Whether it’s around the corner from your office or on the big screens in the movie Chef, it feels like we’re seeing food trucks everywhere nowadays. No surprise there considering food trucks bring in $804 million annually, according to IBISWorld's Food Trucks in the US market research report, and the industry has grown over 12% since 2009.
Being mobile definitely has its advantages but there’s a lot to take into consideration before you’re able to gas up and go.
Pros and Cons of a Food Truck vs. a Restaurant
The Food Truck Community
Anna Kenny and Lorne Rodriguez, who run Chicago's successful 5411 Empanadas food truck, agree that the strong community within the food truck world is a major asset. Rather than being cutthroat competitors, fellow food truckers are likely to look after each other, share advice and information, and lend a hand when necessary.
Inconsistent Sales & Cash Flow
Of course, starting and running a food truck business has its challenges. Kenny and Rodriguez find that predicting sales can be difficult due to holidays, weather, and the pure whimsy of eaters. The truck itself can become an issue; the trucks can break down and become uncomfortable during hot or cold days.
However, with their low overheard and location flexibility, a food truck has many advantages over a brick-and-mortar restaurant. The mobility of the truck allows vendors to be in several locations in one day, following hungry people from the morning rush to hurried lunch breaks to post-drinks noshing.
Lower Startup Costs & Fixed Costs
A food truck has no need for a large kitchen, wait staff, and all the tables, dishes, and equipment that come with restaurant ownership. As well as lower staffing and equipment costs, rent and many other expenses skew lower.
If you've been considering starting a food truck, a delicious meal is just one part of the business. Find out the essentials required, from research to sourcing to marketing.
1. Research to Ensure the Success of Your Food Truck Business
Just because it may be easier to get a food truck off the ground compared to a brick-and-mortar restaurant, does not mean it's easy. Avoid unpleasant surprises by putting in the groundwork and consider chatting with someone else in your city's food truck community to get advice and success strategies.
Before you get started, you'll need to scope out your competition, identify the spots where hungry customers gather, know what licenses you need, file paperwork, and get certification from the health department.
2. Create Your Food Truck Menu
A delicious recipe is often the impetus for starting a food truck, whether it's a recipe for tacos, waffles, lobster rolls, BBQ, or any other culinary creation you can imagine.
Some factors that will help you decide what will be on your food truck menu are heavily influenced by what will work in a truck in terms of:
- food storage
- storing cooking equipment
- food prep
- what cooking method you’ll employ such as grilling, sautéing, baking, smoking, roasting, or frying
Lobster in the shell, for instance, would present a challenge. But lobster salad—prepared in advance, with only buns to toast and sandwiches to assemble—is a truck-friendly alternative.
When developing a food truck menu, keep price point in mind, as well as seasonality. For example, a soup or chili truck will have low numbers of customers in the summer months.
3. Food Truck Service
After you’ve determined the menu, there are quite a few questions you’ll need to ask yourself about how to serve the food to your customers, like:
- Will utensils be necessary, or will you serve finger foods?
- Will the food you serve need condiments, and if so, will the truck have individual packets of ketchup and mustard, or serve-yourself bottles or jugs with pumps?
- Will you need paper plates, cups, or other takeaway containers?
These may seem like small decisions, but they'll both influence your customers' experience and play a big role in your costs.
4. Find the Right Food Truck
You'll want to research food trucks prior to purchase, since some vehicles are better than others. The prices and functionality of trucks vary depending on whether you choose:
- a mobile food preparation vehicle with service for customers while they wait
- or an industrial catering vehicle, where food is sold pre-packaged.
Finding the right truck to accommodate your menu, how you’ll cook, and how you’ll serve the food is also important.
5. Source Ingredients and Supplies
Do research to determine what you'll need to purchase, from ingredients to packaging and cooking equipment, and figure out where you’ll get the best deal. During your truck's early days, keep orders low until you can predict sales better.
6. Price Your Menu
The other side of sourcing is pricing: what will you charge for your food? Research what similar food trucks charge and what food trucks in your city are charging. Look at how much your supplies cost and make sure your prices are set to allow you to make a profit.
7. Find a Prep Location
Keep in mind that some cities, such as Chicago, do not allow food preparation within trucks. Besides, the confined space of a food truck doesn't always allow for food prep. If that's the case for your menu or city, you might need to rent space or create a commercial kitchen.
As you search for a kitchen, make sure it's an appropriate size and well-equipped for your prep routine.
8. Get Food Truck Licenses, Permits, and Other Paperwork in Order
The paperwork required to get your food truck up and running is significant, and varies based on your city. Some common required documentation for food truck businesses include:
- Food truck license or permit
- Registering the name of your food truck
- Health inspection
- A business license
Food truck owners will tell you, it can get quite confusing trying to keep up with and understand all of the different mobile vending laws to obtain all of the required credentials. Laws and permits that pertain to food trucks in your state, county, and city are among the very first things you need to research.
9. Map Good Spots to Park the Truck
You'll want to go where the customers are—all while making sure there isn't too much competition in the area, and that you can find an affordable parking place. This may mean leaving early and spending time just sitting in the spot, waiting for mealtime to arrive. (And that's time you'll have to pay employees for if they're waiting alongside you.)
Aim to get into a routine, so that customers can rely on finding you in set locations. While you can experiment to find the best, busiest, and most profitable locations, the 5411 Empanadas crew recommends staying put once you're in a spot, so that customers find your food truck dependable.
10. Market Your Food Truck
Once the truck is ready to serve up breakfast, lunch, or dinner, it's time to get a marketing plan in gear. Social media is one of the biggest advertising tools available to a food truck. Get Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook accounts, and on Twitter, be active announcing your location and what any specials you're serving up.
Brand your truck so that it's easy to tell both what your business's name is, and what you serve. Consider stickers and napkins with your logo to further publicize and cement your truck's identity in your customers' minds.
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