The Ins and Outs of Food Truck Ownership
hat was once a novel idea — selling food off the side or back of a truck — has exploded into viable businesses with food trucks driving around and parking in cities all over the country.
These days, you can visit busy commercial districts in big cities like San Francisco, Chicago and Washington, D.C. and small towns including beachside spots on both coasts and find people lined up to order three meals a day off food trucks.
As with restaurants, there truly are no limits to what you can prepare, cook and serve off a food truck. Want to launch a truck that sells pizza, banh mi, barbecue ribs or cannoli? All are possible — and actually exist.
It’s what you put into your truck that will make it stand apart from the others. But it’s not as easy as just buying a truck and making good food. You need to get the proper truck with the correct set up for your business, ensure you have the right permits, have a commercial kitchen for food prep and more.
Food truck vs. working in a restaurant
Depending on your culinary aspirations, a food truck may be the right move for you. Some people only want to work the line in a kitchen and move their way up to sous and eventually executive chef. But that’s a long road. If you feel like you have talent and a great idea, a food truck can be a good place to start your culinary career.
In 2012, after working in fine dining at places like Everest in Chicago and Bayona in New Orleans, chef Sam Barron and his wife, Sarah Weitz, who worked a 9-to-5 corporate job, wanted more time together. Barron was working long hours and the young couple wanted to eventually start a family.
The pair decided to launch a food truck focusing on high-quality classic sandwiches. Today, they have two Fat Shallot trucks on the streets of Chicago, a stall in the city’s Revival Food Hall and will soon open a standalone restaurant in the Lincoln Park neighborhood. For the pair, launching a food truck was the answer.
“We could own our own business, work for ourselves, create our menu, have flexibility in hours and creativity,” Weitz says. “And it doesn’t cost $1 million to open.”
That said, while it is less expensive to launch a food truck than it is to open a restaurant, there are still plenty of financial considerations. You don’t have a guaranteed paycheck and you have to rely on your sales, which may be sluggish in the beginning.
You also have to make an initial investment in the truck, which could run anywhere from $30,000 if you build it out yourself and don’t need a lot of equipment to where you could easily spend $300,000 if you want to trick out your truck with high-end equipment, including ovens, stoves and quality generators that won’t drown out conversations with your customers.
And then there are food costs, repairs to the truck, whether you can take on and pay employees and more.
Another bonus over a restaurant?
You can bring your food to the people.
“With a truck, it’s a way to get your food out there directly to consumers,” says Justin McLaughlin who, along with business partner Jonathan Bone launched Life Bowls, a food truck focusing on healthy açai bowls and smoothies, based in New Haven, Conn.
“The beauty is if you make a misstep and park in the wrong place, you can find a new location. You cut out a lot of utility costs, rent, etc., and now it’s just cost of goods sold.”
McLaughlin said the first year they were able to experiment with different locations, events and festivals. In some places they succeeded, others they flopped. But after a few years, they got to know their area and built up such a strong client base that now they’re opening a shop in nearby seaside town Madison, Conn.
“Our first year, we tried everything,” he says. “Anything with alcohol, like [food truck roundups] at a brewery or wine festival, people don’t want a smoothie. But we do a killing at farmers markets. It’s the flexibility to shift whatever you’re doing at any given moment with a low overhead makes it financially feasible. With opening a restaurant, you can get into bigger debt and it seems like a bigger gamble.”
Know your city’s rules
Before you launch your truck, research what regulations your town or city has in place — and that includes surrounding towns as well as each may require its own permits, not to mention fees you likely will pay to various city government offices like the health and building departments.
Some cities make it very easy to own and operate a food truck. Others may make things more difficult, including where and how long you can park your truck.
“In New Jersey, you have to have a permit for every town,” says Arlene Murray, who owns the Polkadot Cake Shop and its associated Polkadot Cake Camper in Lyndhurst, N.J. “My shop is in Lyndhurst and I need a permit for the next town, which I can see from my shop.
Sometimes permits are weekly or yearly, you have to pay the fees, fill out paperwork, etc. Even if you’re doing two events in the same town over one weekend, you sometimes have to pay twice. With parking, you sometimes have to pay like $2,000 for an annual parking permit. It’s sometimes not worth it.”
When Murray first launched her sweets truck in 2013, it was one of the only focusing on cupcakes. It grew in popularity, but she eventually sold her truck and now uses a built-out camper she hitches to her husband’s Jeep for private catered events. That said, she misses having the mobility of the food truck, but doesn’t miss the maintenance.
“I had low startup costs — about $30,000 between the truck, the wrap and a new fridge,” Murray admits. “But I put in probably close to $30,000 in maintenance over the five years I had the truck.”
Ultimately owning a food truck certainly can earn you a nice living while you’re having fun, but you have to be willing to put in the long hours you’ll need to dedicate to your new business.
“The truck completely takes over your time, but that’s running any business,” McLaughlin adds. “We always say as the years go on and we keep building, we can dial back a little and get people to fill the roles you’re doing, but it’s all labor intensive. To be successful you have to be out there all the time and people will start recognizing you.”
Just make sure you have a product they want to keep ordering
7 Cool Food Trucks Around the Country
In the last five years, food trucks have hit the streets in great numbers. In fact, according to a report by market research firm IBISWorld, more than 4,000 food trucks grace cities from Portland, Oregon, to Portland, Maine.
That many trucks on the road means tons of tasty options for consumers. But when you’re thinking of getting into the food truck race, is there still room for your concept?
If your food is good and you have a unique approach to promoting your truck, the answer would be: Yes! For a little inspiration, here are seven food trucks around the country we think are worth checking out.
1. Uncle Gussy’s Traditional Greek Cuisine
Where: Manhattan & Queens, New York
What it is: What started as a food cart in 1971 serving authentic Greek cuisine by their Uncle Gus morphed into a mobile food truck by Gus’ nephews Nicko and Franky, who park in a well-populated locations in Manhattan and Queens. The brothers enlisted their mother, Katerina, to prepare, season and marinate all the meat they cook on the truck. Their menu of traditional Greek food includes gyros platters, chicken pita, pork souvlaki, house-made tzatziki, Greek salad, crispy fries with Greek seasoning and more. “We made a great decision on building the first Greek food truck in the world,” Nicko says. “We have been in this business from the day we were born.”
2. Mannino’s Cannoli Express
Where: Hammonton, New Jersey
What it is: In what is hailed as the blueberry capital of the world, one may not expect expertly crafted, authentic Sicilian cannoli to make such a splash. But Gabriella Mannino Tomasello begs to differ. Her award-winning cannolis get sold from three trucks in traditional Sicilian vanilla and chocolate chip year round alongside seasonal flavors like pumpkin, eggnog, rum raisin, tiramisu, peach and, of course, blueberry.
3. Bing Mi Food Truck
Where: Portland, Oregon
What it is: When is the last time you had authentic Chinese savory crepes? Likely awhile, if ever, so there’s a good reason to go to Portland. The truck brings this traditional northern Chinese food — we’re talking 2,000 years of history — to the streets of Portland. Each crepe comprises fresh scrambled egg, black bean paste, chili sauce, pickled vegetables, green onion, cilantro and fried wonton crackers that all get rolled into a soft, hot crepe. It’s a perfect on-the-go treat.
4. The Cow & The Curd
Where: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
What it is: You may know Wisconsin is the Dairy State, but have you ever had one of its best exports? Cheese curds, the moist pieces of curdled milk, get battered and deep fried and then, well, eaten. Here, they do traditional curds, but also with sun dried tomato, chipotle pepper, basil and garlic. And poutine. Yes, you can get cheddar cheese curds atop French fries and covered in brown gravy. Not a bad food truck offering.
5. Quiero Arepas
Where: Denver, Colorado
What it is: Not only is the food all natural and 100 percent gluten free, but the truck, nicknamed Arepita, runs entirely on natural gas. Co-owner Igor Panasewicz hails from Venezuela where he learned to make arepas, delicious white cornmeal-based flatbread. He and his wife Beckie fill them with an array of local ingredients like black beans, avocado, cheese, shredded beef and plantains.
6. Seoul Taco
Where: St. Louis, Missouri
What it is: There are tacos and then there are Seoul tacos. The concept is all about Korean-Mexican fusion and customers line up for the cheap eats like three tacos or an overflowing gogi bowl filled with a fried egg, sesame vinaigrette salad mix, carrots and rice each for $8, that includes a choice of steak, chicken, pork or tofu. Seoul Taco has been so successful it opened storefronts in Chicago, Champaign, Illinois, and other spots across Missouri.
7. Clif Family Bruschetteria
Where: St. Helena, California
What it is: Co-founders of the ubiquitous Clif Bar Gary Erickson and Kit Crawford are also avid cyclists. Many trips took them to Bassano Del Grappa, a small town in Northern Italy where they befriended the owners of Samsara, a restaurant offering spectacular bruschetta. Back in California, the pair sought to recreate the delicious Italian grilled bread and worked with chef John McConnell who helped make it happen with local ingredients and a rotating daily menu. “Since we are always on the move,” Gary and Kat say in a combined statement, “a food truck seemed to be the perfect way to share these mouthwatering bruschetta with the local community.”