Although food trucks have been a long-standing part of American culture, the popularity of these mobile eateries has come to an all time high within the last few years, and for good reason. Motivated entrepreneurs can start a mobile food business for a fraction of the cost to open a brick and mortar restaurant and yields several advantages over the traditional foodservice method by allowing owners to bring the food to their customers and requiring less employees to operate.
But what does it really mean to own a food truck today? Meals-on-wheels have come a long way from their previous infested “roach-coach” stereotype with owners turning out fun themes, vibrant colored vehicles and new and unique gourmet menu items at an affordable price that’s bringing in the lines of patrons. But despite all of it’s advantages, the rising publicity of food trucks doesn’t make it any easier to run one.
The increasing popularity of food trucks has steepened the competition, with over 3 million food trucks and more than 5 million food carts in the U.S., the majority residing in larger cities. The demands of a successful mobile food vendor are higher than ever, requiring owners to put in a great deal of work and effort, all the while dealing with potential vehicle malfunctions, limited operating space, pressure to provide quick service, slow seasons and bad weather affecting their business. Despite recent city’s encouragement of new food trucks it can be challenging just to get started.
Is It Legal?
This may come as a surprise, but despite the growing popularity of food trucks there are still some locations that do not allow them to operate. Many other cities that do allow mobile food trucks put a cap on the number of trucks allowed to operate at a given time. Before investing any money into the project you should first visit your local city hall and find out whether you will be able to run your business or not.
When and Where?
Once you have determined that your city allows food trucks you then need to figure out the rules and regulations that have been placed on food truck operations in the area. Most local ordinances dictate when and where food trucks are allowed to park, often requiring that they be a certain distance away from brick and mortar restaurants and imposing a hefty fine for violations. Some cities are even requiring that food trucks be equipped with GPS tracking devices to have their location monitored. Once you know where you are allowed to operate its up to you to pick the ideal locations out of your options. You want an area that is filled with the type of customers your menu is geared towards, an area with very little similar competition, or even an untested area that could potentially be molded into a hot spot if food is made available.
Whats your Menu?
Once you have been given the green light and have completed all the proper paperwork and permits to operate its time to do the fun part. With the increasing number of food trucks it is important to distinguish your business from the rest with simple but unique food items. Your business design and menu options should coordinate around a designated theme. Many of today’s food trucks have branched out beyond the typical hot dogs to sell other varieties of cultural and themed cuisines like Asian, Indian, vegan, gourmet seafood and more. Check out our earlier post to see just how creative food truck vendors are getting with some of their menu items. Your business name should also reflect the type of food you plan to sell. Be sure that your menu is simple and easy to prepare, usually featuring one staple dish that will draw attention to your business. Food truck customers expect fast service for a good price.
Whats the Cost?
Although the cost of building a food truck is significantly cheaper than a sit-down restaurant the price can still get pretty hefty depending on where you plan to put your money. A used food truck can cost between $20,000 – $40,000 while a brand new truck can cost over $100,000. If this is too expensive a food cart can be another great option to enter into the street food business, costing only a fraction of the price of a fully equipped food truck. A food cart business can later be converted into a food truck after you’ve gained some income. There is not set cost of starting a mobile food business with too many possibilities. You may spend as little as $5,000 to over $75,000 to get started with the combined costs of permits, registration as well as the amount of money you decide to put towards the vehicle and equipment, marketing, promotion and food supplies.
Start a Routine
Whether you plan to run your own mobile food unit or let employees operate it you need to have the events of a typical day established. Many cities do not allow food trucks to prepare food on board, in which case operators will prepare food every morning in a commercial kitchen before setting out on the road. Most food truck staffs, even in cities where food preparation is allowed in the truck, go shopping several times a week or even daily to gather food supplies befor heading to their destination. There should also be time set aside for regular cleaning and maintenance, usually at the end of the day. Most mobile food vendors typically operate about 10 hours a day, combining the shopping and food prep, serving customers and changing locations, and bills and paperwork responsibilities.
Spread the Word
One of the perks of a food truck is that the vehicle itself is a mobile advertisement. But gathering a real customer base will require more marketing than just riding around town. Utilize social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter to send out your location as you move through the city, this lets customers know if you are in their area and what you are selling. You can read more about using social media to promote your food truck here.
Set a Budget
Proper finance management is crucial to any business and it is important to always have an emergency fund. Not only can kitchen equipment repairs and replacements be expensive but food trucks also have the added expense of maintaining a vehicle and power generator. A mobile food establishment is also greatly subjected to the weather. A rainy day and cold temperatures can easily drive down business. Many mobile food models are not based on operating 364 days a year but rather 10 months per year, depending on your location. To compensate for drops in business you can explore other options beyond the truck to bring in extra revenue, such as catering.
With careful strategies and hard work a mobile food truck or cart can be a very successful investment and even eventually open the doors to a full food service business for entrepreneurs. To be a mobile food vendor today means being quick and competitive with innovative menu options, friendly service and low prices. In many aspects the rules of operating a food truck and a restaurant are very much the same.
For those of you who are seriously considering starting your own mobile food business, FoodTruckTalk.com offers a look at some of the most successful food trucks in American as well as helpful resources and tips from a community of other food truck vendors. JES Restaurant Equipment has helped outfit thousands of mobile food trucks and trailers and is a proud partner and provider of commercial cooking equipment for Custom Concessions. You can also see all of this information in our guide.