to adapt to the new business landscape amid the pandemic, Hood and his partners opened a carryout and delivery service in mid-December out of their prep kitchen at 6969 Worthington Galena Road, Suite F, in Worthington. 

The kitchen is open from 4:30 to 8:30 p.m Wednesdays through Saturdays for carryout, and it delivers through the Uber Eats, DoorDash and Street Food Finder apps.

Customers also may walk in and order food for carryout during those hours.

Inside, they’ll immediately be greeted by the kitchen, which is in plain sight just behind the counter.

“You walk in the door, and you’re looking at our kitchen,” Hood said. “It’s really like an open-kitchen concept, if you will.”

Hood said he and his partners hope their new "cloud kitchen" concept – a restaurant without seating that offers only carryout and delivery – will help offset some of the losses they’ve endured over the past 10 months.

Because of the pandemic, he estimated Redwood Wagon is down approximately 50% in revenue due from where they projected they would be at the beginning of last year. 

Foot traffic to the new kitchen concept gradually is picking up, Hood said. 

“It’s been slow, but the more we get the word out in the community, we can see every day it’s slowly increasing,” he said.

“Numbers have been steadily growing each week we’ve been open,” general manager Michael Laughlin said. “They’ve been steadily on the uptick for sure.” 

The prep kitchen wasn’t originally intended for this use as a cloud kitchen.

Redwood Wagon set up the kitchen in March 2020 to help support its catering and “guest restaurant” growth – in which the company sets up shop in clients’ buildings to serve employees and guests. 

But business began to suffer after corporate accounts, including Chase, Nationwide Insurance, IGS Energy, Grange Insurance and others, began to dry up at that time as companies sent their workers home during the early days of the pandemic, Hood said. 

Hood said Redwood Wagon was able to get by through the spring and summer by setting up the truck at locations and events throughout the area. But as the winter came and residents retreated back inside, he said, he and his partners had to figure something else out. 

“In the colder months, you can’t really do that as much,” he said. “People aren’t outside, and because of the pandemic, a lot of food service has gone to the online world.

“We built this kitchen expecting to have our corporate accounts and grow our catering, and that all stopped. We kind of had to rethink everything and figure out what we were going to do with this space.”

If their new concept is successful, Hood said, Redwood Wagon might continue the carryout and delivery service after the pandemic has subsided and things return to normal.

“It’s one of those things where we’ve been really creative over the years in how we’ve grown, and we always try to adapt,” he said. “You have to adapt. You have to read what’s going on in the world, and you have to figure out a way for your business to adapt to what’s happening.

“If this works, this becomes a great addition to the community and our business.”

Laughlin, a Thomas Worthington High School graduate, said other businesses hit hard by the pandemic could benefit from thinking outside the box and reaching beyond their comfort zones.

“Even if it seems like it’s the most out-of-this-world idea and it doesn’t fit your quote-on-quote platform ... if it’s something you think is so far-fetched that it's not going to work, give it a try,” he said. “Do anything you can to survive.”

Redwood Wagon has won several awards since its founding, including being voted among the top three food trucks in Columbus at the 2018 and 2019 Columbus Food Truck Festivals.

Its Americana bowls start at $11. The menu also includes three flavors of Cincinnati-based Grippo’s potato chips and 20-ounce bottled drinks for $2 each.

In addition to the new carryout and delivery operations, the Redwood Wagon food truck still is operating on select dates that may be found at redwoodwagon.com

sborgna@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekSteve