Want to Start a Food Truck? 4 Things You Must Know Before Hitting the Scene

food truck
Image by: Lars Plougmann
By Giovanni Fields

What better way to impress a woman on the first date than to pull up to the side of her house in a renovated, garish food truck? Well, sir, I can think of a few. But since I am such a considerate person, and since picking up women has absolutely nothing to do with this topic, I will save you the time and trouble and instead list methods to consider when starting a food truck. I will save the topic for how to pick up girls in a food mobile for another day—perhaps another lifetime.

Personally, I have always been fascinated by the sight of a restaurant on wheels. There’s a certain appeal to it that I can’t even begin to understand. The idea of bringing your business wherever you go, in theory, is genius—and decidedly cool. Well, it may seem to be “cool” or a novelty to ignorant, hungry pedestrians, but running a food truck is serious business, and requires the same amount of time, energy, and dedication as running a full-fledged restaurant.

Like opening a restaurant, running a food truck can demand quite the costly upstart (A truck, a commercial kitchen, permits, etc.), and the turn of profit may take years. Even with your life savings and generous family loans you may still find yourself under the financial margin.

But if you are willing to make the necessary sacrifices to send your food truck afloat, you may find that it can be extremely rewarding.

#1) Building the Food Truck

You are extremely lucky to have stumbled across this article.

Without my help you may have stepped into your garage and began the strenuous process of transforming your daily driver into a food mobile. I’m here to suggest that you leave the sedan alone and instead invest your time and money into either a used motor home, an old van, or a retired mail truck.

A basic food truck with lots of miles can run you as little as $10,000 to $20,000. That sounds amazing doesn’t it!? Well don’t get excited quite yet, when starting this type of service from the ground up, the number one fundamental rule is to build a quality truck. Would you want to purchase dinner from a dilapidated R.V. that has little more aesthetic appeal than a sunken ship? I’d hope not.

The first thing your future customers will see is your vehicle, and the goal is to attract customers, not scare them away. While it may seem financially convenient to buy a dirt cheap van off craigslist, that decision may have a detrimental effect on the future of your business, depending on what crowd you’re trying to feed.

If you’re racking up the mileage in more of an upscale neighborhood, you may want to focus more on the quality of the vehicle. And if you’re poor, and in a working class environment, don’t worry, you can use creativity to compensate for the lack of quality.

How can you be creative with a food truck? Well, for one, you can liven up the paint job and add some delicious decals that advertises the kind of food you offer.  Your truck is your canvas and your selling point, after all.

Be sure to have an excellent title to reel people in. You will already catch enough glances for riding in a vehicle decaled with corndogs, but you really want to hit home with a name that’s simple, clever and catchy.

“Speedy Snacks” would be my ideal title, although I’d bet my sanity that you can produce a far better name than that.

#2) You’ve Gotta Have an Angle

Like any business, a specific brand or angle in which you approach your customers is necessary for your financial success. If you are in a city comprised of dozens of typical hot dog and hamburger joints, you may want to specialize in serving something a bit more eclectic: Mongolian seafood maybe, or perhaps even gourmet frozen yogurt. The key to determining your brand is getting to know your targeted environment and identifying what’s missing.

In order to distinguish yourself from any other rival food trucks that may be raiding your territory, you must have a niche that is unique. If you’re in an area  comprised of laborers then offer a small discount to people in uniform.

Approach businesses and get permission to leave samples of your delicious edibles in their break rooms. For any order over $50 offer to deliver it! Think of something that hasn’t been done before, and do it!

#3) Location is Ideal for Success

The cool thing about owning a food truck is the fact that you don’t have to sit around and wait for the customers to wander inside your doors. Instead, you can stay hip to the latest trends all while traveling to where there are swarms of hungry passerby’s.

The versatility of owning a food truck is one of the key reasons why entrepreneurs consider the idea in the first place; it’s convenient and it’s very marketable. If business is painfully slow, then all you have to do is walk to the drivers’ seat, turn the key, and speed off to somewhere where else.

It would be your duty as a food truck owner to find the hottest areas of business at certain times throughout the day. Do your research and find out what areas of your city are holding any major events and find out when, where, and if you are allowed. Find out what time a specific bar or night club closes and obstruct the entrance with the body of your business. Find out anything and everything about your area.

Take advantage of the fact that you are on wheels and choose your crowd instead of waiting around. If the customers aren’t coming to you, then you go to them!

While it is your duty to find the customer, it wouldn’t hurt to utilize certain methods that allow the customer to find you. Social media is your best friend if you’re into this sort of business, especially twitter. Use twitter to broadcast where you are and what your specials are for the day, and if you’re lucky you may even be able to build a fan-base.

Wouldn’t it be simply fantastic if a line of cars followed you wherever you went like a tour bus? Who knows, maybe I’ll even become your biggest fan—although Jessica Alba would have to be the one serving my food for that to ever happen.

#4) Rules & Regulations

You probably didn’t realize this, but certain cities and states have distinct rules about how many food trucks can be within the vicinity of each other at any given moment. While I doubt that cities particularly hire “food truck police” I do think it is important to keep in mind that, even though you don’t mean any harm, your truck may be breaking a rule without your knowledge.  So either get familiar with the rule book be prepared for a few fines and parking tickets.

Like most businesses, a permit is necessary. Each location varies in how they operate with the permits—just as well the price of the permit tends to fluctuate depending on the city, usually increasing in major metropolitan areas. For example: in Philadelphia you can find a permit for a reasonable $200, but in New York City they can range anywhere from $600 to $800.

Food safety procedures are just as strict as they are in restaurants. In 2010 Los Angeles passed an ordinance that would require the cities 9,500 trucks to post letter grades imposed by health inspectors.  Like restaurants, trucks in LA can find themselves out of business with anything below a C grade. Yes, this means you better get used to scrubbing those hands.

One word of advice to consider before getting started with your business: Before quitting your high paying job and going on the road as a food truck operator, prepare yourself for very peculiar looks from friends and family. Although the food truck popularity craze is on the rise, this area of business is very niche.  It may be hard for those who don’t know or who are ignorant about it to accept this as your career.

Oh yea, and one more word of advice: Despite the fact that my imaginary food truck is titled “Speedy Treats,” I strongly advise that you don’t speed in your food truck—unless another food truck has challenged you to a race, then, as the young kids say, “it’s on and popping!”

Did I cover everything there is to know about starting a food truck business? Are you unable to contain your excitement about building your food truck? If you answered yes, please take the time to share below!