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Five Tips for Starting a Food Truck

Here's what you need to know about building a restaurant on wheels.

Fueled by Twitter and the nation's growing interest in innovative fast-food options, food trucks have proliferated over the past few years. While food carts serving pizza, chicken, hot dogs and ice cream have lined the streets of major U.S. cities like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago for decades, those generally generic carts have now evolved into eye-catching restaurants-on-wheels that travel to different locations throughout the day and boast sophisticated kitchens capable of producing high-quality meals, snacks and desserts.

Thanks to a growing foodie culture and the popularity of Food Network shows like The Great Food Truck Race, food trucks have become a desirable business option for savvy culinary entrepreneurs. Indeed, launching a business on four wheels, without the need for a brick-and-mortar location, can be a much cheaper and more viable path.

That said, "Just because you like to cook doesn't mean you should operate a food truck," cautions Jackie Valent, owner of The Fast Foodie, a food truck with an eclectic global menu that travels the streets of Milwaukee. The job entails a lot more than just peddling burgers or cupcakes -- just as with any business, marketing, bookkeeping and managing employees are all part of the process. And simply being out on the streets day in and day out to keep a food truck rolling takes a lot of physical work.

So before you put your restaurant on the road, you need to first check your community's laws and ordinances, as they vary greatly from city to city and can affect your ability to operate. And then, once you have the regulatory green light and want to get your food truck moving? Here are five things you need to know.

Develop a strong brand.
Allison Torneros, head of Los Angeles-based branding studio Circle Dot, has worked with food trucks like The Great Food Truck Race competitor Nom Nom to develop a very strong presence in their communities. "One thing that will put you ahead of the game is a strong brand that customers can trust," she says. "Think of what, aside from your menu, sets you apart from every other food truck and really sell it. For example, Nom Nom's brand is cute and lighthearted, whereas a truck like Grill 'Em All is heavy metal. When a food truck's brand is likable, followers will go out of their way to find them on the streets. Without a strong brand, you're simply selling food most people could buy at a regular brick-and-mortar restaurant. From the truck design to your logo and Twitter page, your company's look and feel should be cohesive." A strong brand, Torneros adds, can also help tremendously if you have future plans to franchise or sell your company.

Remember the little things.
Alex Rein, owner of New York-based Kelvin Natural Slush Co., believes that attention to detail is essential to running a successful mobile food business. "Think about the things you like about your favorite restaurant," he says. "The decor, the menus, the signage, the uniforms, the place settings, the service. All these little things contribute to your enjoyment of the restaurant and make the food taste better -- how things are presented and the setting in which they are presented affect how you respond to them. The best restaurants in the world with the most delicious food spend a great deal of time and money on how the restaurants look and how the food is presented. These same principles should apply to a food truck." Rein places a high priority on the design of his truck inside and out, the cups he uses, his website, uniforms, menu board and how the product is presented. "We want a trip to our truck to be an experience that is memorable and exciting."

Become a social media maven.
Social media is absolutely essential to running a successful food truck, since it is often the primary way patrons will track you down on a given day. Grant DiMille and his wife, Samira Mahboubian, owners of New York-based StreetSweets, use Twitter extensively to update fans about their locations and advertise their daily specials. As Valent also points out, "Social media has helped many food trucks build and sustain their businesses. You have the unique ability to connect with customers one-on-one in a special way." The other wonderful thing about social media: It's mostly free.

Be unique.
If you want to have a food truck that people will follow anywhere, you need to determine the qualities that make your food and the experience of visiting your truck stand out. With The Fast Foodie, Valent has trademarked a product called the "Globaco," which is short for "global taco," and she feels it has given her a distinctive marketing edge. "We take cuisines from around the world and put them in flour tortillas to make them portable," she says. When you find an angle no one else has covered, you can add strong statements like "one and only" to your menu and promotions and attract more attention.

Your truck is a restaurant, not a hobby.
Even though a food truck is an unconventional business -- and often a fun one -- it's still a business. Valent stresses the importance of managing your truck like a regular restaurant. "Pay attention to details like portion control, food costing, sourcing of food, etc. Though your margins are better than in a brick-and-mortar restaurant, you still need to keep tight controls on inventory and costs." No matter how eager you are to hit the ground running and crack into this hot new business category, you have to treat your startup as you would any other business in the beginning stages, so you can build your customer base and stay on the streets for many years to come.

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