10 Must-Know Tips for First Time Food Truck Owners
Food trucks can be an exciting way to enter the foodservice business. Smaller and more mobile than a restaurant, they enable you to change locations, keep menus tight and focused, and provide an exciting and dynamic small business on wheels.
Whether you are just starting to think about a food truck, already researching this potential new career, or in the process of building out your first truck, there is so much to learn and plan for to make your new business successful. To help get you on your way, we have assembled ten tips to help you focus on some of the top considerations for your new venture.
Work in a Food Truck First
Before jumping in to start a new business, it is always a practical idea to get some experience in that business. Food trucks are a unique business model, a smaller space than most restaurant kitchens, and have a unique set of challenges.
Talk to other food truck owners. Get their perspective on the benefits, challenges, and watch-outs for owning and managing a food truck business. Ask if you can work alongside them in their truck for a week. Before you dive into the time and financial investment required, make sure it is the right fit and be confident that it is something you enjoy doing.
Research & Planning
Know your options and your needs before making any purchases. Evaluate all the potential trade-offs for buying versus renting, custom build versus buying used. Consider the immediate investment of new versus ongoing maintenance, improvements, or modification costs that might come up over the first year or two with a used option.
Map out your kitchen, storage, and compare equipment options. Do you need flexibility in cooking options? What type of prep areas does your menu require? Consider ingredient storage temperature requirements. Knowing what all the variables look like will have a significant impact on your size, the power needs, and, subsequently, the total truck and equipment expense outlays.
Organization & Layout
A food truck is a kitchen on wheels with limited space, yet rapid prep and cooking expectations. Diagram out a few different layouts options that might accommodate your needs. You could even create a physical model with boxes or tables so you can get a feel for how you would work in the space.
Think through your menu and its ingredients, smallware, and servingware needs. How much business will you be able to accommodate for the space you have, or how much business do you need to get the desired ROI on your overhead? An organized and efficient food truck will be a more enjoyable and profitable business.
Know the Regulations
Check not only your state and local regulations but county and fire department as well. There are many regulations impacting food trucks and a variety of licenses and permits required. Review online resources for guidance. This is another situation where it is advantageous to network with other food truck operators. You can benefit from their experience in helping to navigate the variety of requirements and other potential obstacles.
Menu Simplicity and Uniqueness
When developing your menu, keep it simple, yet distinctive. Look for niche food concepts that have broad appeal and can fill a gap in current local truck offerings. Consider classic comfort foods that you can reinvent with a signature new spin. Incorporate some of the latest trends or seasonal flavors into familiar favorites.
The good rule of thumb is limiting menu items to 5 – 12. If you are operating in a shorter daypart window, consider how many items you can practically support during that window. Your objective is to make and serve as fast as possible. Focusing your menu, while still allowing for some variety or sizing options is best for your bottom line.
Keep an eye on the culinary trends of the day. Many consumers are now looking to food trucks as a destination for new food and flavor discovery. Even with a reliable and popular core menu, don’t be afraid to experiment and introduce seasonal items or limited-time offers (LTOs). Keeping a menu fresh and exciting gives patrons another reason to return and try the newest dish.
Branding Your Truck
Stickers or wraps? Bold branding or simpler signs? Classic or kitche? Picking the theme and imagery that best captures your menu and personality is absolutely part of the fun of starting up your food truck.
When considering how to create your branding, remember all the ways you will need to apply it. Beyond the truck graphics, you will want to translate your imagery and logo to your digital presence, menu boards, apparel, and more. Overly complicated logos or long names don’t always work well in every application.
Engage a design professional and share with them how you want to represent yourself to the market. You can always start on a smaller scale with stickers and build up to a full graphic wrap and printed materials as you gain confidence in your menu, offering, and brand.
Secure Your Spots
Start early with identifying where you want to locate. Scout out potential locations during the desired daypart. See what the current foot traffic looks like and evaluate the area competition. Speak to any trucks already working the area to understand the customer base and any other area dynamics. The sales cycle to secure the desired spot may be longer than you think, so start early.
Even if budgets are tight, do invest in marketing. It will help your ramp up and get the word-of-mouth going. Work social media. Establish a presence and post about your journey through the planning and launch of your food truck. Consumers love the sneak peek behind the scenes. It will get them engaged with your business and build anticipation and demand for your launch.
Once you are in business and have a regular schedule of locations and public events, post it online so people know where to find you. Trying out a new site, post about it. Consider running an inexpensive paid social media campaign targeting people that work at companies in the area to help generate awareness and drive new foot traffic.
Build Business Beyond the Streets
Market yourself for local events and catering opportunities from the start. These are a great way to generate trial and gain a following. They also give you a nice series of revenue hits while you build up your location business and secure new spots. Street business can be volatile, so building a balanced schedule can provide a more reliable income stream.
Food trucks can be an exciting and fun small business venture. It is a great way to be your own boss and realize a vision of serving fantastic food anywhere. However, a kitchen on wheels does come with a unique set of challenges. Do your homework, take your time in planning out every aspect of your new business and remember to enjoy the ride!
Catherine Porter is a marketing consultant specializing in the food industry. Known for her comprehensive understanding of foodservice trends, consumer insights, and industry dynamics with the ability and vision to synthesize the information into new products, strategies, and solutions for operators and manufacturers. You can find Catherine on Twitter at @cpmktservices or on LinkedIn.