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Guide to starting a successful mobile food truck business.

By Jereme Sanborn on
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Do you find yourself fantasizing about running a food truck? You’re not alone. In the years between 2010 and 2015, food truck businesses grew 12.4 percent and were on track to keep expanding. With predictions showing the value of the mobile food industry nearing the $1 billion mark by 2020, now is the time to literally take your dream on the road.  

Brainstorm a menu.

A food truck isn’t a restaurant on wheels; it’s a niche business offering specific items, often centered on a particular theme. Trying to offer too many items or cater to a broad audience is a recipe for failure.  

Ask yourself where your passion lies and what the local food culture is most likely to embrace. Are you known for your amazing vegan creations using fresh ingredients? Is barbecue the flavor of the moment? Do you long to share the best of your heritage with the community?  

Whatever your desired focus, start small. Be specific. Decide whether you want to offer hot food or cold food and if drinks will be part of the menu. Keep recipes simple and prep times short. The faster you can whip up your signature dishes, the more people you can serve.  

Name and claim.

Pick a name that conveys the concept and personality of your business, and check to make sure it’s not in use. If someone else already snagged it, play around with your original idea to come up with alternatives. Keep researching until you find something unique to your food truck.  

Once you have the perfect name, start laying claim to your online “real estate.” Grab a website domain, set up social media profiles, and get familiar with the business listings you need to fill out to give your new mobile food company the highest level of visibility.  

Consider your layout.

Your menu and business name convey a certain personality and this should extend to your vehicle. Start browsing classified ads and dealerships for an appropriate truck, van, or bus. Look for a vehicle with enough space for the necessary cooking equipment and consider how much storage and prep space you’ll need. You’ll probably also be sharing the truck with at least a couple more people, so don’t sell yourself short unless you want to spend your days running into each other. A bit of customization will be in order once the vehicle is in your hands, so be sure to factor this into the total cost as you’re calculating startup expenses.  

Choose your seasons.

When is the target audience for your niche most likely to be active, hungry, and present in large numbers? These are the seasons during which you want your food truck parked in the busiest parts of the city. In places where tourism is heavy, the key times are likely to be spring and summer. However, if you’re operating in an area where skiing and other winter sports are big, you might want to add the cost of winterizing your food truck to your budget. Unless you settle on a year-round business model, remember that you’ll need to bring in enough money to cover business and living expenses during the off season. 

Build a budget. 

Starting any kind of business without cost projections is about as smart as diving into the shallow end of a pool. Though the danger is financial rather than physical, the level of risk is no less severe. To launch your food truck, you need to invest in: 

  • Vehicle purchase and customization. 
  • Business and vehicle insurance. 
  • Cooking equipment and tools. 
  • Inventory, including menu ingredients and paper or plastic goods. 
  • Hiring and paying employees. 
  • A point-of-sale (POS) system. 

Ongoing costs include: fuel, replenishing ingredients, and maintenance and upkeep of your vehicle. Depending on the kind of food you serve, you may also need a physical location for storing extra inventory or doing prep work.  

Find your funding.

With the full estimate of your startup costs in hand, it’s time to seek out some capital. You could go the old-school route and draw up a business plan in an attempt to impress a bank or credit union with your brilliant idea for a mobile food empire, or you can look for alternatives. If you’re solid on what you want from the business and realistic in your expectations, you might be able to convince a traditional lender your idea isn’t too risky. 

If that doesn’t work, don’t give up on your dream. Start asking around for willing investors, or take advantage of crowdfunding opportunities to get your food truck up and running. Just be sure you understand the laws and regulations governing alternative fundraising methods so that you don’t find yourself in a battle with the real-life food police.  

Don’t forget the legalities.

Speaking of legal issues, there are a few things you absolutely need to take care of before your food truck goes on the road. These include: 

  • Business permits and licenses. 
  • Vehicle licensing.
  • Health department permits. 
  • Food handling permits. 
  • Seller’s permit. 
  • Employee insurance. 
  • Tax ID. 

The fire department will probably also want to inspect your truck to ensure the safety of the cooking equipment and evaluate the fire prevention system.  Don’t skip this stuff. Running a food truck is a lot less fun with regulators breathing down your neck and it’s your job to keep your customers and employees safe.  

Map the best locations. 

Just when you thought all the pesky rules were out of the way, there are a few more you need to know. These involve where you can and can’t park your food truck according to local regulations. Get familiar with all the places it’s illegal to park or where parking times are restricted and focus your attention on areas giving you a bit more leniency.  

As you research the limitations, simultaneously gather information about the locations of other food trucks and eateries in the area. Find places where no one else is selling the kind of cuisine you want to sell and where crowds tend to gather. Learn the foot traffic patterns of the city, including those of office workers on their lunch breaks and tourists looking for a bite to eat. Then, test out a few locations until you find the most lucrative spots! 

Pick a simple payment system.

Thanks to how easy it is to get a payment processing app for your phone[10]  or tablet, your POS system doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive. Look into options with integrations for the accounting software you plan to use. This makes tracking sales and expenses easier and takes some of the headaches out of tax time.  

Grow your network. 

As nice as it would be to just drive around and have people come to you, your food truck won’t take off without a little footwork on your part. Social networks can get you seen if you’re diligent about your updates. Use your platforms to share entertaining media and announce to customers where you plan to be at any given time so that they can find you without a problem when they’re in the mood for your signature dishes.  

Make real-world connections through local groups dedicated to helping small businesses. Develop friendships with event planners in the area. If you can position yourself at some of the most popular fairs and festivals in town, you’ll quickly become a fixture of all the biggest and best events.  

Be completely awesome (all the time). 

No matter what kind of day you’re having, no matter how many customers nitpick about unimportant details, no matter how many times you have to quote a price clearly listed on your menu board, stay awesome. Make it your mission to provide amazing service to each and every person who walks up to your truck and model this attitude for your employees. Great food only goes so far toward making your mobile business a success; great service is also essential.  

Awesomeness can be part of your brand, too. Work it into the design of your truck’s exterior and rock your social media platforms with fun photos and quirky videos. Give customers a figurative taste of what you have to offer and go above and beyond every time. By making “awesome” your byword, you’ll automatically attract a loyal following of people who won’t be able to stop talking about what a great time they had when they stopped by.  

If you’re starting to feel intimidated by all this, don’t be! Running a food truck is a lot of hard work, but being in mobile foodservice also has quite a bit of potential for fun. You get to interact with all kinds of people, serve up delicious dishes at tons of different locations, and be in on the action at some of your favorite events. So: Plan smart, persevere, and transform your business from a plan in to a delicious reality.