According to data compiled by IBISWorld, an industry research firm, the U.S. had approximately 26,200 operational food truck businesses in 2021. Between 2016 and 2021, the food truck industry added trucks at an annualized rate of about 7.5% — four times faster than the fast-food sector as a whole, according to IBISWorld.
Many food truck operators are first-time food entrepreneurs looking to start successful small businesses doing what they love: preparing tasty food for hungry folks. But turning one’s dream of meeting the masses where they eat into a bona fide mobile eatery is no walk in the park.
The best food truck operators create and iterate innovative menus, turn out consistently high-quality food, and put in long hours — often late into the evening — to out-hustle the competition.
That’s not all. Aspiring food truckers lay the foundations for success months before serving their first meals, putting in hundreds of hours of behind-the-scenes work to give themselves a fighting chance in the real world.
Pro tip: As you launch your food truck business, don’t forget to open a business banking account to keep your business and personal funds separate. With NorthOne’s envelope feature, you can automatically budget and save for things like rent, payroll, taxes and more.
How to Start a Food Truck Business
That work unfolds in a multistep process that countless food truck businesses have followed to success.
The following is a general overview of those steps in rough chronological order — although would-be food truckers hoping to launch sooner rather than later will need to tackle multiple pre-opening projects at once.
Step 1: Find a Niche and Begin Planning Your Menu
Your first move as a new food truck vendor is to find your niche. Naturally, you’re going to be most comfortable hewing to the cuisines and techniques you know best, but the real key is finding a lane within that comfort zone that no local food truck appears to do — or, at least, does as well as you believe you can.
You want your mobile eatery to be different enough that, over time, customers come to associate it with a particular culinary product or even a specific menu item.
Unlike brick-and-mortar restaurants, food trucks can’t rely on ambience or a sense of place to draw in customers and keep them coming back. They can’t exploit the thrill of watching the big game in a beer-soaked sports bar or reconnecting over a candlelit meal and a white tablecloth.
They have only the quality and innovativeness of their food, and to a lesser extent their branding, to set them apart.
In the real world, successful food trucks look less like the undifferentiated neighborhood pub — a fun but ultimately forgettable place to grab beers and burgers with friends — than the hole-in-the-wall joint that serves one really memorable type of burger you can’t get anywhere else in town.
In my own travels, I’ve encountered — and remembered — niche trucks that exclusively or primarily serve:
- Ice cream sandwiches with several different cookie, ice cream, and topping or filling combinations
- Subcontinent-inspired burritos with meat and vegetarian curry fillings
- Mac and cheese with multiple cheese, noodle, and topping combinations
- Grilled cheese sandwiches with multiple bread, cheese, and filling combinations
- Cornish pasties with nontraditional fillings, such as apple and brie, lentil curry, and carne asada
- Multiple types of arepa, a stuffed cornmeal cake that’s a staple in Venezuelan cuisine
These concepts might not tempt your own palette or even your sense of what a food truck should be, but that’s OK. They appeal to enough would-be customers to sustain thriving food truck businesses.
Once you’ve selected your niche, begin planning your menu. Exceeding your customers’ quality expectations and ensuring everything on your menu is available most (ideally all) of the time are both much easier to achieve with a simple menu that has lots of common ingredients.
Imagine a sandwich board with four or five entrees and a handful of apps and snacks, not a double-sided encyclopedia of your preferred cuisine.
Step 2: Draw Up a Food Truck Business Plan With Detailed Financial Projections
Next, draw up a business plan that details your concept and makes comprehensive financial projections for your first three years of operation based on your estimated startup and ongoing expenses and revenues.
Your business plan needs to encompass most if not all of the items on this list:
- Food truck licensing requirements and costs in your area
- Initial and ongoing local health department inspection and safe food service requirements
- Your food truck’s operational model — roaming, residence-based, or something in between — and how much private catering you plan to do, if any
- What type of food truck you’ll need (whether a full-size truck or cart)
- Costs for your truck or cart and cooking equipment, and whether you plan to buy new or used
- Where you plan to prepare food, if not entirely in your mobile eatery, and costs for a fixed prep or cooking space like a commissary or nonprofit commercial kitchen
- Where you’ll park your truck overnight
- Your menu design and ingredient costs
- Ongoing overhead costs like parking, propane, insurance, and business services such as payment processing and point-of-sale equipment
- Your marketing plans and costs, including website development and social media marketing
If this is your first time writing a business plan, review the U.S. Small Business Administration‘s business plan overview to determine how best to proceed.
Step 3: Line Up Financing
With your completed business plan in hand, you’ll have a good estimate of your total food truck startup costs — and thus your pre-revenue financing needs — as well as your short-term business credit (working capital) needs once you’re operational.
Although it’s possible you’ll find a bank or credit union willing to finance your entire startup period on the strength of your business plan, it’s more likely you’ll need to cobble together financing from multiple sources, especially if this is your first food business.
- Secured Food Truck Loans. Your best option for financing the purchase of a refurbished or new food truck is a secured vehicle loan, similar to a car loan. Because these loans are secured by the value of the truck itself, they carry lower interest rates than unsecured loans — although interest rates on specialized commercial vehicles like food trucks are likely to be higher than those on passenger cars. If you have an existing relationship with a bank or credit union, speak to a business lending officer there. Otherwise, contact a food truck or trailer manufacturer like Chameleon Concessions or Custom Trailer Pros and ask about third-party financing.
- Unsecured Digital Loans or Lines of Credit. If your food truck or cart is the next phase in your existing food business’s growth, turn to digital lenders like OnDeck or Lending Club for financing — they’re fast and underwrite five- and six-figure loans for businesses that have been in business long enough (usually at least 12 months) and have adequate revenue (usually $100,000 or more per year). First-time food entrepreneurs can turn to specialized lenders with more forgiving standards, like Food Truck Lender.
- Small-Business Credit Cards. As long as you’re willing to personally guarantee your charges — which you’d need to do with a personal credit card anyway — a small-business credit card, like the Chase Ink Business Unlimited, could help you manage the many smallish expenditures you’ll need to make on equipment, licenses, storage, equipment, and more during the pre-revenue period. If you don’t qualify for a small-business card that meets your needs, try a personal cash-back credit card instead. Either way, apply for a card with a long 0% APR introductory period for purchases to minimize early interest expenses.
- Personal Savings or Equity. Many food truck entrepreneurs self-finance using some combination of personal savings and equity. Depending on your financial position and net worth, that might mean taking out a home equity loan or tapping a home equity line of credit, borrowing against your 401(k) or other retirement account, or selling valuable possessions. Before making your decision, understand the risks and drawbacks of each option, especially borrowing against your retirement savings.
- Friends and Family. Raising money from friends and family members is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it’s easier to convince people who know and love you to support your dream — and harder for them to say no when you ask. On the other hand, if you’re unable to repay their generosity, your relationships could suffer.
- Crowdfunding. Funding raised through crowdfunding doesn’t really count as a loan unless you promise to pay it back. It could be your best bet to secure startup capital if you don’t qualify for a business loan or credit card, don’t want to tap your own savings or equity, and don’t want to ask your friends and family for help. Running a successful crowdfunding campaign is no easy task, though. To compel donors to part with their money, you’ll need to compellingly summarize your business plan and offer some combination of branded swag, free food, and public recognition.
Once you have a good sense of how much financing you’ll need and what it’s likely to cost in interest and fees each year, update your business plan accordingly.
Step 4: Create a Digital Presence for Your Truck
Not all successful food truck entrepreneurs are social media stars, but that doesn’t mean you should forgo a digital presence altogether.
As soon as you’ve settled on a mobile eatery concept and brand name, begin building a digital presence for it. Yes, you can and should take this step before purchasing a truck. As long as you’re clear that your mobile food business is a work in progress, your digital presence will help build early buzz for it — and hold you accountable to see it through.
You don’t need an elaborate website or blog, just a bright, clean space with photos of your truck and food — and satisfied customers once they exist — with some text copy covering your backstory and inspiration, a current menu, and links to your truck’s social media accounts.
Once your social media properties are up and running, create and follow a content marketing plan that includes regular updates on your progress toward opening and news about your location and menu changes once your truck is open for business.
And find ways to keep your audience engaged, like running Twitter polls about new menu items or Instagram photo contests with free food as a winning prize.
Step 5: Incorporate Your Business and Get the Appropriate Permits and Licenses
If your mobile eatery isn’t associated with an existing restaurant or food business, you’ll need to formally incorporate it in your home state — most likely as an LLC or partnership — and apply for an Employer Identification Number (EIN) from the IRS.
Incorporation fees vary by state and business type but generally amount to a few hundred dollars or less, per Nolo.
You’ll also need to apply for an operating license (business license) from the local authority or authorities responsible for regulating food trucks (often the department of public health) and submit to any required health and safety inspections before being cleared to operate.
If you don’t already have one, you’ll need a food safety certification or food handler license, depending on the requirements in your city, county, or state. Your local regulator or another local government authority might offer pre-opening checklists for new food trucks, like the Minneapolis mobile food vendor starter guide.
If the jurisdiction where you’d like to operate has strict licensing and operational standards for mobile food businesses, this process can get complicated and expensive.
For example, any mobile food vendor licensed to operate in the city of Chicago must pay $1,000 for a two-year license and follow a slew of regulations around acceptable parking locations, food preparation and storage, and GPS tracking.
Accordingly, even though you won’t be able to complete the required inspections until you purchase and outfit your mobile eatery, you should find out what’s required of you as early as possible.
Step 6: Find a Territory or Residence(s) for Your Truck or Cart
Next, figure out how your food truck will spend its active hours.
Although it’s tempting to strictly segment the food truck universe into roaming (pop up) mobile eateries that visit multiple locations in the course of a day or week and in-residence trucks that operate in a fixed location — such as a food truck pod or “host” business — the distinction isn’t quite so black-and-white.
Many roaming trucks try to follow consistent schedules so their fans will know where to find them, and in-residence trucks may change locations — voluntarily or otherwise — over the course of months or years.
That said, if you plan to host your truck at the same location every day, you’ll need to find a suitable place early on. In cities like Portland, Oregon, where food truck or cart pods — parking lots with permanent food truck or cart residents and outdoor seating for customers — are common, contact pod or lot owners to find out how to apply for a spot and what it’ll cost.
If your city or region has few dedicated mobile food business lots, reach out to businesses and property owners that might want food trucks or carts in residence.
Places where craft beverages are produced and consumed on-premises like breweries and winery tasting rooms are natural fits, since they attract lots of hungry customers and don’t always have full menus. Here, your food business is likely to be a value-add — that is, attract paying customers for the host. The host might not charge you for parking as a result.
Places with large, captive daytime populations like suburban office parks and farmers markets also like mobile food truck businesses, although they’re more likely to charge for parking.
Such places are also friendly to roaming trucks. For roamers, the dream is to build a (mostly) set weekly schedule for every mealtime: Monday lunch at Office Park A, Tuesday lunch at Office Park B, Thursday dinner at Brewery X, Saturday lunch at Brewery Y, and so on.
But it’s helpful to have multiple fallbacks for last-minute cancellations — maybe Brewery X wants to give another truck a chance this Thursday or Brewery Y is hosting a catered Oktoberfest bash next Saturday. Such fallbacks often appear as first-come, first-serve streetside locations where local ordinances allow food trucks to set up during mealtimes.
Many central business districts have one or more food truck blocks featuring dozens of trucks queued up during weekday lunch rushes, as do stadiums, convention centers, and large concert venues when they’re in use.
You’ll want to build a comprehensive list or spreadsheet of these first-come, first-serve locations and how early you’ll need to arrive at each to secure prime parking — or any parking at all — which you’ll likely learn through hard-won experience.
Step 7: Find Overnight and Off-Day Parking — and a Commissary, If Necessary
If your food “truck” is a cart or trailer that doesn’t take up too much space in your driveway or curbside parking space and doesn’t store food overnight, this won’t present a significant hurdle.
But if your mobile eatery is a full-size truck, with or without overnight food storage, there’s a good chance you’ll need to plan for overnight and off-day parking.
Start by researching food truck regulations in your jurisdiction and determining whether you need a commissary. A commissary is a licensed commercial kitchen subject to health department inspections where you can store and prepare ingredients in a safe, controlled environment, such as:
- A shared-use commercial kitchen that caters to food trucks and other small food enterprises (The Kitchen Door is a helpful resource to find this type of home base.)
- Shared or assigned prep and storage facilities at permanent food truck lots or pods
- A nonprofit commercial kitchen that rents or donates space to food entrepreneurs, such as kitchens at houses of worship and retirement communities
- Other places with excess kitchen and food storage capacity, such as cooking schools
If you already operate a restaurant, you can and probably should use its kitchen as your own private commissary, provided the added workload doesn’t overwhelm it or your staff. Building out a private commissary — essentially, constructing a commercial kitchen from scratch — isn’t financially realistic for most first-time food truckers.
Finding a shared-use commercial kitchen with dedicated truck parking or a food truck pod with a permanent resident list could solve your overnight parking issues.
Otherwise, if your truck can’t fit in your driveway, research parking ordinances in your home city or county — or homeowners’ association bylaws, if applicable — to determine whether you’re permitted to park a commercial truck on public streets overnight.
Step 8: Find and Purchase a Cart or Truck
If startup capital is tight and you plan to sell only simple foods that don’t require a full onboard kitchen — say, frozen treats or pastries — consider starting with a food cart or trailer that you can tow behind a light truck or SUV.
Although certainly not cheap, they’re less pricey than full-size trucks. SLE Equipment, a Nashville-area dealer, charges about $25,000 for a fully outfitted new concession trailer measuring 8.5 feet by 17 feet.
If your food truck business plan requires a full-size truck with an onboard kitchen, you have three options with three distinct ballpark cost ranges, per Roaming Hunger:
- Buy a used truck with an existing kitchen ($50,000 to $100,000)
- Buy a new truck and add a new kitchen ($75,000 to $100,000)
- Buy a brand-new truck with a new kitchen ($100,000 to $175,000).
Step 9: Insure Your Cart or Truck
Insuring a food truck is much more expensive than insuring a passenger vehicle. You’ll need to insure not just the vehicle itself, most likely with a commercial auto policy, but also the cooking and food storage equipment on board.
If you have employees, you’ll need workers compensation coverage.
And you’ll need enough liability coverage to protect you in the unlikely but potentially catastrophic event that your eatery or its generator catches fire or explodes and causes significant property damage, injury, or loss of life.
On the bright side, you won’t have to look too far for food truck insurance, as well-known insurers like Progressive design customized policy bundles for food truck owners.
If you don’t work with a commercial insurance agent already, feel free to approach insurers directly. Just be sure to get four or five quotes to ensure you’re not paying more than you should.
Step 10: Diversify Into Catering
The food truck business isn’t just about setting up in crowded areas during lunch. Many vendors also generate brisk business by catering private and semi-public events like weddings, corporate functions, and youth sports tournaments. These events’ planners actually pay trucks to reserve their time, or for a set amount of food if guests eat free.
To drum up catering business, you’ll need a strong digital presence that includes highly visible and active social media accounts and an easy-to-find website that details your catering services.
You’ll also want to cultivate useful contacts within your local business, event planning, and municipal services communities. Join your local Chamber of Commerce and state or local food truck association and make sure you’re on each organization’s list of preferred food truck vendors. Consider joining the National Food Truck Association as well.
Separately, use your networking skills to get your name out there and suss out future opportunities. Many venues and businesses that host food trucks also host private events that need catering, so simply introducing yourself to brewery, winery, and event hall owners and making clear that you’re available for catering can pay off.
As is the case with any small business, running a food truck takes tremendous amounts of work. Successful food truck operators need to out-hustle and out-promote their competitors — especially in the early going when they don’t have the benefit of name recognition.
Whether you’re planning to launch your mobile eatery in a big city renowned for food trucks or a sleepier burg that’s just hopping on the food truck bandwagon, prepare to earn whatever measures of prosperity and renown come your way.