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10-Step Plan for How to Start a Mobile Food Truck Business

By Suzanne Kearns

kogi food truck businessThe idea of “food trucks” used to conjure images of ugly gray trucks that sold unhealthy greasy food and doled out empty calories. Boy, have times changed. Now, popular chefs, successful restaurateurs, and quirky foodies are all getting in on the act.

What were once known as “roach coaches” have become some of the most sought-out food eateries in major cities. If you’re looking to start your own small business – and you don’t want to go the traditional office or storefront route – then you might consider starting a food cart or food truck.

But while this business type is fun to run, it’s no easy task. Some of the most successful owners report 60-hour work weeks. The rewards, however, can be great – from media attention and social media fans who swarm when you arrive, to the satisfaction that you’re providing a decent meal to the hungry.

If these goals and working style draw your attention, consider this ten-step plan for food truck success.

How to Start a Food Truck Business

Step 1: Get Licensed

Nothing’s simple in the small business world, and you can’t just drive a food truck or set up a cart wherever you’d like. Cities have various requirements, including health department certificates, truck permits, and parking restrictions. Every city has its own policies, so contact your local government to get the facts.

Be prepared for obstacles. New York City, for example, puts a cap on the number of truck permits that they will issue. If they’re maxed out, you’ll be on a long waiting list since some permits don’t expire for 15 years. Other communities don’t allow food carts or trucks to park in public space; you’ll have to find private parking with access to a crowded area, which is a very difficult task. Once you’ve figured out how to get the licenses and permits you need, it will be smoother sailing.

Step 2: Get a Cart or Truck

If you’re working with a tight budget, a food cart may be the best place to start. You should be able to find a cart for about $2,000, which is much more affordable than the $100,000 that it takes to buy a new food truck.

Why are they so expensive? Health departments have the same rules for food trucks as they do for restaurants, so your vehicle will need expensive specialty equipment. If you want to get a truck without shelling out the six-figure cost, you can probably find a fully prepared used truck between $20,000 and $40,000. Check online sites like UsedVending.com or CommercialTruckTrader.com to find good deals on used trucks in your area.

Before settling on a truck or cart, plan out exactly what you’ll need to run your business. If you intend to sell pizza or other hot foods that you’ll need to prepare on-site, you’ll need a large truck. If, on the other hand, you can prepare food in advance in your home or commercial kitchen, then you can just keep your wares warm in a cart or smaller truck. Picture the hot dog vendors who keep their dogs warm in their sidewalk carts. Because this will be the largest expense in your new business, you need to get it right. After all, you don’t want to spend $40,000 on a truck when you can do just as well with a $2,000 cart.

Step 3: Find a Niche

fojol bros truckForget about tacos and cold sandwiches. Today’s food trucks serve gourmet cuisine, delicacies from other countries, health foods, and specialty sweets like unique cupcakes and exclusive chocolates.

The key to success in this new and improved business sector is finding your own niche and becoming the top expert. Do some research to find out what’s already covered in your area, and then come up with your own creation.

For example, some food truck vendors find success in combining costumes and quirky language to enhance their image.

Step 4: Get Financing

After you know what you need to spend, create a finance plan. You may find an owner-financing option for your truck, or you may need to go to other places for capital to finance your small business. You can take out a loan from a bank or credit union, utilize peer-to-peer lending networks like Lending Club or Prosper, or borrow from friends and family. Figure out how much of a down payment you can afford, and how much interest you’ll owe over the course of your loan.

Step 5: Make a Plan

As with any other business, you’ll need to dedicate time and research to your business plan. Once you have your loan squared away, research the costs of permits, cleaning equipment, ingredients, and other costs, and figure out how much you’ll need to sell every month to make a profit. If this is your first time writing a business plan, take a look at the U.S. Small Business Administration’s basic tips.

Step 6: Get Insured

Your business will be on wheels, so you’re going to take on some major insurance costs. Talk with an agent, and describe exactly what purpose the truck will serve. For instance, if you’ll have a fully functional pizza oven inside, that’s going to be a major factor in your coverage.

You should only have to pay for standard car insurance, but your agent will need to take your special circumstances into consideration when designing your policy to account for other risks and liabilities.

Step 7: Find Parking

Food trucks are large, and if you plan to operate a full-sized vehicle, you’ll discover some parking issues. For instance, will your neighborhood association let you park it in front of your home? If you have off-street parking, will it be safe overnight? In addition, some health departments require that vendors park only in approved facilities with refrigeration and electricity. You may be able to rent a private parking space so you’ll be sure to have a place to go that’s safe and legal.

sweetery nyc

Sweetery NYC, a mobile bakery in New York City

Step 8: Get Connected

The food truck business isn’t just about setting up in crowded areas during lunch. Many vendors also generate brisk business by catering special events and corporate functions. Event planners will pay you to be on their property during an event so the attendees will have access to good food and a high-profile brand name.

If you already have connections in the municipal and business world, then you have a head start. Cultivate those contacts and ask them for contracts. Make getting connected a part of your job. Join local associations and organizations that cater to business owners in your community, like the Chamber of Commerce. Use your networking skills to meet the people who can pass along your name as a recommended caterer.

Step 9: Utilize Social Media

Some of the most successful truck food entrepreneurs are the ones who are making use of social media opportunities to connect with their customers and generate buzz. You can keep followers informed of your location through your Twitter feed, or use smaller niche networks to attract new customers. Other tools give you an opportunity to interact with your fans and supporters by allowing them to vote on new menu items, choose the color of your truck before you repaint, or pick your next weekly special.

Step 10: Expand

Once you’ve built up your following and your brand has taken off, start thinking about merchandising. You can sell t-shirts and promotional items online and in person. The bigger your brand and the more unique your idea is, the more willing your customers will be when it comes to advertising for you by wearing a cool sweatshirt or cap. In addition, once you have some recognition, you’ll be able to approach local grocers and coffee shops about selling your food in their shops.

Final Word

The food truck business has changed incredibly over the past few years, becoming one of the hottest new businesses. If it sounds like your dream job, check with your city officials to see what options you have. And if you want to test your food idea on the public, tell us about it in the comments below. You just might get the kind of feedback that will spark the idea that launches you to the top of the industry!

Do you have dreams of starting your own food truck business? What are some of the biggest challenges that you envision facing?

Suzanne Kearns
Suzanne lives in Texas and has been a full-time freelance writer for 20 years. She’s written for numerous business and financial publications, both online and in traditional print media. She also owns her own small business and has a passion to help others achieve their dreams of financial independence. Her goal is to eventually work from a remote island that is equipped with Wi-Fi.

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  • http://www.savings.com/blog/blog.html Amy Saves

    great list, i wish i came across this when i was looking to get into the food truck biz.

    • http://www.facebook.com/yuvaraaj.thakkar Yuvaraaj J Thakkar

      hello fellow entreprenuer,
      call me @ 1.917.306.3128
      did you start the business of a food truck?

  • Suzanne Kearns

    It’s never too late, Amy. Stay tuned for a guide about starting a candy making business!

  • Ajay Aiyar

    What about POS, other accounting needs?

    • Jbjonesiii

      POS is simple now. IPHONE w/ SQUARE

  • Suzanne Kearns

    Hi Ajay,

    You’re right, there are other general things the business owner will have to consider such as how to collect the money, possible employees, taxes and a million other things that I didn’t have the space to cover. If you have any suggestions about point of sale equipment for this type of business, I’d love to hear from you!

  • Shelladw

    I’m looking to start a food truck in the Daytona Beach area specializing in pressed sandwiches and homemade side items (thinking of the name The Daily Press). Used panini makers are cheap and sides can be made at home and use warmers. I was thinking of courhouses on Mondays (jurors) local bars without food and contruction/industrial/local weekend festivals. have never seen a food truck in this area except on the beach. any comments?

    • Jsmyers24151

      You may want to research the name; there was a food truck on the Food Network show “The Great Food Truck Race” called “The Daily Press” selling pressed sandwiches. They came within a couple of trucks of winning the contest. Sorry to burst your bubble about the name. You could call it “The Panini Press” or how about (since you’re near the beach) “The Panini Bikini” and have a girl on the side of your truck with paninis as a bikini.

  • elvine bebe bell

    hi,
    please i want to know if we have food truck in dallas and where we can park them
    i want to run my own food truck…please help me
    thank you

  • Camilla Mcclure

    Hello,
    I want to start a Food Truck business in Smyrna,Geogia and Cobb Counties areas, What should I do first?

    • Latoria Lee

      cobb county isnt the greatest area for food trucks ..

  • Kenstoppa

    ken from traverse city,MI. just wondering if starting out with a cart, small cooling device, and warming device to start a multi cultural hot dog, soup and dessert concept would be a good idea. I just do not have the capital to start with a food truck.

  • Oleh

    Hey Suzanne,
    Thank you for the great article, some really good information. I really want to open a food truck in NYC serving original delicious soups, however its impossible to obtain a permit with such a long waiting list. I want to do it right and legal, grow recognition and open up a brick and mortar. But the food truck is something i definitely want to do, live and experience. All advice will be appreciated.
    Thank you
    Oleh

    • http://www.facebook.com/yuvaraaj.thakkar Yuvaraaj J Thakkar

      hello fellow entreprenuer, are you in new york? call me @ 1.917.306.3128

  • dipps11

    I want to start a food cart in arizona where i see tons and tons of taco trucks and hot dog stands.What is popular yet simple?

  • http://www.facebook.com/yuvaraaj.thakkar Yuvaraaj J Thakkar

    Dear Suzanne, I give you full thumbs up for the idea of wifi on the island idea. I then thank you for this article. can you suggest a good business plan software that applies to the food truck business?

    • Latoria Lee

      I was once told never use a sample or software .
      Its a waste of time … find shorter versions with breaking questions that needds to be answered

  • Debbie

    I am considering a food truck business and have a variety of menu ideas. The only problem is I live in a small college town. While I think it may fly during football season, I am not sure about the rest of the year. While I would like to go gourmet, I wonder if keeping it simple would be better and more profitable. Any suggestions?

    • Leak

      Try and park it close to the college cafeteria to give students other options besides that one and then don’t forget the other sports as well like basketball, soccer, volley ball, baseball season is usually pretty long as well.

    • nate

      Park by the dorms on Friday and Saturday night from about 11 pm to about 3 am. all the drunk students that shouldn’t drive, but want to eat will have you to thank with their disposable income!!!

  • Rambling Rose

    I want to start a food trailer business in a very small town (population 3500) there is a 30 minute drive to any major city and I would be the only legal food trailer (illegal taco truck). I have talked to the county and they seem open to the idea but I have yet to submit an application because I am still stuck on a business plan. I have NO idea how much it costs to run the trailer all day. I will be parked where there is no access to electricity so I would need to run my generator all day. How much will that cost?

  • Slow Clucker

    I meant to add that we were wondering more about loans if our Kickstarter does not work out. Would this be a traditional business loan or an auto loan if we are buying a truck already done? Thanks again.

  • Gjk55

    how can you get licenced first and purchase a truck (which you need to design) if you don’t even know what the concept/niche is?

  • Matthew Melone

    Hey everyone! I wanted to see if a fresh fish and chip truck in Arizona would work. I have my concept down and keeping it real simple. The menu has a few clever ideas but I wanted to see if anyone thinks it would be a success. Lots of reviews for local fish places have been very negative and my thought would be to do fresh beer battered cod with all the perfect sides (crunchy coleslaw, tartar, cocktail and packets of vinegar). What does everyone think?

    • Dreamerslot1

      I think it would work well as long as you had a way customers could view your refrigeration system and maybe even temperature. To set their minds at ease about bad seafood. Maybe even English style

    • Michael Kyle

      I think this is an awesome idea, and I do agree with the reply below. Maybe having reassurance that the fish is fresh daily. I know with fish and chips thats more along the basis of frozen products. My Idea of a fish truck is along the style of the famous fish in NY. Fresh whiting or talapia battered and served with seasoned rice or fries. Then you can add another 1 or two choices of meat to your menu for the non fish eaters. Sides will be the key to this business as well. lots of sides. Overall I think it would take off well. Trust me I have been toying with this idea for South Florida just as well. There is not to many good quick fish spots here in the south region. Crazy thing is you would think they had the best, because this is a Fish state.

  • Max

    I want to start a mobile restaurant. What ‘s the amount of stress and depression should i be expecting?

    • Sween

      MAJOR

  • Mona Lisa

    I have been throwing this idea to bring local foods from Hawaii that were favorites growing up in Hawaii. Its ethnic foods I grew up with and learning to prepare in my mom’s kitchen. Flavors range from Filipino, Japanese, Korean and local Hawaiian eats that are quick to prepare and easy to pack. “To Go” friendly and a food truck would be an awesome intro especially being local from Hawaii and now living in South Florida. Menu items would be for example; California hand rolls, mini plates or mixed plates with choice of protein teriyaki (chicken, pork or beef), Korean BBQ, chicken adobo and starches ( veggie rice noodles with shiitake mushrooms, rice (brown/white) and lumpia (Filipino spring rolls). Possibilities are endless to create an awareness of Asian/Pacific Islander foods to South Florida. Input/feed back are welcomed.

  • james

    I am managing a food cart in Northern Michigan which has a menu of 9 sweet and 9 savory Crepes. The cart is in its 4th year and it sits stationary in a seasonal location in Nortern Michigan. I am considering adding a second cart that is roadworthy and operate in other regional markets partnering with wineries, breweries, events etc…
    Please share any advice.

    • tt

      I am in MidWestern Michigan and am interested in starting a food truck here. I see you doing the cart, what’s your feelings on a food truck.? I am thinking I might need to start a cart at first and then expand to food truck.

  • Salae H

    I live in Charlotte NC and I am thinking about starting a food truck. I already have a menu I just need some input or where to start and about how much will things cost. I have pretty much saved up some money but I am lost as to where to start. Can anyone help?

    • Chad

      I live outside of Charlotte and we started with contacting Coastal Concessions in Lucedale MS. We got our BBQ rig there, and from there went to Kings MT, NC DHEC to get approved and started contacting large factories and facilities on private property, which will get you around a peddlers license for different cities. But originally I started under the radar as a personal chef doing pit smoked bbq.

  • Stephanie Hart

    I have this amazing dream of selling my award winning pies. I live in a small area and am starting out small but would love for my dream to come true! I would like to start out with a cart, and get a community kitchen built for others and myself to rent/use as soon as I can generate that kind of money. I am not finding any carts for under $7000 though, any advice for one $2000 or under would be great…I have thoughts of building my own if possible! Advise and feedback please :)

  • Gigi

    I have this idea to start a food truck that serves fresh smoothies, juices, paninis and salads. Maybe soups in the winter. I live and work near huge corporate offices and complexes. I feel a healthy food truck would be great for this area. There are many wealthy health nuts in this area.

  • Rick Mick

    Getting ready to make the move. How many hot dog food trucks out their ?
    Sausage King of Chicago is ready to hit the streets with Vienna dogs , Maxwell Street polish, fresh grilled polish , Sheboygan brats , Turkey Sausage and Itialian sausage with a subway type theme , Any Link any way you want it
    Thoughts?

  • Bloviatt

    Do not go gourmet. Go with what sells. Or better, go with what people buy. Sell it every day. Put a new twist on a stand by staple. Stay clear of Breakfast only trucks (waffles, pancakes, etc) Sell deserts, do not become a desert truck.

  • Kristina Reed

    I’ve seen “fill out an application with the county” An application for what? And, which part of the county, where, to whom? Thank you.

    • Donald

      more than likely the department of health

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      Hi
      if u want a business partner then contact me
      +919582060831

  • Matt p

    My wife an I have a concept for a food truck with mini pot pies. They are easy to make and we came up with over 20 fillings ranging from classic chicken, chilli, cheeseburger, and mac and cheese pot pie. What do you guys think of that idea?

    • http://businessplanmentor.com/ Business Plan Mentor

      Love this idea! Easy to cook and easy to eat. Have you started creating the business? For help with fleshing out the idea and navigating the start up steps click on my name. Good luck to you!

  • sermin

    I have been thinking about having food cart since one of my biggest joy is cooking,baking and I have my own recipes that whoever tries really asks about. I do everything from starch including pickling cabbage pepper green tomato, baking breads flat doughs etc. I have my special breads (after baking breads, I cut and have my mediterranean sauce over it rest is topping tomato cheese and else than bake it to crisp a bit). There are many other mediterranean style breads and recipes I make using mostly spinach, feta cheese, zucchini, cabbage carrots etc.. I have my soups as well also some bean salads maybe pizza and sea food salads in my mind to serve..

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  • http://businessplanmentor.com/ Business Plan Mentor

    Great article with on point suggestions. Particularly important is the business plan. With the business plan you will research every aspect of the business and determine if a food truck business is doable. For a FREE TUTORIAL click my name. You will also find more info on how to start a food truck.

  • Hoyt Riche

    Currently cooking offshore for 40 to 60 people. Thinking about starting a food truck, but have a concept of traveling to different states to bring authentic Cajun cuisine to the masses that can’t afford to travel to New Orleans. Biggest concern is permits and having a commercial kitchen to base out of. Would I have to use a local one or could I just use the one back home.

    • NuJerzy Devil83

      That sounds likea great plan and idea…. i believe you have to adhere to each state due to different regulations and such… But i would check with the locals as you get the permits for homebase… Maybe due to the idea of traveling state to state there may be a universal permit or licensing that could allow the ability to travel uninterrupted by any obstacle that may come your way that could threaten the movement your trying to get started… But i gotta give credit where its due, Thats a hell of an idea! So simple yet its a goldmine waiting to be cashed in… Cajun isn’t everywhere and bringing it to unite the country’s taste buds would be awesome dude!!! Good Call!!! i’d be willing to participate in that movement and coukd even bring an idea to table, i specialize in deserts which could be added in all sold on side of a truly popularized style of food (Cajun) yet be so appealing that its so irresistibly desired for being intrgreated with a style of food thats not so plentiful out side of New Orleans… You’d hit it out the park with this one… Great style of uniqueness and originality in the choice of idea… Nice one!

  • NuJerzy Devil83

    kool.. I have to say i approve of the steps laid out… Running a FoodTruck business is hard but its just too much fun when your doing it becauseits something you love… I have many ideas i cant wait to test out.. My Grandfather ran a truck back in the day when i was a kid, he also let me work with him and taught me alot about it… Mainly the info given was on being unique and so good at the same time doesnt allow room for much competition or copying of style, service, dishes, as well as the versatility to have a menu in so much of relation to not just customers but people’s taste in foods and different varieties on the menu. A great idea is a seasonal menu, and specialties and daily different and delicious desires and pleasing menu items and dishes… Also the idea of Happy Hours would be great… Not too mention the rewards and satisfacfion gained in providing a unique business and a memorable meal and hospitality, is just the way to get and keep your small Food Truck Business off the ground and fulfilling a dream job that can become a neighborly Brand Name and cash cow all in one… Its always been a dream of mine to own two or three and sell breakfast lunch and dinner respectively… An all out ALL DAY MONEY MAKER!!! It would also be great to Create a Legend and Remarkable impact which can live, thrive and continue to exsist and prosper for years on end… Im in the drive of making my dream a reality… Your tips surely placed the battery in my back to get moving and jump this venture off the Ground and check the Hang-Time… Very much appreciated… thanx

  • Greg

    A friend and I have recently decided to start looking into a food truck. Our initial concept is doing homemade pierogies with over 20 fillings, while also offering Haluski, and polish sausage. In our area there are currently only to food trucks and both only do BBQ. There is not a single restaurant in our area that we have found pierogie on the menu, with the exception of the local polish festival that is 2-3 nights one time a year and people flock to it to get some home cooked polish food. Any comments?

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  • Heather Carden Bentley

    I’m thinking about starting a food truck geared towards breakfast. We only have one restaurant that does breakfast (it’s just okay, and it’s mostly sit-down style food). I’d be looking to make it accessible for the early risers in our rural area….students, farmers, etc.

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  • LashayBanks

    Hi, I would like to start a pizza truck in Orlando, Florida. What do your guys think?

  • Kim Lance

    Hi everyone! I live in Ohio and am wanting to get a food truck business started and would love someone who is able to help me get started. Walking me though the steps. If you’re able to help me please let me know. Thanks Kim.

  • Joan Elston

    working on a business plan for a food truck for the Long Beach, CA area. I guess qualifying for the truck & loan 4 other expenses and whether the expenses will out way the proceeds received from customers and How &’where to get parking and health permits…are there any other permits needed. Are there inspections? What are the experiences of other Long Beach area food trucks

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