- Before opening a food truck, ensure the market isn't already oversaturated with trucks offering similar fare.
- When operated successfully and in the best locations, food trucks can make more than $100,000 a year.
- Food trucks are most successful when located near business districts, nightclubs and college campuses.
- This article is for entrepreneurs who are looking for advice on how to operate and run a food truck.
It's no surprise that many aspiring foodie entrepreneurs are taking their restaurant ideas on the road. Running a food truck comes with its own requirements, complications and rewards. Food truck owners and small business experts shared their advice on starting a food truck. From choosing the right location to investing in the right technology, here are 10 things you must do before you get cooking.
Tips for opening a food truck
Invest in a good truck.
"If you have the startup capital, start building your truck in a newer, well-maintained vehicle. Your business will constantly be at the mercy of the mechanical soundness of your truck. Treat it with care, and give it lots of preventative maintenance. When your truck goes down, you have to deal with the expense of fixing it, in addition to not being able to be open for business during those days the truck is in the shop." – Adam Sobel, founder, The Cinnamon Snail and author, Street Vegan (Clarkson Potter, 2015)
Key takeaway: Be sure to buy an efficient vehicle that can handle the wear and tear that comes with running a food truck. It will save you money by preventing the expenses associated with fixing breakdowns.
Consider your potential customers.
"One important thing you need to do before starting a food truck is to think about what your target audience will be. Maybe you already have a certain food in mind that you want to serve – who will your food appeal to? What demographic are you targeting? These questions will help you with other important food-truck decisions, like what the style and design of your truck should be, what locations you should park at to reach your target audience, etc." – Megan Marrs, founder and blogger, Boston Food Truck Blog
Key takeaway: Before you hit the road, think about the target market for your truck, and keep those potential customers in mind when you are deciding on your food and your mobile restaurant's style.
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Prepare catering options, too.
"When starting a food truck, be prepared to focus your business beyond street service and into private-event catering. Food trucks are the perfect solution for catering public and private events, so plan ahead and make sure your menu and operating plan are set up for off-premise catering opportunities." – Ross Resnick, CEO, Roaming Hunger
Key takeaway: Develop a catering menu, as food trucks are commonly used to cater private events.
Get experience in the industry.
"Work in the industry before you start a food truck. Both my husband and I worked in restaurants before starting our truck, and [we learned] the food truck industry is its own beast. For example, a customer might wait 15-20 minutes for a dish at a restaurant, but on a food truck, you have to design a menu and train your team to execute dishes in less than 5 minutes – customers expect very fast service." – Diana Lamon, co-owner, Peaches' Smokehouse & Southern Kitchen [See related article: 10 Unique Food Trucks Serving Up Business Inspiration]
Key takeaway: Before embarking on your food truck journey, make sure to hire staff with experience in the food industry, especially in preparing food quickly.
Think about technology.
"Consider the technology you'll need to make your business successful. Running a mobile business is logistically very different from [running a] brick-and-mortar [operation]. You need a POS solution, for example, that's flexible enough to go where you go, ringing customers up from inside and outside of your food truck. Furthermore, it needs to be reliable. If Wi-Fi goes down during a busy time, the technology you're using needs to enable you to have off-line capabilities, so you don't lose time and money." – Chris Poelma, president and general manager, NCR Small Business. [If you're looking for a POS system for your food truck check out our reviews on Toast and TouchBistro].
Key takeaway: With a mobile business, you need a quality point-of-sale system, along with other tools that allow you to run your business seamlessly. Take the time to think about the technology you need to make your food truck work the way you need it to.
Make sure you have all your permits.
"Navigating all the regulations and requirements to run a food truck can be a challenging process. Be sure to research your city's permitting and licensing process well in advance, because they can sometimes take months to secure. Also remember that permits can vary dramatically by city, county and state. So, make sure you know how different locations may affect your business plan." – Danielle Custer, co-creator, Mobile Mavens
Key takeaway: Pay close attention to all of the permits and documentation you need to operate a food truck.
Test your concept.
"Once [entrepreneurs] figure out which route they want to take [with] their food, they need to know their customer segment really well: what they will pay, and how often; branding; how much to spend on a truck. [This] all falls in line with what they choose to do. [If you have] cheap branding but good food, [you] can get away with being a cheap lunch truck, but really nice branding and a good-looking truck will be essential to one-time customers. One can never know how people will respond to a concept, but ample market research and testing your food with friends, foodies, industry experts, etc. can really help evaluate a concept." – Ian So, owner, The Chicken & Rice Guys
Key takeaway: Before you start a food truck, do your market research and map out how much you're going to spend on different aspects of your business.
"I think the one thing that a person must consider before opening a food truck is how to use social media to promote it. One must get to know the best social media ways to spread the word about a food truck and get a basic understanding of social media. There are many ways to do it, such as Instagram, [where you're] uploading photos of foods and locations; Twitter, [where you're] tweeting locations with a specific hashtag so it will be easy to find; and, of course, Facebook, so people know where to find up-to-date information. A mailing list would be a creative way to start and keep a relationship with customers, as long as the email would only be sent once a week with a list of locations." – Keren Brown, social marketing strategist and author, Food Lover's Guide to Seattle (Globe Pequot, 2011)
Key takeaway: When you have a food truck, social media is the best way to get the word out and let hungry customers know where to find you.
Choose the right locations.
"The three rules of real estate apply to mobile food service: location, location, location! If there isn't a critical mass of people circulating in the vicinity of your truck, you won't succeed. Even with that critical mass, it's important to have a set schedule so that people can count on you for their meal. While you may get some casual passersby, many folks have planned their meal in advance and want to be able to count on their vendor to be open, just as they rely on a brick-and-mortar restaurant." – Jason Savedoff, principal consultant for Filament Business Advisors
Key takeaway: Location is very important when you are choosing where to park your food truck. Make sure you're in a spot filled with passersby traffic.
Make sure you're ready.
"The old saying, 'To thine own self be true,' couldn't be more important when starting a food truck. First, ask yourself if you are ready for this kind of commitment. I'm up and out at 6 a.m. every morning, working until 10 or 11 every night, nonstop. It's the food life and a constant hustle. Be ready." – Kent Graham, owner, Field Dog Kitchen
Key takeaway: Like any business, a food truck takes a lot of work. Before committing, make sure you're mentally and physically ready for the effort it requires.
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Food truck business FAQs
How can I make my food truck successful?
Doing the necessary prep work is the most important part of putting your food truck in the best position to succeed. Research the area you want to be in. Ask yourself, is it a good location for a food truck? Is it a city that's filled with a lot of people? Think about what you're offering. Do several other food trucks in the area serve the same cuisine? To have a successful food truck, plan ahead to make sure you're setting up your business for success.
Do food trucks make good money?
A food truck can bring in a lot of income, but the key is to stick with it for the long haul. According to a FoodTruckEmpire.com survey of 200 U.S. food truck vendors, the average annual gross revenue was more than $100,000. So, depending on your costs, it can be a profitable business, but it's important to buy quality equipment for your vehicle so you don't waste money on fixing things, which can eat into your profits.
Where are food trucks most successful?
For food trucks to be successful, they must be in high-foot-traffic areas. Street parking near construction sites or malls are great locations, but there are also designated areas for food trucks, called food truck parks. If you decide to operate in a food truck park, it is important to consider the specific spot where you set up. For example, if you're a grilled cheese spot, try not to set up shop near another grilled cheese truck; instead, rest your wheels between a sushi truck and an empanada truck. Parking in business districts, near nightclubs and on college campuses is also an easy way to run into swarms of hungry customers.
Why do food trucks fail?
A lack of research and planning is a big reason some food trucks don't make it. It's important for your location and your brand to support each other. Another reason for failure is that food truck operators often enter an already crowded market. Remember that you're competing against not only other trucks but also restaurants serving your same cuisine. Check out the competition beforehand, and be prepared to explore different food offerings if your city already has several established food trucks serving what you had originally intended to offer.
What equipment is needed for a food truck?
Other than the truck, you will need equipment for cooking, food prep and serving. These items may include microwaves, toasters, grills or fryers, depending on what you're making. You will also need utensils, plates, cups, pots, pans, skillets and/or blenders. Cleaning and janitorial supplies are also essential. For a full list of food truck items you may need, check out webstaurantstore.com.
What value does a food truck bring to a community?
In some ways, a food truck is only as good as the community around it. When done right, it can also be a major boost to a neighborhood's economy. Street food can increase tourism and cause more foot traffic. It can also introduce different cultures and cuisines, which can add diversity to a community.
Additional reporting by Simone Johnson.