The 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
Forget 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, get a business loan from OnDeck Capital or Kabbage, or 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 through an insurer like Allstate or Liberty Mutual, 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.
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.
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?