The food truck industry has seen rapid growth over the past decade, going from a $487 million market in 2010 to a $1.1 billion market in 2020. The lower costs of opening and smaller staffing requirements can make opening a food truck an attractive prospect for a chef or entrepreneur hoping to begin their own business.
The food truck model can also provide flexibility to those who already run a restaurant. Adding a food truck can give restaurant owners the option to attend festivals or farmers markets, gain exposure to customers in different areas, or cater private events like weddings or parties.
With the coronavirus pandemic encouraging more people to eat outside, this might be a great time to consider starting a food truck.
Here are the important steps you’ll need to take to make your food truck a success.
Make a Business Plan
A food truck may be fun, but it’s still a business. So before you dive in, you must have a clear business plan.
A business plan will act as a roadmap and help you explore the financial viability of your truck — before you invest your time and money.
The plan will start with a market analysis. What other food trucks are there in your area? What are their price points? Is there another truck that serves the same type of food that you plan to serve? And if so, is the market large enough to accommodate them both?
The plan will also include basic menu ideas, price point, and sales goals. Students at Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts study aspects of menu planning and pricing that may help them to project expenses and sales.
Another important part of the business plan is a marketing strategy. How do you plan to get customers? Social media, local press, influencer marketing, pop-up events, and traditional media can all be part of the marketing plan for your truck.
If all of that sounds overwhelming, don’t worry. Escoffier students take a variety of entrepreneurship-focused courses. Culinary Arts students, for example, will take Foodservice Math & Accounting and Culinary Entrepreneurship. The curriculum includes topics like business planning, government regulation, pricing, and more.
The final project for the Culinary Entrepreneurship course requires students to complete and present their own business plans. Some students have even used that project to start their own businesses after graduation.
Calculate Startup Costs
According to the National Restaurant Association, it can cost anywhere from $25,000 to $125,000 to start a food truck.
As part of your business plan, you’ll need to understand the costs of getting started. Are you planning to buy a brand new, fully customized food truck? Or do you hope to scoop up an old post office truck or school bus and convert it?
If you opt for a conversion, you’ll need to understand the costs of purchasing new or used equipment and getting it installed. While this option will be more affordable, it may take longer for your truck to be ready. Also, older appliances may have more maintenance issues than new equipment.
Another cost is rent for the truck’s location. Many food trucks take up residence in a “food truck park” or in a private parking lot. These arrangements usually require that you pay rent to the property owner.
Do you plan on doing any food prep outside of the truck? For example, if you want to bake your own bread, you might not want to do that in the cramped quarters of your truck. That may require that you rent space in a commissary kitchen. Make sure to check with your local health code before doing any prep work in your home kitchen!
Operational costs will include electricity and gas, point of sale and credit card processing, insurance costs, and staffing. There will also be some branding costs, like logo design and signage.
If you need to get outside financing for your startup, don’t forget to factor in those monthly loan payments (plus interest!) in your financial planning.
Licensing and Legal
Just like brick and mortar restaurants, there are myriad state, county, and city permits and licenses that you may need to operate a food establishment. First thing’s first — it’s a truck! So don’t forget to keep your registration up to date with your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles.
You may also need a mobile food vendor permit. Check the requirements with your city and county. Some cities limit the number of mobile food vendor permits they’ll issue. So before you spend money on a truck, make sure you’ll be able to get it permitted!
Your truck will also be subject to health inspections. This may require you to bring the truck to the city permitting office for an annual inspection. You may also need food handler certifications for the chef and cooks.
Next, get educated about where you can and can’t park your truck. Some cities have restrictions about truck proximity to brick and mortar restaurants and regulations regarding lighting, trash pickup, and water lines.
Do your due diligence in advance to avoid costly fees and penalties.
Start Planning the Menu
With their small footprint, space is at a premium in a food truck. This is why they are often highly specialized. There are trucks just for donuts, grilled cheese sandwiches, crepes, empanadas, and other tasty delicacies.
As you start to build out your truck, consider how many items you can create quickly and efficiently in the space. Fewer ingredients usually mean less storage required, so a streamlined menu may be beneficial.
Remember, there’s no walk-in refrigerator in your truck. So you have to manage your inventory very carefully.
“The worst-case scenario is when you have a line wrapped around the building and you run out of food. We don’t have a backup freezer or fridge. So when we sell out…we close. And that is one of the downfalls about the food truck. With that being said, it is so rewarding to be mobile and reach an even wider range of customers. You can also have a lot of fun with your menu and be as unique as you want.”
Nahika Hillery, Escoffier Austin Culinary Arts Graduate and Chef/Owner of Kreyòl Korner Caribbean Cuisine
The Escoffier curriculum includes coursework on menu planning and pricing. This education may help food truck owners to create a menu on a reduced, mobile-kitchen scale.
Choose a Location
Although food trucks are mobile, most have a “home base” where they spend most of their time. It’s important for your customers to be able to find you!
Will you be in a food trailer park with a group of other trucks? If so, check the other types of trucks that you’ll be neighboring. You don’t want to be next to a direct competitor.
Another great option is to partner with a local bar that doesn’t have a kitchen. If they’ll let you park on their property, you’ll provide a food source to hungry patrons and prevent them from leaving the bar in search of snacks.
If you do move the truck often, make those movements predictable. Maybe you bring your truck to the local farmer’s market every Sunday, or to the Little League diamond on Saturdays.
Some trucks also like to be available for private events. This can be a great way to bring in extra revenue, as you can factor in a rental fee to your pricing.
Flexibility can be paramount in the food truck environment. Escoffier graduate and chef/owner of Kreyòl Korner Caribbean Cuisine Nahika Hillery had to pivot when COVID-19 hit. Her truck had a robust corporate catering business, but that revenue disappeared when local offices closed.
But Nahika’s entrepreneurial skills took over. She pivoted her business plan and rented a cloud kitchen that provided delivery and curbside pickup. That let her continue to sell food. She’s also investing in another cloud kitchen location in Houston, which she hopes to open by the end of the year.
“You have to learn to pivot in any given situation, and COVID has proven that,” Nahika said. “It is a learning experience for us all. I was willing to do whatever it takes to not have to give up on this dream.”
Don’t wait until you’re up and running to create your social media presence! Start those accounts during the build out and menu planning stages to share your progress and build buzz.
Escoffier Boulder Culinary Arts graduate Chantal Lucas has built a robust social media following for both her food-truck-based catering company, Luchal’s Gourmet Catering, and her new Colorado Springs restaurant, Luchals.
And Nahika got her community involved before she even had her truck. She hosted several tastings, letting the locals taste her Haitian cuisine and vote on what they wanted to see on the menu.
Get the local foodies excited! Invite influencers or food media to a private tasting, and encourage them to post on their social media accounts. This will help spread the word and get you more customers in those crucial first days.
You may also want to get a listing on Roaming Hunger, an online hub for street food and food trucks.
Upgrade Your Sanitation
Eating outdoors is particularly attractive right now due to COVID-19. This gives food trucks an edge. But you still need to make sure your customers feel comfortable coming to your new food truck with heightened sanitation practices.
Put hand sanitizer within easy reach of guests, so they can use it before they eat. Wear gloves when passing food to customers through the truck window.
If it’s an option for you, try a touchless payment system, so no credit cards or cash are changing hands. And clean tables with a sanitizing spray between each guest.
Becoming a Culinary Entrepreneur
While food trucks can be lucrative (and can even lead to a fleet of your own trucks), careful planning and hard work are necessary to make them a success.
A culinary education with a focus on entrepreneurship can support aspiring food truck owners as they work toward their goals. In addition to what students learn in their classes, they’ll also complete an industry externship, giving them a chance to put their skills to use and explore career options. An externship in a food truck could help you decide if this is the career for you!
“There are many people at Escoffier who have helped me. Ann from Career Services is amazing. She is a cheerleader for everybody, and I absolutely loved working with her…Chef Lindsay was really amazing. She really focused on helping me refine my cutting skills and become more detail-oriented. Her feedback was extremely helpful. Chef Pablo really encouraged me to keep going on the days that I would come in tired during class after working a full day at the truck.”
Nahika Hillery, Escoffier Austin Culinary Arts Graduate and Chef/Owner of Kreyòl Korner Caribbean Cuisine
If you found that article helpful, here are three more that you may like:
- Five Culinary Skills You Can Take With You Wherever You Go
- Culinary School vs. “Work Your Way Up:” The Case for Education
- How to Create the Right Atmosphere in Your Restaurant
This article was originally published on February 18, 2015 and has been updated.