Food Truck Fantasies: Opening a Truck of Your Own

September 9, 2016 • 7 min read
Allison Vrbova

Allison Vrbova

Seattle Correspondent

There’s no denying it: we are living in the age of the food truck. (Many of us eagerly await the day we’ve got taco trucks on every corner.) In fact, mobile cuisine is currently the fastest growing segment in the food service industry. In major cities like Portland, Oakland and Seattle, diners have no shortage of unique and tasty trucks to choose from. Dozens of trucks open, and close, in these cities each year. If you’re thinking about joining this trend, there are many factors to consider before opening your own food truck.

Licensing and permits

Each city has its own unique set of permits and licenses. The process can be fairly cumbersome and take several months to complete. In Seattle, for example, a food truck owner must apply for a permit from either the Department of Transportation or the Parks Department, depending on their intended location. Next, a city business license is also necessary, as is a state vending license. The infrastructure of the truck itself must then be inspected by the state’s Labor and Industries Department, and the kitchen must be inspected by the County Health Department.

Karl Stickel, manager of the City of Seattle’s Entrepreneurship and Industry Team advises prospective food truck owners to determine their concept and menu and then talk to someone at the city level in advance of applying for any costly permits. Says Stickel, “We have a lot of people going quickly into buying a food truck and then having to back up. They base their concept on vending in a specific location and then learn too late they can’t go where they want to go.” Resources at the city level can help walk a prospective  business owner through all of the necessary steps.

picnic food truck

Creating your menu

If you’re a foodie, creating an elaborate menu may be tempting, but when it comes to food truck menus, simple is best. “A concept that is too complicated is hard to explain,” says Tiffany Ran, Townsquared merchant and owner of Blindcock Media, a PR and marketing agency for the restaurant industry. “A menu that has too many dishes or too many customizable options for each dish not only slows down the line, but it frustrates diners and ultimately leads to some public relations issues. After all, in a food truck, you only have that narrow window (literally and figuratively speaking) to interact with diners when they order and pick up.”

Simplicity is also important from a cost perspective. Food trucks usually operate with slim margins, so having a handful of dishes comprised of relatively few ingredients cuts down on the cost of food, the amount of commissary storage, and the staff needed for prep. As Tina “Tamale” Ramos, Townsquared’s Community Liaison for Oakland and a mobile food industry veteran, points out, “Anything that has a high profit margin does well…As a food industry professional period, you need to know what you have on your menu that will allow you to stay in business.”

courtesy of Streetzeria

Finding the truck of your dreams

The type of menu items will also help dictate what type of truck is needed. The cost of a food truck can run anywhere between $15,000 for a basic used vehicle with considerable mileage, to $125,000 for a new outfit with a full commercial kitchen. The wide range in pricing depends on a number of factors including the mileage and condition of the vehicle itself, as well as the level of cooking amenities.  

Greg Bye of Seattle’s Streetzeria, which operates a wood-fire pizza oven out of a converted 1957 fire truck, advises prospective owners to either find or customize a truck to fit the needs of the menu. “You are able to cut costs that way,” Says Bye. “Some of the most successful trucks in town were custom built because of their menus.”

When choosing between an older, less expensive truck and a newer model, it is also important to factor in the cost of future repairs and maintenance. Another consideration is lost revenue during times when an older truck might be out of commission for major repairs.

Commissary rental

The vast majority of trucks do not operate as full-service commercial kitchens. Most require the use of a commissary or other commercial kitchen space for food prep and storage. Often this is because it costs far less in the short term to rent commissary space than it does to build a self-contained truck. In some cities, however, businesses aren’t allowed to sell food that is prepared on an actual food truck.

The type of commissary arrangement will depend on a number of factors. Greg Bye of Streetzeria points out that trucks with the simplest menu—for example, hot dogs that require food storage but very little prep—sometimes do well to find fraternal organizations or churches with commercial kitchens and strike up a deal.  For a menu that requires more prep, there are a range of commissary options, from booking time in a shared space, to renting an existing restaurant’s kitchen during off-hours, to renting a private commercial kitchen for full-time use.

biscuit box

Budgeting wisely

The bulk of food truck costs will be spent on acquiring and maintaining a truck, renting a commissary, purchasing food, and paying for staff. However, a few less obvious, but relatively large, budget items also come into play.

  • Generator: Being mobile means having a portable power source. As such, it is important to choose a generator that is strong enough to power all of the appliances that may be run together at any given time.
  • Fuel: Fuel costs for both the generator and the truck itself should be well thought out. Plan out the average fuel needed to get to and from your regular locations as well as to special events and festivals.
  • Vehicle Wrapping: As Boston Food Truck Blog points out, wrapping your truck is an investment not to be overlooked. A wrap is essentially a vinyl advertising decal that covers all or part of your vehicle, making it a mobile billboard for your business. According to the Blog, “It creates brand buzz, attracts attention from individuals passing by…and makes a tremendous first impression on customers.” This process, including design, averages between $2,500 to $5,000.
  • Insurance: Insurance varies depending on the size of the truck and how many months of the year it will be in operation. A safe estimate ranges from $2000 to $4,000.

It’s worth taking a look at the 2016 food truck industry statistics, but the bottom line on your bottom line: do your homework and then pad your budget. Taylor Johnson, Executive Chef of Seattle’s Mobile Mavens food truck fleet, warns that opening and operating a truck costs more than most people anticipate. Double your budget for the unexpected,” says Johnson. “That way you will be prepared to handle unforeseen operating costs and truck maintenance when it arises.”

lil blu.ed

Getting the word out

Cooking great food is only part of the equation for a successful truck. Competition is steep, so marketing is a must in order to draw diners. Food truck blogger Megan Marrs, writing for Business News Daily, emphasizes the need to find an unfilled niche. “Who will your food appeal to? What demographic are you targeting? These questions will help you with other important food-truck decisions, like what the style and design of your truck should be, and what locations you should park at to reach your target audience.”  

Telling a clear story is also crucial. “The most successful forms of narrative I’ve seen are when diners can reference a food truck to its story or source of inspiration,” says Tiffany Ran of Blindcock Media, “like the owner’s experiences growing up on a Native American Reservation (Off the Rez) or a Microsoft employee who decided to take her family recipes and run with it (Roll OK Please).”

Food truck community

The mobile food business is difficult. Profit margins are slim and 18-hour days are not uncommon. With all of the ups and downs, Carolina Abolio, of Oakland pop-up stand Miss Arepita, has one final word for anyone thinking of starting a food truck: community. “You have to have a community to serve your food to, but also the community is serving you,” says Abolio. ”You cannot do this by yourself. You have to have a community so that when you call them and say this week was horrible, they say ‘No, it wasn’t that horrible. Look at everything you did.’”

Where to start: Licensing resources by city

New York – Health Department

Oakland – Planning and Zoning Department

San Francisco Planning Information Center  

Portland Bureau of Development Services

SeattleOffice of Economic Development, Restaurant Advocate

If you’re in San Francisco, a great resource for prospective food entrepreneurs is La Cocina, a food incubator which also offers kitchen space for rent

Masthead, Picnic, Biscuit Box, and Lil’ Blu images by Clare Barbaoz, courtesy of Mobile Mavens

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