In his book, The Food Truck Handbook: Start, Grow and Succeed in the Mobile Food Business, author David Weber offers step-by-step advice on developing, starting and operating a successful food truck business. In this edited excerpt, Weber details some of the challenges inherent in running a mobile food business.
I get about three to four e-mails a day from people looking to open food trucks. People who are passionate about food and weighed down by an office job are often attracted to the promise of freedom that owning a food truck seems to convey. While the concept of owning a food truck looks like a carefree way to cruise around the city and make a lot of cash on a sunny day, the reality is much different.
Food truck entrepreneurs often work on their trucks on a daily or near-daily basis. Some aspire to grow their businesses and move out of the daily operations as they build a fleet of trucks or settle into a brick-and-mortar establishment.
But regardless of your goals, you'll be spending a lot of time on your truck. To service just the lunch shift could easily require a 10-hour day, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., including prep and end-of-day cleaning. To make ends meet, some trucks run breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with load-in starting at 4 a.m. and not ending until 2 a.m.
The day begins at the commissary. It's the home of your truck, tools, and food: everything you need to run the operation, likely in an industrial district outside of town, where the rent is cheaper. You'll need to arrive two to four hours before you plan to serve. If you're hoping to serve lunch at 11 a.m., your team will have to be at the commissary by 8 a.m. to have enough time to prep, and you'll want to arrive earlier to do administrative work.
The first thing you'll need to do is prep food for that day. Food trucks generally have small kitchens, so anything you do before you hit the road can speed up your service and allow you to carry more. Many trucks employ a prep team that just prepares food.
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Once your food is in order, check out the truck and see if it's ready for the day's shift. Run through a checklist to ensure that nothing unexpected has happened overnight. You'll need to consider the day's location and what the sales might be before you load up.
If you are vending on the street, allow extra time in your morning routine. In any city, there is always a lot of competition for street parking, but there is even more competition for good street-vending locations. In the worst-case scenario, the whole day can be lost due to lack of a parking spot, so scout a number of possible spots in advance.
Once you're parked, it's prep time. Make sure to count the cash in the register before the start of the shift, and be ready to run to the bank if you need smaller bills. By 11 a.m., you should be ready to open and begin serving your customers.
It's not hard to fall behind on orders, have machines malfunction, run out of smaller bills and have to run to the bank, and encounter other unforeseen dilemmas. All of these are problems that are easily dealt with, as long as you and your team keep your cool.
Once the lunch rush is over and the shift starts winding down, it's time to clean up and head back to the commissary, and get the truck ready for the next shift.
The busy lunch shift is just a fraction of the operation. There are hours of training, preparation, lifting, cleaning, and transportation. It means long days of waking up early to oversee food prep in the morning and late nights checking on the cleanliness of the truck after a shift.
Food trucks break down a lot. And when they break down, everything stops. Besides the cost of repairs, waiting a week for the fix while you can't work (and therefore lose income) is unbearably stressful. Add to that the stress of your employees calling and being upset that their shifts have been canceled and the fact that all the food in the commissary's fridge is going to go bad while your truck is in the shop.
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One of the most challenging aspects is that the business is not easily scalable. Trucks are generally pretty small operations with one to three people on board at a time. They don't generate enough revenue to support managers, so they require very well trained and competent employees.
You need to be ready to embrace the life of a peddler, which requires a level of dedication that many underestimate. The quickest road to success is operating the truck yourself and making a full-time commitment to oversee the business. Being on the truck will also give you the opportunity to define and articulate the brand personally to your customers.
There is money to be made in mobile food, but food trucks are not a get-rich-quick scheme. Food trucks offer lower capital costs, so it is easier to get started than a brick-and-mortar restaurant. However, the core economic foundations must be in place. If making a million dollars is your goal, food trucks might not be the best route to achieve your dreams.
David Weber is the Brooklyn-based founder and president of the NYC Food Truck Association and a cofounder of Rickshaw Dumplings, a chain that operates multiple food trucks. This excerpt is adapted from his book, The Food Truck Handbook: Start, Grow and Succeed in the Mobile Food Business (Wiley, 2012).