Food trucks are one of the fastest growing sectors in the foodservice industry. Food trucks have lower initial investment costs than restaurants, and their ability to follow crowds and make their own hours can help bolster business during times most restaurants would typically have down time. But for many aspiring restaurateurs, opening a food truck can be a bit of mystery; they are unsure where to start, what equipment to buy, what kind of food to serve, what pitfalls to avoid, and many tied to the foodservice business aren’t so willing to break out of the shell that is a standard commercial kitchen. For those ambitious entrepreneurs thinking of taking the leap, here are some of the essentials to look at when first starting your mobile food operation.
Initial Set-Up: There are a number of things to consider before even shopping around.
- Menu / Concept – First and foremost, just like a restaurant, you need a concept or theme and a menu. However unlike a restaurant, all of your items will be served to-go style, so it is important to serve patrons something they can eat on the go. This doesn’t necessarily mean your business has to sacrifice quality, but it does mean, however, that customers may not be as willing to wait extended periods for food. So it is important that whatever you are selling be in customers’ hands relatively quickly, and be relatively easy to eat on the run.
- Food Preparation / Dishes – Food prep can as simple or complicated as the items on your menu. It is important that you know where you will be doing prep work and washing up at the end of the day. Some food trucks have stationary facilities to break down their lines, wash the day’s dishes, and do their daily prep work, and others operate 100% out of the truck. Before shopping, you must know if your food truck will have a “home base”. These stationary locations can also be hubs for produce / ingredient deliveries, and can house refrigeration / storage for prepared foods.
- Permits / Regulations – Not only will your food truck have to adhere to the same Health Dept. regulations that restaurants do in the vicinity your food truck will be operating, but many cities require the trucks’ have permits and operators licenses. These regulations can vary, and some cities even require that food trucks have permits for each location they occupy. Check with your local government about permits and their availability, as some cities have mobile vendor waiting lists. Additionally, some cities’ Health Depts. require that food trucks or mobile vending carts be stored at approved locations when not on duty. There are additional costs like refrigeration and electricity associated with parking at these facilities which are not included in the costs to park your truck.
- Insurance – Like any other vehicle on the road or any business, a food truck will need insurance. Depending on your location, though, it may not be much more expensive than traditional auto insurance for a vehicle that size.
The Truck / Equipment: After sorting through the red tape, planning your menu, and strategizing how and where you will prepare your trucks for the day’s travels, the next step is shopping.
- Truck – Once you have decided that you will be opening up a food truck, and sorted through the necessary permit requirements, etc., you will have to begin shopping for a truck. You will first have to determine what size truck will be appropriate for your operation. Where you will be prepping food, the types of equipment you will need on the truck, as well as the expected number of employees working at one time, and the necessary amount of food storage / smallware storage will factor into the size of the truck needed. Most first time food truck operationers will go with a used truck or RV to lower initial costs, as it will cost money to retrofit the vehicle once it has been purchased. You may even be able to find used food trucks that have already been retrofitted when shopping.
- Equipment – The next step is purchasing equipment. You must decide first how you want to power any equipment you buy. The most common power sources and easiest to facilitate are electricity from generators and liquid propane. Aside from cooking equipment like fryers and charbroilers, equipment such as coolers / freezers, tables, ventilation hoods, and storage racks will also be needed in your truck. Smallwares including knives, utensils, and food storage containers will be needed, as well as places to store them. Kitchen towels, and paper products like paper towels, napkins, gloves, paper serving containers, and plastic utensils will also be necessary. Last but not least, a sign, visible menu boards, and a cash register are needed so customers will know what you’re offerings and prices are, and so you can conduct business.
- Retrofitting – Once you have bought your truck, you will have to retrofit (add things not manufactured into) the truck. Items such as generators, propane tanks and even water tanks will be needed to supply and power equipment, depending on what will be done in the mobile kitchen. Securing equipment, installing ventilation hoods for heat or grease (especially if there are gas pieces of equipment or fryers), installing service windows to interact with customers, as well optional items such as condiment rails under the service window, countertops, sinks and drains, and gas lines are all part of retrofitting a truck for foodservice. This process can be costly, as there is a lot of work that goes into making a truck ready to host a kitchen, but it is the most important part of getting your truck up and running. You must make sure that it will be fully functional, but that it is ergonomic enough that you and your employees can work in it.
Location: Once your truck is ready for business (this includes permitted, insured, etc.), the final step is finding the right locations. Depending on city ordinances and regulations which your truck must follow, the final step is finding a place to “set up shop”. Many cities have food truck parks, other food trucks have set schedules as to where they park for business each week, and others follow events or participate in festivals regularly. Find a routine that suits your business, and go where people congregate the most. Do, however, make sure you have permission to operate wherever it is you do park, from either local government officials (in a public place) or business owners (on private property). There are some food truck coalitions that assist food truck owners in finding good locations to park, and it is highly recommended that your avoid direct competition with brick-and-mortar restaurant locations. As of late, many food trucks have begun advertising their locations on the web, via their own website or social media accounts, as a way to ensure their customers know where they will be operating in advance.