Opening a food truck business can be a great way to realize your dreams of owning a restaurant or being an executive chef. There’s a huge market for new food trucks across America’s largest cities, which means there’s quite a bit of opportunity.
Since you can make whatever you want and serve any cuisine, running a food truck can be extremely rewarding. Find a niche in the local food scene and run wild.
However, regardless of your background—business, culinary arts, or none at all—there is quite a lot to learn before you hit the grill. Running a food truck is hard work and it will consume your whole life. Not only are you a business owner, but you also may be a manager, a cook, and a project manager. There are so many moving parts in a food truck business that it requires incredible multi-tasking and problem-solving skills, and wide bandwidth for stress.
So here are 9 things you should know before you embark on your mobile culinary adventure.
1. Get Networking
The first thing you should do before you put too much thought into your food truck is to talk to other owners and chefs about their experiences starting their mobile restaurant businesses. If you don’t know anyone directly, check out interviews and biographies online focusing on how to start a food truck.
Every food truck owner has gone through a variation of the process that you’re about to begin so you can learn a lot from their personal experiences. Don’t put too much weight on any one story, but definitely consider all firsthand experience on the topic. It might be good to ask them if they ran into any permit issues, branding mishaps, location snags, etc. so you can be prepared for the upcoming challenges. It might also be helpful to find a mentor, attend conferences, and talk to communities before taking the dive.
2. Spend Some Time on the Other Side
Before starting a food truck business, we highly recommend working in the industry first.
Having a strong background in culinary arts will give you a serious boost towards your goal, but the food truck industry is a completely different beast with its own challenges. Not only will you be working long hours in a constant frenzy, but you’ll have a much smaller staff meaning that everyone in the truck should know how to wear every hat at any given time.
Starting a food truck can be an extremely rewarding experience, but make sure it’s what you want because moving forward, it’s a very demanding venture.
3. Find a Spot
A food truck is a fantastic option for budding culinary entrepreneurs because of their sheer flexibility. There’s no need to worry about slow business hours, because (depending on your operating city) you can relocate to new areas during optimal foot traffic. However, flexible operation parameters come with some bureaucratic prices to pay. One of the most important hurdles to overcome in the matter of location.
The success of your new business is ultimately tied directly to its location. Before figuring anything else out, make sure you can lock a few ideal locations. Once you have a couple of high-density locations on your radar, you can plan a proposed schedule based on foot traffic in the vicinity.
4. Get into the Weeds
As the business owner, you will need to educate yourself on food truck regulations in your area and what permits and licenses you to need to obtain before operating; you can contact your local Chamber of Commerce, Small Business Association to get a better idea of what is needed. Some areas are more challenging to operate in than others—it’s all a balancing act.
Some cities only give out a set number of food truck licenses every year while others have an unlimited supply. Operating in big cities will produce more revenue, but space and permits are more coveted and often harder to acquire; smaller cities hold more opportunities and more spots for trucks, but often aren’t as lucrative. Before getting into the thick of it, figure out the process first so you can spend the waiting time preparing everything else.
These are some examples of things you might need before you can begin selling food:
- Mobile food permit
- Health inspection
- Food safety license
You can’t start making and selling food out of a truck until you’ve taken the necessary steps to ensure the health and safety of your space and product. You’ll need to obtain a health license, which involves reviewing your state’s health codes and setting up an inspection. There’s a myth that food trucks are less sanitary and clean than a brick-and-mortar restaurant, but they’re held to the same regulations regardless of how permanent their placement is. Before making an appointment with a health inspector, you may want to see if your local Department of Health has any advice for someone starting a food truck or food business in general.
RELATED: Kitchen Safety 101
5. Listen to Your Neighbors
So you have some ideas for your food truck, but you can’t quite decide which one to run with. What do you do? Consider your audience. With food trucks popping up every day in major cities, it’s important to make a list of ideas for possible cuisines and who you’d be catering to.
Look at the demographics of the area and try to determine what kind of food would be appreciated by your neighbors. While some entrepreneurs go into this with a full-fledged idea, others may have a list of food truck ideas to sort through.
6. Do Something New
The most important part of the creative planning stage is to focus on what makes this food truck idea unique and interesting, There are hundreds of taco and burger joints—mobile and stationery—so it might be beneficial to be innovative and fresh.
What cuisines are missing from the local eatery scene? If you’re really attached to a cuisine that is common in your area, consider ways that you can stand out from the local competition. When it comes down to it though, make sure that you’re interested and passionate about whatever cuisine you decide on—passion is a key ingredient in the culinary industry, especially when you’re the one running the show.
7. Build a Better Business
In order to start cooking, you’ll need a solid and well-developed food truck business plan that you can execute. A business plan can include anything from your concept to a budget, so you have quite a bit of wiggle room for changes—it will serve as a guide to the future of your business.
Running a food truck can be a rewarding experience, but it will also be challenging. Put a lot of thought and effort into researching and developing how you’re going to make money and function as a business within your city. Your business plan can include things like:
- Potential pricing
- Overhead costs
- Running costs
- Kitchen maintenance costs
- Vehicle maintenance costs
8. Invest in Good Equipment
A great food truck is only as good as its equipment, and the first thing you’ll need is a truck. One of the great things about starting a food truck business is that it’s cheaper than running a brick-and-mortar establishment. Unfortunately, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’ll be cheap.
The cost to start a food truck varies, and used ones aren’t always less expensive than new. Do you go used? New? Rent? Buy? That comes down to how much you’re willing to spend. Buying a new food truck may give you reliability, safety, and the bells and whistles, but it can cost anywhere between $80,000 and $100,000.
Do you need all the bells and whistles? Before jumping for a new truck, poke around online for lightly-used listings—keep customization costs down with pre-installed appliances. Don’t spend too much on the truck itself because you still have quite a few startup food truck costs to consider:
- Vehicle insurance
- Business insurance
- Food and supplies
- Payment processing hardware
- Kitchen labor
- Truck appearance (paint, wraps, lighting, etc.)
- Flexible POS
9. Establish a Presence
The only way a new food truck business will become successful is with good marketing. The most important aspects of food truck marketing come down to solid branding and a proficient social media presence.
When it comes to branding, you need to put a lot of thought into who you are, what you want to be, and what you’re good at. Focus on your story, passion, and ambiance because, in the end, it’s the little details that will set you apart from your competition—customers want a full experience with their food. Build a branding concept to use consistently and cohesively across your business.
Online marketing begins with Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and each will provide you with a different opportunity for self-promotion. These different outlets can be great for spreading the word about daily specials, locations, offers, and promotions, but ultimately you definitely should consider a mailing list and/or website.
Pick a Program
At Oregon Culinary Institute, we offer all the courses you need to prepare yourself for a future in the food truck industry. Learn how to manage, become your own executive chef, and keep your cool in a high stakes kitchen environment. Choose between our Hospitality Management AOS Degree to prepare yourself for the leadership needed to run a food truck business; and our Culinary Arts Degree to prepare yourself for the demanding, fast-paced nature of working in a mobile kitchen—or enroll in both!
Start Your Engine
Get started on a degree at OCI today and start your dream food truck tomorrow!