Help me start the next Japadog
February 11, 2012 5:30 PM   Subscribe

Help me understand the business of food trucks.

I have recently become obsessed with running my own food truck lately. I have zero experience in the food industry and no capital to put towards this, so I know this is mostly a pipe dream. Still, I'm curious to know about the business of food trucks.

Here's what I love about it: Not being tied to a particular location or hours of operation; not having to worry about reservations, decor or managing a lot of staff; and the food is most always unpretentious and friggin' delicious.

What are my blindspots here? How different is running a successful food truck than running a successful restaurant? I know it's generally a terrible idea for amateur chefs to start a restaurant, but is it better or worse to start a food truck?

I'm based in Vancouver if that matters, but I'd be interested in hearing from anywhere. Thanks!
posted by beepbeepboopboop to Food & Drink (13 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: You may be tied to location and hours, depending on city permits and the neighborhoods you frequent.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 5:39 PM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I have never been in the business, but three major problems I have seen L.A. food trucks face:

1) Lack of permission to park in the spots you want. You'll be wrangling with the city over permits, and you may have the authorities sicced on you by angry restaurant owners if they feel you're stealing their business. Thus you may end up restricted to "food truck lots" where there is lots of competition.

2) Market saturation. Many many food trucks to compete with.

3) Mechanical problems. If the truck breaks down you make no money that day, and if you don't have a backup you are out of business until you fix it.
posted by drjimmy11 at 5:42 PM on February 11, 2012

Best answer: Are there lots of existing food trucks in your city? That'll probably tell you a lot about how welcome they are, and whether it's possible to get permits for them.

Also, self-linking to my employer, you might be interested in Diary of a New Food Truck Owner to get a sense of what the process might be like.
posted by jacquilynne at 5:43 PM on February 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Capitol $, license, permits, propane, gas, generator etc. More importantly a licensed place to dump your food oil and water and a place to store your vehicle. You'll need to know all of that to get your permits.

I'm only answering because I'm in talks about investing in one or something similar. I knew a guy once who had a push cart on which he made deep fried calzones. His food was AWESOME!
posted by snsranch at 5:44 PM on February 11, 2012

Best answer: You might want to check out Mission Street Food: Recipes and Ideas of an Improbable Restaurant. Mission Street Food started out as a food truck in San Francisco but my understanding is that due to permit problems they (the two owners/originators) struck up a deal with a local Chinese Restaurant whereby they could use the space one night a week for a "pop-up" restaurant. From the reviews, at least 40% of the book is dedicated to the history of the enterprise.

Purely anecdotal, but I live in DC and there is a food truck here -- Red Hook Lobster Pound DC -- that actually stems from a bricks and mortar restaurant in Brooklyn. They chose to start a food truck in DC because it was easier to get permits here than in NY, where they presumably had already established some level of name recognition and a customer base. So yes, your location and the regulations regarding food trucks there will be of utmost importance.

As for the business end, social media -- primarily twitter and to a lesser degree Facebook -- will be critical in letting people know where you'll be on any given day. Sometimes you'll need to change locations at the last minute if you can't find a parking space or you'll be running late due to traffic.

I'm sure there's a ton of other stuff about how to select what you're going to offer and how to set up a work flow within a small space that allows you to maintain quality and consistency, while delivering good food quickly.
posted by kaybdc at 5:50 PM on February 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: You'll still need a business location -- in most cities, you aren't allowed to just prep your food for the day in your home kitchen. You must use a commercial commissary or kitchen for your food prep. It's not a significant capital outlay, but something that many people just starting out in the food truck business don't quite comprehend. That's just the first of the many necessary hurdles (menu review, board of health certifications and checks, etc) that you need to jump through to ensure that you are serving safe food to your customers.
posted by Geckwoistmeinauto at 6:29 PM on February 11, 2012

Best answer: Food Truck Fiesta, the local DC food truck tracker, has a book called "The Food Truck Truth." It's expensive, but might be worthwhile if you are really into it.

Based on the number of retired food trucks just since I started following them on the Fiesta site about a year ago (RIP BBQ Banditos!), I would recommend thinking long and hard about this, particularly as an amateur.
posted by gemmy at 6:32 PM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: maybe you could contact some of the food truck owners in vancouver and just talk shop with them. where i live, the food truck community is almost collaborative--the owners are all really friendly with one another, it seems. stuff to consider: you need a commissary for food prep; some cities are strict about the hours of operation and how close you are to existing businesses, how much space there is around your truck/how it interferes with existing parking or pedestrian spaces; some places require you to have a permit from a brick and mortar business allowing you to park on their lot.
posted by iahtl at 6:45 PM on February 11, 2012

Best answer: Catering is the bread and butter (so to speak) of a number of food trucks.

Differing from a successful restaurant: Harder to have regulars. Regulars are vital to most successful restaurants.

How it's similar to running a successful restaurant: It's incredibly hard work and long hours and risky. Food trucks are often longer hours because you have much more prep to do and have a necessarily limited staff. Even if you manage to figure out how to do everything in the truck, you won't be able to do it all at once because there simply isn't room like there would be in a proper restaurant. You may have to have/rent a kitchen for prep. The kitchen would also need to pass health inspections, so you (probably) can't just use your home kitchen.

Talk to the food truck owners in your area. They're often pretty forthcoming.
posted by Ookseer at 6:56 PM on February 11, 2012

Best answer: Vancouver may be better than many areas but one unfortunate aspect of truck kitchens in many areas is that it gets HOT inside.
And aside from the joys of food preparation and sales you will have to deal with the sometimes really daunting task of daily top to bottom cleaning, and having a suitable location for doing this. You need access to running water and drainage. If you are preparing food in the truck, especially with a grill, you make a LOT of grease. In most areas you are subject to essentially the same cleanliness standards of a brick and mortar restaurant. Even when the governmental oversight is not that rigorous, you have a moral duty to protect your customers' health. It's a lot of work, and not the fun kind.
You also have the business end of it. Buying supplies, at affordable prices, can be time consuming and frustrating. To have any hope of economizing you probably will need access to refrigerated storage so you can buy in more than one-day-at-a-time quantities.
There are a lot of pluses to the life, but a whole lot of negatives you can easily gloss over in assessing your willingness to do it. From my experience, a 5 hour selling day probably involves 8 to 12 hours of your day, minimum. Think carefully. Plus, there is the drawback that if you are successful, competitors jump right in.
posted by uncaken at 7:03 PM on February 11, 2012

Best answer: Well, among the problems in Vancouver is the fact that there appears to be only 25 spots available, the process is competitive and the judging is based on "experience, readiness, quality and diversity of food, business plan, overall menu, and environmental and/or sustainability considerations."
posted by looli at 9:38 PM on February 11, 2012

Best answer: Aside from the truck-specific concerns listed above, there's also the reality of food service, in general.

You have to get started at least a couple of hours before your intended business hours and keep working at least a couple hours more after they end. You'll be cleaning a LOT - food service requires wiping down your work and serving surfaces frequently, and small space means re-washing implements a lot so you're not too crowded with stuff. Getting ratios correct for ingredients purchased versus product sold to prevent waste, estimate costs, and satisfy customers takes some real effort.

One bonus thing to think about: packaging. This often becomes an urgent after thought, but it should be an early consideration. Aside from cost, you have to consider the space it takes up, how well it supports the product, how much you care about environmental concerns, and if you want to invest in branded materials.
posted by batmonkey at 12:43 AM on February 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone! These are exactly the responses I'm looking for. The blog posts that jacquilynne linked to were really awesome, and seriously made me crave soft-serve ice cream.
posted by beepbeepboopboop at 4:25 PM on February 13, 2012

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