The food truck industry has seen rapid growth over the past decade, going from a $534 million market in 2012 to a $1.2 billion market in 2022. And this isn’t a huge surprise when you consider a food truck’s lower costs of opening and smaller staffing requirements.
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. However, you may not know how to start a food truck!
If you’re looking to join the ranks of food truck owners, here are the important steps you may need to take to make your new business a success.
1. 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 should start with a market analysis. What other food trucks are there in your area? What are their price points? Is there another truck that offers the same type of food that you plan to serve? And if so, is the market large enough to accommodate them both?
Other elements of the business plan might also include basic menu ideas, price points, and sales goals. Students at Escoffier can study all the nitty-gritty details that may help them better 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 this sounds overwhelming, don’t worry. Escoffier students can take a variety of entrepreneurship-focused courses that can prepare them to pursue their culinary business ideas. Culinary Arts students, for example, can explore topics such as business planning, government regulation, pricing during courses like Foodservice Math & Accounting and Culinary Entrepreneurship.
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.
2. Calculate Startup Costs
While opening a food truck typically costs less than starting a restaurant, you’ll still need to understand all the costs involved with getting started. According to POS software company ToastTab, it can cost between $75,000 and $250,000 to get a food truck up and running.
Part of the startup cost variability depends on the truck itself. 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 converting a vehicle into a food truck, it’s best to understand the costs of purchasing new or used equipment and getting it installed. If you don’t want to install the equipment yourself, factor in the labor costs involved in the conversion. While this option can be more affordable, it may also take longer for your truck to be ready. Plus, older appliances may have more maintenance issues than new equipment. Keep this in mind when considering your food truck launch.
“I had started the business before I started Escoffier, but I had been struggling to figure out how to do the numbers. My husband was helping me, but we just couldn’t put together how to price out a menu. Culinary school at Escoffier really put it all together for me, whether it was the financial side of running a business, the prep, or knowing how to train a chef.”*
Chef Freida Nicole, Esocoffier graduate, owner of Freida’s Sweets and Meats food truck, and Food Network “Chopped Grill Masters” & TLC “BBQ Pitmasters” Contestant
Another cost to take into account is rent for the truck’s location. Some food trucks take up residence in a “food truck park” or in a private parking lot, and others rotate between businesses such as breweries and office parks. No matter what arrangement you choose, you should investigate any associated costs. Some businesses require that you pay rent to the property owner while others may require you to pay a percentage of your sales.
Along with the costs of operating the truck, consider other costs involved in running your business. 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, rather than complete prep work in your unlicensed home kitchen.
Operational costs include electricity and gas, point of sale and credit card processing, insurance costs, and staffing. There can 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.
3. Build a Well-Rounded Team
While you can operate a food truck business as a solo venture, many food trucks rely on a team of individuals. However, before you start putting out help wanted ads and vetting candidates, think about your role in the business as well as the type of help you’ll need.
If you have the business know-how but lack the necessary culinary skills, you may need to hire a chef that can properly execute your menu, and maybe a few other people with culinary knowledge. And if you’re confident in your cooking skills (and want to spend the majority of your time in the kitchen), it may make more sense to hire someone with management skills like accounting know-how and the ability to provide excellent customer service.
After you figure out how many people you’d like to hire, you can factor labor costs into your business plan.
4. Factor in 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 vehicle 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 might 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.
5. Start Planning the Menu
Due to a small footprint, space is at a premium in a food truck. This is why these businesses often focus on just one cuisine or a few menu items. There are trucks just for donuts, grilled cheese sandwiches, crepes, empanadas, and other tasty delicacies.
When you’re considering what food you’ll serve, think about your culinary strengths. Have you spent years cooking authentic Thai cuisine? Did pastry school instill in you a passion for creating flaky pastries filled with savory fillings?
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 is required, so a streamlined menu may be beneficial. And remember, there’s no walk-in refrigerator in your truck, so be sure to manage your inventory very carefully.
You should also take note of the equipment you’ll have available. Not only does a food truck mean limited ingredient storage space, but it may also mean the need to choose between a deep fryer and a charbroiler.
“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, Culinary Arts Graduate and Chef/Owner of Kreyol Korner Caribbean Cuisine
While menu planning may seem simple, you might quickly realize it can be quite complicated! That’s why the Escoffier curriculum can include coursework on menu planning and pricing. This education may help food truck owners create a menu on a reduced, mobile-kitchen scale.
6. Choose a Location
Although food trucks are mobile, many have a “home base” where they spend most of their time. Not only is this location a place you can safely park your truck, but it should also easily allow your customers 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 sharing the space with. (Hint: you probably don’t want to be directly next to a truck that’s serving the same type of cuisine.)
Another great option is to partner with a local bar or brewery that doesn’t have a kitchen. In this mutually beneficial relationship, they’ll provide a parking space and source of customers while you provide food to hungry patrons and prevent them from leaving the bar in search of snacks.
If you do move the truck often, try to keep those movements predictable. Maybe you bring your truck to the local farmer’s market every Sunday, or to the Little League diamond on Saturdays. At the very least, you’ll want to post your location schedule on social media.
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 a rental fee into your pricing.
If you regularly move your truck, you’ll still need to have a permanent place to park it when not in use.
7. Get a Marketing Strategy in Place
Before you get your food truck up and running, it’s also a good idea to think about how you’ll market your new business. It can be helpful to come up with a positioning statement that lets future customers know exactly who you are and why they could support your business.
Another aspect of marketing to get a head start on is social media – 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.
While Escoffier Boulder Culinary Arts graduate Chantal Lucas now owns the Colorado Springs restaurant Luchals, she started her business with a food truck. Even before the truck opened, she worked to engage the local community by hosting several tastings where the locals could taste her Haitian cuisine and vote on what they wanted to see on the menu. Over time, she has continued to market her ventures and has built a robust social media following.
So take a note from Lucas and 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 can 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.
8. Launch Your Food Truck
After you fine-tune your concept, come up with a menu, and prep the truck so it’s a functional space, it’s time to start serving people! Give yourself a pat on the back — opening a food business of any kind takes a lot of work.
However, don’t expect to rest for too long. After your truck is up and running, it’s time to tackle finances, inventory, managing employees, and all the other tasks that come with being a culinary entrepreneur.
Get a Headstart on 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. Escoffier students may not only explore knife skills and flavor development, but also menu planning, ingredient sourcing, and entrepreneurship.
In addition to what students can explore in their classes, they’ll also complete one or two industry externships, giving them a chance to put their skills to use and explore career options. An externship in a food truck could provide you with a better understanding of how to start a food truck!
“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, Culinary Arts Graduate and Chef/Owner of Kreyol Korner Caribbean Cuisine
To learn more about pursuing a culinary education at Escoffier, check out our degree and diploma programs. Our admissions staff will be happy to answer any questions and help you start your application.
If you found this article helpful, here are three more that you may like:
- Food Truck Marketing: A How-To Guide
- 4 Roadmaps to Becoming a Food Entrepreneur
- How to Build a Delivery Friendly Menu
*Information may not reflect every student’s experience. Results and outcomes may be based on several factors, such as geographical region or previous experience.
This article was originally published on February 18, 2015 and has been updated.