How to Start And Run A (Successful!) Food Truck Business
Maybe it’s tacos. Maybe it’s donuts. Maybe it’s waffles.
Whatever it is, you love working with food. That’s where you find your greatest joy, and you’ve long had a dream of opening your own place to wow the world with your culinary creativity.
What’s stopping you is the thought of opening a full-fledged restaurant. Committing to a brick-and-mortar location complete with property and everything that goes along with it is more than you’re interested in right now. You want a little more freedom to explore your love of food with lower stakes than a full-blown restaurant.
Which brings us to food trucks, those restaurants on wheels.
With a few getting-started tips and helpful ideas on how to make it last, we’ll show you how to start out on the right foot and avoid losing the investment in your tasty idea.
7 steps to get started
There’s no substitute for the school of experience.
Before starting your own truck, consider working one for someone else. It’s the best way to find out if you like the concept and learn first-hand the tricks of the trade. If you’d rather dive right in, though, here are the basic steps you’ll need to get started.
- Take care of the legal stuff
Lawyers and accountants offer services you’ll need but probably can’t (and shouldn’t) do yourself.
Line up the professionals you’ll need before you open the truck. They’ll help you with local and state regulations and permits, business name registration with the state, bank accounts, insurance, and so on. You’ll be working with them throughout the whole process; you might as well start out with them right away.
- Get your business plan together
One of the things your bank and investors will want to see is a business plan.
A business plan includes a summary of your goals, a description of your business, market analysis, budgets, a management plan, marketing strategies, financial projections, and a funding request.
To accomplish this, you’ll probably do research on food trucks in the area where you plan on operating. Not only is it about your competition and the viability of another food truck entering the scene, but those food trucks have historic data. What demographics use food trucks? Where are the busiest streets? What hours do people use food trucks the most?
Business plans force you to organize your thoughts, and that’s a good thing.
- Get your truck
Choosing the actual truck itself takes some research.
In some areas, the type of license you get is based on what kind of truck you have. With prices ranging from a $3K trailer to a $300K truck, there’s a lot to consider. Will you go truck, trailer, or start with a cart?
Your food truck needs a fully-safe kitchen. That means proper refrigeration, storage of foods per safety requirements, hot and cold water, handwashing sinks, and both food prep and cooking areas. Don’t forget safety equipment like fire extinguishers (also part of being up to code). If you work with a food truck builder, you can do some customization. Professional installation of your kitchen equipment is a good idea; they can help you make sure you get a generator that can supply enough power to everything you’ll have running in your truck.
- Plan your menu
Food trucks are usually themed around a food concept, one that customers are drawn to because it’s unique and stands out. Your menu should stay within that concept.
A tightly-planned menu is important, because on your food truck, you have limited space for storage and prep. You want to be sure you have exactly what you need for your menu. If you want to explore more food options, you can always rotate through menus or change with the season so that only a limited amount is on hand in your truck. A rotating menu can even be part of your marketing campaign.
- Build your network and market your truck
Marketing your food truck starts with what the truck looks like. Whether you use a custom truck wrap, or go with basic vinyl or magnetic signs, the exterior should fit the concept. Everything has to make sense to your customer, and should be professional and appealing.
You’ll also be dealing with social media and other forms of advertising, though there are many low-cost ways to grow your business. Since you’re mobile, keeping your fans updated on your location for the day will be important.
- Hire your crew
Even a food truck has to have some employees.
That means you’ll first have to know how many employees you’ll need, and what their jobs will be (e.g. window, food prep). Then you’ll hire the crew you’ll be working within close quarters, as well as having to schedule them.
Scheduling can be tricky, and if you’re new to the game, using a tool like When I Work makes employee scheduling much easier.
- Get ready to take payment
How will people pay you for their food? Cash? Credit? Venmo? It’s worth noting that food trucks are often considered “cash” businesses, so you’ll need a register system to handle it.
Since you’re a mobile truck, without assurances that you’ll have steady internet access, you’ll want to find a solution that’s as mobile as you are. Keep in mind processing fees, which add to overall costs and affect how you price your food.
Running a successful business: advice from food truck owners
You’ve got your food truck, your business plan, and a brand new team, so you’re ready to go. Now what?
Here are four quick tips to help keep you on track.
- Start off on the right foot
Scout for great locations ahead of time. Take into account foot traffic, busy lunch hours, the width of streets, and safety for your customers—anything that would play into your success. You want to find a place that’s safe and easy for lots of customers to access your truck.
Know your local regulations. Before you invest completely in a truck, be sure the intended locale of operation is friendly towards your food truck business. It’s not just about licensing and food safety requirements, but about regulations that are intended to protect restaurants. You don’t want to be a bad neighbor to other small business owners, either. Stay on good terms and build bridges.
Buy used equipment. Look online or contact restaurant supply stores for used equipment so you can save money.
Make sure your presentation is what attracts customers, both in how your truck looks, how the food looks, and in how you look. That is, things should look clean and professional. People want their food to come from a clean kitchen.
- Keep an eye on profitability
How quickly you’ll be profitable varies.
Again, food trucks that succeed have a unique product that people want, and they come off as clean and professional. It’s important to keep track of revenue and expenses on a regular basis so you can make adjustments if you’re not hitting your benchmarks.
But know that making your truck profitable means you will have to work hard. Maybe you have long or odd hours, depending on where you’re able to park, customer demand, or event venues. You may have to get creative with marketing. You will have to always be on top of changing trends. As a small business owner, you’ll have to work harder for yourself than for anyone else.
- Pay others and yourself
Your employees are W2 employees; you must pay withholding and all applicable employment taxes. It’s easy for a small business owner to make tax mistakes, but those mistakes are expensive.
You also need to pay yourself. The classic mistake small business owners make is paying employees and paying bills, and not paying themselves. If you haven’t built your own wage into the budget, you aren’t profitable. You don’t work for free for anyone else; so you shouldn’t work for free for yourself.
Employees must be paid at least minimum wage, but more importantly, you must pay a competitive wage based on the going rate in your area while keeping your budget in mind. Labor costs that are out of control can damage your bottom line, but so can employee turnover.
- Know what the risks are
Every small business owner faces risks that can close them down such as illness, required shutdowns, supply shortages, sudden increased costs, and so on. While larger businesses have many of the same risks, they aren’t living so close to the financial edge and have a bit more wiggle room. As a food truck business, you have all the usual small business risks…and a few unique ones.
You’re susceptible to the weather, because your customers are coming to you outside. You’re susceptible to whim, because there are a lot of eating options people can choose from, and when trends change, shifting your menu isn’t easy when it’s tied to how your truck is built. You may also be susceptible to changing laws that might keep you from parking where you need to. Your truck is your entire business, but it’s also a motorized vehicle, meaning it can break down, or gas prices can go up.
Whether you go the route of a restaurant or a food truck, there are pros and cons. It’s just a matter of understanding what they are so you can plan.
The best way to take the leap as a food truck owner really is to work on one, or at least, sit down with a food truck owner you admire and ask them for suggestions. What happens in the real world is much more complex than all the plans on paper could devise.