In April of 1983, when I had just turned ten years old, I had my first taste of Mexican food. It wasn’t that I was sheltered from the cuisine all those years, I grew up not far from New York City and had a world of flavors at my disposal. I just didn’t care for food that wasn’t cheeseburgers or pizza. But on a family vacation to California, at the Los Angeles farmers’ market, I decided it was time to try beef taquitos, the alluring smell of which emanated from a stark white food truck parked on the grounds. I can’t tell you exactly why I chose that moment to branch out—I mean, the taquitos and other sundries smelled good, but there was something also about getting it from the side of a truck that made the whole proposition more enjoyable. As far as I knew, street food was strictly boiled hot dogs, roasted nuts, and big pretzels. But there was a fully functioning kitchen on that truck, putting out food that was as exotic as the experience itself. That was the day I discovered two things about myself. First, that I love Mexican food. And second, when I grew up I was going to generate search-engine optimised content for a software blog so that I could help others discover the joys of food truckery.
In 2015, that joy was expressed to the tune of 1.2 billion dollars in the U.S. alone. That’s a lot of taquitos, people. Despite all that economic legitimacy, the call of the food truck—for owners and customers alike—holds a sort of rule-breaking appeal. These kitchens on wheels evoke a serious DIY aesthetic mixed with the call of the open road and a universal desire to tell The Man he can choke on your dreams. Chefs don’t have to answer to uptight investors, and give their food trucks awesome names like I Dream of Weenie and Great Balls on Tires. What’s not to love about a setup like this?
Plenty, as it turns out. See, for everyone of you out there that saw the movie Chef and dreamed of a never ending Cuban sandwich fueled road trip, there were ten actual food truck operators yelling at the screen that there was no way Carl Casper could possibly have gotten the necessary permits—in multiple states—with such ease. In a list of tips on how to start a food truck business, this would be number one.
#1. Dealing with bureaucracy is going to make you question why you ever thought a food truck was a good idea.
In the movie, Chef Casper rolls into New Orleans and immediately hits up the Cafe du Monde with his son for beignets. “Eat it slow,” he tells his son, “you’ll never have your first beignet again.” After some solid father-son bonding, they get back to the truck and have a hectic, joyous, and profitable afternoon slinging Cubans and Po’ Boys to a city-block-long line of people. Back in real life, though, it doesn’t happen quite like that.
Rachel Billow, one of the owners of the La Cocinitas food truck in New Orleans, has a different story to tell. Over at the industry site foodtruckr.com, in a piece about the things food truck owners wished they had known before starting up, Billow describes the permitting process as a kind of Kafka-esque nightmare that took months to complete. Once she did, she then came face-to-face with a city whose codes were downright hostile to food truck operators. She helped start a coalition of operators, which worked to change the restrictive laws. It took a year and a half, but the payoff was worth it. “We gained access to certain areas of downtown that were previously off limits to us, “ she said. But that wasn’t all. “We increased the amount of time food trucks can stay parked in one spot from 45 minutes to 4 hours. And most significantly, we completely eliminated the proximity restriction that prevented us from parking within 600 feet of restaurants. Every city is likely to have a different set of codes and restrictions, and it’s your job to navigate them if you want to make this thing work. Before you do anything else, do your homework about what obstacles you’ll be facing. Include how you’ll overcome them in your business plan.
#2. Don’t underestimate your expenses.
One of the common refrains about the allure of a food truck is its supposed low overhead. And, sure, relative to a full scale restaurant your cost will be much lower. But that doesn’t make the enterprise cheap—just cheaper. In many ways, your small scale will actually cost you money. Buying less ingredients at once means higher food costs. If you’ll be doing prep work in a kitchen before loading up the truck for the day, you’ll have to rent out a commercial space—your home kitchen won’t do (health codes!). Your mobility means a different licence or permit for every city you hit. You’ll need auto insurance. Food trucks guzzle gas. If you work the festival or event circuit, you’ll pay a stall fee for each one, and possibly a percentage of your sales. Oh, and then there’s always the possibility that your truck has mechanical issues. And by possibility, I mean reality: your truck WILL have mechanical issues. It doesn’t make a lot of business sense to buy a brand new one and trick it out with a custom kitchen. Sure, the overhead is lower, but traditional restaurants never break down on the side of the road on the way to a gig.
#3. Have passion and time, both in abundance.
The time is non-negotiable, and the passion will help you deal with the long days. In addition to however many hours you’ll be spending in the truck serving up food, there’s also the prep time before you ever even set out for the day. And there’s the rest of the night spent reconciling receipts with the register. 18 hour days are more the rule than the exception.
#4. Have a specific vision, and stick with it.
Your menu needs to be hyper-focused on just a few dishes with a common thread that ties them together. You’re not offering a full dining experience here; people aren’t showing up for the ambience. The food truck is about—surprise!—the food, so find the niche you excel in and then excel in it.
Your concept could be as simple as grilled cheese sandwiches. That’s a great food truck theme! Now, go and make the best damn grilled cheese sandwiches the world has ever known. Use artisan sourdough bread. Add bacon. Smear a homemade pepper relish on it. Keeping a narrow focus doesn’t just help you stay consistent: it keeps your line moving during busy times. Processes can be defined for making each dish to streamline it, and if you were to add in, say, a swanky mobile Point of Sale like Kounta (as the Mr. Burger franchise does in their stores and trucks), things move even faster. Plus, customers won’t hem and haw trying to figure out what they want. In fact, they’ll likely end up seeking you out for the one specific thing you’re known for.
#5. Use social media to spread the word and generate crowds.
Your business is mobile; your marketing strategy should be also. Using social media in advance of your opening gives you time to build an identity and a following, and to let people peek in on your progress as you get ready to take to the streets. Images of you cleaning/polishing/fixing/painting/anything the truck helps people to feel like a part of the process, and it creates excitement around your maiden voyage. Using social media after you’ve already launched keeps you connected—informing your followers of specials and keeping them up to date on your locations are great uses of the platform. And if you’ve got a rotation of a few spots throughout the week, it can work to your benefit to have a predictable schedule, and then mess with it from time to time. Go to your Wednesday spot on Monday, and don’t say anything till that morning. You can create more demand for your food by not making it so easy for people to get it.
Keep all this in mind as you plan for your own truck, and if all else fails: come to my town. I’m starving.