Starting a Food Truck

Turn your dream of owning a restaurant into a reality.

Starting a food truck can be an overwhelming process when trying to find the right permits and licenses, startup expenses, and social media management. We’ve created a step-by-step guide to cover every bit of detail and nuance you might face from start to finish. The path you’ll soon embark on is not an easy one, but if done correctly, it can redeem a very rewarding experience.

Mobile Food Vending Handbook

Soul Searching - Define your Cuisine

When you boil down a culinary business down to its core, you’re left with incredible food and a memorable experience. That’s exactly what you want to focus on when running your own business. You probably already have a passion for cooking, now it’s time to create a unique concept for your cuisine, then focus it into a specific menu. The more unique and niche your menu is, the better.

Remember the three keys to success? Location, location, location. With a mobile food truck, that can all change on a dime, so you’ll want to capitalize on word of mouth about how great your food is. This will lead to marketing with social media, but in the meantime, you will want to create a specialized menu that your customers will remember and tell their friends about.

Get tips, Business tips

With how much goes into starting a small business, or something like a food truck, there’s going to be hurdles that you won’t see coming until you’ve already committed. This is the time to get some research under your belt, talk to some local vendors and pick their brains. Make sure you bring a pen, paper, and a few questions, you will want to write down all the insights they have from being around the block.

A few good questions to ask might be:
  • Why did you start a food truck?
  • What were some of the challenges?
  • How often are you working on your food truck?
  • Did you have support from your family and friends?
  • Anything you wish you knew before starting a food truck?

Running or starting a business isn’t a “one size fits all.” You will come to find that everyone has their own experiences and hardships they faced along the way. Learn from the people before you, and get ready to forge your own path.

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Make a Business Plan

A food truck is such a niche platform that creating a business plan is a must. This should include details about what kinds of ingredients (and their selective costs) you’ll be using in your menu, permits and licenses, and how much you’ll pay your employees. Having a business plan is also a smart way to persuade a bank or investors to help finance your business.

Here’s an example of what you might consider in your business plan:
  • Ingredients
  • Supplies
  • Equipment
  • Permits and licenses
  • Buying a truck
  • Truck fuel and maintenance
  • Unexpected repair
  • Employees
  • Insurance
  • How much you’ll be making
  • The business unique selling proposition
  • Marketing

Ultimately, your business plan should be as in-depth as possible. Having a comprehensive business plan can help you with avoiding spending too much money, accidentally breaking the law, or find where you should focus your time when you feel lost at sea. The U.S. Small Business Administration has a great guide to writing a business plan if you’ve never done it before.

SBA Business Plan Template
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Rules & Regulations

Complying with regulations is going to be a major part of starting your business, it’s also one of the most difficult ones. Permits and licenses vary from state to state, and sometimes county to county. For example: if you’re registered in Portland, you can’t drive and set up shop in New Orleans with the same permits.

Because states and counties have their own requirements and ordinances, you will need to find what permits you need on your own. A good place to start is contacting your local health department, and looking on your state/county website for information about mobile vendors.

While requirements and permits will vary by location, here is a list that’s commonly required for food trucks:
  • Business License
  • Tax ID
  • Employer Identification Number
  • Vehicle License and registration
  • Insurance
  • Location and parking permit
  • Food Handlers permit
  • Food Managers Permit
  • Health Department Permit
  • Seller's Permit
  • Fire Certificate

For an in-depth explanation of what each permit is, and where you might find it, check our page that covers rules and regulations.

Get your food managers card

Choosing your Truck

Now comes the exciting part! You’ve done some research, wrote a solid business plan, found what permits you need, now it’s time to go window shopping. There are several avenues you can go down when it comes to purchasing a mobile food vendor. If you’re strapped with cash, you may be considering a used food truck or even a trailer. On the other hand, you might spend a bit extra to get a fully decked-out food truck that’s been customized down to the rims. Another option is to rent or lease a food truck so you can test what the food truck life is all about, without forking over an arm and a leg first.

Buying a Food Truck

You’ll have to decide whether you want a new or used food truck if you’re planning on buying. Used food trucks are considerably less expensive, although make sure you kick the tires and do a thorough inspection before purchasing. Food trucks can range from $40k to $250k, consider your budget and make a list of your needs vs wants.

Used food trucks are less expensive than new trucks that are relatively equipped, but depending on the maintenance it’s had (or lack thereof), it could potentially turn into an expensive project. When inspecting the truck before purchasing, here are a few things to look out for:

  • Is the equipment gas or electric powered?
  • Is there a maintenance list?
  • Does it have the equipment and appliances you’re looking for?
  • Does it meet the requirements of your local health and safety department?
  • Does it have a floor plan that can work to your needs?

If you’d rather own a new food truck, it will cost more upfront, but it will be much more reliable and will give you the ability to highly customize it. This can be a great way to jumpstart a stable business (If you aren’t paying too many bills). There are companies out there that specialize in building custom mobile vendors, from exterior wraps to installing the equipment and meeting safety regulations. You can check out our list of mobile vendor designers if you’re wanting to get inspired.

View Custom Truck Designers

Renting a Food Truck

Renting a food truck is a great way to get into the mobile vendor scene without investing too much upfront. This can be an attractive option if you’re looking to enter the food truck scene at a low cost, or if you want to test the waters either because of a lack of experience or fear of it not being profitable.

The main downside to renting a food truck is that you don’t own it. This can sometimes place restrictions on your business or operation. For example, you might not be able to customize the interior or exterior of your food truck. Or you might be limited to operate in a certain area. This can feel counterintuitive, as the magic of running a food truck is that it’s your passion job and you own everything about it.

When deciding on who to rent your truck from, be sure to check what’s included in the agreement. Some companies will only lease you the truck, and you still have to obtain your permits, licenses, and insurance. While other companies are an all-in-one package that comes with everything you need to get rolling.

Food Trailers

Another option if you are worried about breaking the bank, but still want to own a mobile vendor is to look at food trailers (or carts). There are also a couple of positives that come with pulling your kitchen: it’s easier to handle when driving, it’s not permanently attached to your truck, and can be easier to store than a food truck. However, because they are smaller, it makes it a bit more of a challenge for a full-service operation.

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Get Funding

Because a food truck is not going to be cheap, you’re going to have to plan how to finance it. Unless you’re flush with cash and have money stashed for a big investment, you will need to look at the various ways one can go about securing funds for their food trucks. Options range from small business loans to peer-to-peer lending. Researching small business funding is an important next step, regardless of your current personal finances or credit.

Cooking Equipment

Investing in the right equipment can help you cook and store your food safely and efficiently. One of the puzzles of finding equipment for your food truck is that you’ll need the same things as a regular kitchen, but at a fraction of the space. When you research equipment, make sure it accommodates your floor plan as well as what kind of power you’ll be using.

Keep in mind that some state health department codes might restrict the use of certain equipment or require clearance that could impose on the rest of your interior configuration.

Insurance

Along with rules and regulations, being insured is a legal requirement. Although it may seem like an extra bill, you’ll be thankful you have it when life happens. You never know when life will throw an expensive pothole at the truck, or give food poisoning to a customer. The point is, it’s a great thing to have regardless of being a legal requirement.

Typically insurance for food trucks will fall within three categories:
  • Insurance for the truck
  • Insurance for your employees
  • Insurance for your business

There are programs out there that are specific to mobile food vending. Consult a knowledgeable insurance agent that has experience or is specialized with the mobile food industry to find out which liability, property, and workers compensation insurance you need.

For an in-depth explanation of mobile food vending insurance, check out this detailed guide.

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Choosing a POS system

You’re finally cooking food for your customers! Now you need a way to complete the sale. This is where a POS system comes in handy. POS systems can help track sales, inventory and even manage employees. There are many small and mobile options available that won’t take up your entire countertop. Some of these systems use a phone, or an Ipad if you want a bigger touch screen.

By using a POS you’ll be able to accept multiple forms of payment including cash, credit card, and apple pay. It would be a smart investment since fewer and fewer people are carrying cash.

Where to store your truck

Planning ahead on where you’ll be storing your truck is a wise decision. Look into your local city laws about where you can park overnight. If you live in a gated community or city apartments, you may have trouble finding a parking spot. On the other hand, if you have a private garage or some property to park your vendor you’re in luck!

If you find yourself with limited parking options, look into city commissaries. These are commercial kitchens where vendors prepare and store their food overnight. Commissaries can provide you with a space to park and recharge your truck overnight.

Marketing - Social media wizardry

It’s time to get in touch with another part of your creative side. You know how to make delicious and amazing looking meals, now show it off to the world! Marketing may seem like a daunting and potentially expensive task, but it doesn’t have to be. It can be free and fun!

We’re living in the age where everyone is connected via smart phones and social media. That’s where you will make a presence, let people know where you are and why they should eat there. If you don’t already have social media accounts, here are a few good ones to get you started.

Instagram

A photo driven platform with thousands of people to share to at the touch of your fingertips. Instagram is a great place to start especially if your presentation is on point. You can get your food in front of a large crowd with just a few hashtags and a location stamp.

Twitter

Tweet! Tweet! You can keep users posted where you’re set up by tweeting out your location a few times a day. Don’t forget to share some delicious meals you’re cooking up or maybe a coupon to entice them to stop by.

Facebook

Facebook seems like the king of social media these days, everyone is on it. If you don’t have a trending website, making a facebook business page is highly recommended. You’ll be able to list everything unique about your truck, your menu, and where you’re located. It can also be a good spot to answer any questions customers might have.

Foursquare

Foursquare allows you to offer customers deals or coupons when they “check-in” to your food truck. It can also help legitimize your business when you’re first starting out. When a customer checks-in to your business, it’s shared with all of their friends on Foursquare, it also allows them to share any feedback.

The key with social media marketing is content and consistency. Attention spans are getting shorter, and the amount of media is getting larger. To see gains, you should be posting everyday, even if it’s just a quick picture of a fresh meal.

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Tips for success

Starting a food truck is not an easy task, and it’s not a one size fits all. We know this guide can’t guarantee success all by itself, it also requires some sweat equity and ingenuity. Which is why we’ll leave a few extra pointers to recap and set yourself apart from the competition.

Focus on the menu

We learned that good food and a memorable experience is the heart of a culinary business. You should create something simple, but niche. Overcomplicate it and customers will have a hard time ordering from the menu. Remember that customers will also spread your name though word of mouth, give them something easy to describe, yet truly bomb!

Up the creativity

Get inspired from other successful vendors out there, but don’t copy their ideas. That will only create tension in the community. Find a gap in the market, and then hyperfocus in on it. Pair that with a catchy name and a custom truck design that stands out and you’ll be the word on the street.

Market, market, market

Social media marketing will most definitely be a key to attracting customers and being successful. When you’re fresh in the shark tank, you’ll have to make a name for yourself. Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Foursquare are the best places to capitalize on social media marketing. Post everyday, keep doing it for a few months, and you WILL be rewarded.

Final Thoughts

Now you know the basics of how to start a food truck, it’s time to hit the ground running! You can find more information and detailed guides further in the site. If there’s any information we might have left out, or you find that something is wrong, please let us know. We wish you the best of luck on your endeavours.

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