There's no denying it: we live in the age of the food truck. In fact, mobile cuisine is currently the fastest growing segment in the food service industry. In major cities like Portland, Oakland and Seattle, diners have no shortage of unique and tasty trucks to choose from. Dozens of trucks open, and close, in these cities each year. If you're thinking about joining this trend, there are many factors to consider before opening your own food truck.
Licensing and permits
Each city has its own unique set of permits and licenses. The process can be fairly cumbersome and take several months to complete. In Seattle, for example, a food truck owner must apply for a permit from either the Department of Transportation or the Parks Department, depending on their intended location. Next, a city business license is also necessary, as is a state vending license. The infrastructure of the truck itself must then be inspected by the state's Labor and Industries Department, and the kitchen must be inspected by the County Health Department.
Karl Stickel, manager of the City of Seattle's Entrepreneurship and Industry Team advises prospective food truck owners to determine their concept and menu and then talk to someone at the city level in advance of applying for any costly permits. Says Stickel, "We have a lot of people going quickly into buying a food truck. They base their concept on vending in a specific location and then learn too late they can't go where they want to go."
Creating your menu
If you're a foodie, creating an elaborate menu may be tempting, but when it comes to food truck menus, simple is best. "A concept that is too complicated is hard to explain," says Tiffany Ran, Townsquared merchant and owner of Blindcock Media, a PR and marketing agency for the restaurant industry. "A menu that has too many dishes or too many customizable options for each dish not only slows down the line, but it frustrates diners and ultimately leads to some public relations issues. After all, in a food truck, you only have that narrow window (literally and figuratively speaking) to interact with diners when they order and pick up."
Simplicity is also important from a cost perspective. Food trucks usually operate with slim margins, so having a handful of dishes comprised of relatively few ingredients cuts down on the cost of food, the amount of commissary storage, and the staff needed for prep. Tina "Tamale" Ramos, Townsquared's Community Liaison for Oakland, points out, "As a food industry professional period, you need to know what you have on your menu that will allow you to stay in business."
Finding the truck of your dreams
The type of menu items will also help dictate what type of truck is needed. The cost of a food truck can run anywhere between $15,000 for a basic used vehicle with considerable mileage, to $125,000 for a new outfit with a full commercial kitchen. The wide range in pricing depends on a number of factors including the mileage and condition of the vehicle itself, as well as the level of cooking amenities.
Greg Bye of Seattle's Streetzeria, which operates a wood-fire pizza oven out of a converted 1957 fire truck, advises prospective owners to either find or customize a truck to fit the needs of the menu. "You are able to cut costs that way," Says Bye. "Some of the most successful trucks in town were custom built because of their menus."
The vast majority of trucks do not operate as full-service commercial kitchens. Most require the use of a commissary or other commercial kitchen space for food prep and storage. Often this is because it costs far less in the short term to rent commissary space than it does to build a self-contained truck. In some cities, however, businesses aren't allowed to sell food that is prepared on an actual food truck.
The type of commissary arrangement will depend on a number of factors. Greg Bye of Streetzeria points out that trucks with the simplest menu—for example, hot dogs that require food storage but very little prep—sometimes do well to find fraternal organizations or churches with commercial kitchens and strike up a deal. For a menu that requires more prep, there are a range of commissary options, from booking time in a shared space, to renting an existing restaurant's kitchen during off-hours, to renting a private commercial kitchen for full-time use.
Getting the word out
Cooking great food is only part of the equation for a successful truck. Competition is steep, so marketing is a must in order to draw diners. Food truck blogger Megan Marrs, writing for Business News Daily, emphasizes the need to find an unfilled niche. "Who will your food appeal to? What demographic are you targeting? These questions will help you with other important food-truck decisions, like what the style and design of your truck should be, and what locations you should park at to reach your target audience."
Telling a clear story is also crucial. "The most successful forms of narrative I've seen are when diners can reference a food truck to its story or source of inspiration," says Tiffany Ran of Blindcock Media.
Food truck community
The mobile food business is difficult. Profit margins are slim and 18-hour days are not uncommon. With all of the ups and downs, Carolina Abolio, of Oakland pop-up stand Miss Arepita, has one final word for anyone thinking of starting a food truck: community. "You have to have a community to serve your food to, but also the community is serving you," says Abolio. "You cannot do this by yourself. You have to have a community so that when you call them and say this week was horrible, they say 'No, it wasn't that horrible. Look at everything you did.'"