Like a cross between a street food stall and a sit-down restaurant, the food truck has become a staple of the American dining scene. From music festivals to quiet side streets, food trucks—more than 30,000 of them, to be exact—can now be found in hundreds of cities across the country.
It’s been more than a decade since the “food truck revolution” started, but hungry locals still crave these meals on wheels, and the food truck market continues to grow. Even as early as 2017, the US food truck industry was worth 2.7 billion dollars—and it’s likely worth even more now.
So, whether you’re an established restaurateur looking to branch out or an aspiring chef seeking an alternative to a brick-and-mortar restaurant, you can open a food truck and have a piece of that pie. Here’s how to start a food truck business in your city.
Step 1: Do your research
Like all good business ideas, opening a food truck begins with market research. Before you buy a van or build a menu, you’ll want to know more about the industry. Solid market research will inform every other part of your food truck business, from your overall concept to the locations you hit.
Specifically, it’s worth looking into:
Your local food truck scene – Is there a demand for food trucks in your city? Or is there already a truck on every corner? Finding out which trucks are most successful can also help you determine which cuisines and concepts perform best.
Your local restaurant scene – Are there restaurants in your area that would compete with the food or experience your food truck might offer? Even though your business will be on wheels, it’ll still have to hold its own against the established restaurants in town.
The national food truck scene – Are there any trucks across the country you can take inspiration from? Are there any business names you really wanted that are already taken? Looking beyond your community can be an eye-opening way to do research.
Step 2: Come up with a concept
With a better idea of the local and national markets, you can start developing your food truck concept. As with a restaurant, your concept is your food truck’s overall theme—in other words, it’s what sets you apart from the rest.
You can design a full menu as your food truck approaches its maiden voyage, but for now, think about your:
Once you have the truck itself, you can tweak these elements to suit the vehicle. In the meantime, these ideas can bounce around in your mind as you complete the rest of this “how to start a food truck” checklist.
Step 3: Write a business plan
As tempting as it is to buy a van and start grilling, we’re not there just yet. Your next step involves building the foundation of your business. That’s right—it’s time to craft a business plan.
A business plan acts as a “North Star” for you, your team, and your investors (if applicable). While the exact contents of your business plan will depend on your needs, most plans should include:
•A summary of your business
•A detailed description of your company
•A market analysis (See? It’s already coming in handy)
•An outline of your company structure and management
•An in-depth marketing strategy
•Any supporting documents
A well-crafted business plan can be the difference between receiving a loan and being turned away by investors. Which brings us to our next section…
Step 4: Secure funding for your business
A food truck is more affordable than a restaurant, but it’ll still require a modest investment. Between licenses, equipment, and other expenses, starting a food truck can cost $100,000 or more. If you don’t have that kind of capital to invest, you may need to seek funding from other sources, such as:
•Friends and family
•Loans or grants from the US Small Business Association (SBA)
No matter where you draw your funding from, be sure to have all parties sign a contract. If you’re not a legal expert, have a lawyer or accountant look over anything before you sign it.
Step 5: Purchase your food truck
With the proper funding, you can finally start making concrete strides toward food truck ownership. A terrific place to start is the heart and soul of your business: the truck itself.
While the early days of the food truck industry saw owners repurposing vans into mobile kitchens, most food trucks today are purpose-built.
Without a doubt, your vehicle will be the most important—and most expensive—part of your operation. As such, it’s worth viewing a few options before settling on a truck. Additionally, you’ll have to decide if you want a new or used vehicle and if you’d rather lease or own it.
Keep in mind that not all food trucks are trucks; some businesses operate out of trailers. If you take this route, you’ll still need a vehicle to tow your rolling restaurant around (unless, of course, you can secure a permanent spot in town).
Step 6: Obtain the necessary permits
Like brick-and-mortar restaurants, food trucks are bound by local and state regulations. These requirements are a blessing and a curse—they protect businesses and consumers, but they cost the average food truck owner around $28,276.
The requirements for running a food truck vary by location, but in general, you’ll likely need:
•A food truck permit (often called a Mobile Food Facility Permit)
•A health permit
•An employee health permit
•A seller’s permit
•A food service license
•A business license
•An Employer Identification Number (EIN)
•A parking permit
To find out exactly how to open a food truck in your area, check in with your regional Health Department, Chamber of Commerce, and Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).
Obtaining the required licenses and permits can take several months, so it’s best to start the process sooner rather than later.
Step 7: Equip your food truck
Whether your food truck came with a purpose-built kitchen or not, you’ll likely need to make changes to ensure it suits your needs. Here are some essentials to think about when furnishing your truck:
Equipment – Beyond the typical ranges and fryers, you may also need food warmers, microwaves, and additional prep space. Then, there are refrigeration units, sinks, knives and tools, garbage and recycling containers, and so on.
Point of Sale (POS) system – To process orders and accept payment, you’ll need a phone or tablet that can take card payments.
Serving containers – Because plates are a no-go in the food truck world, you’ll want to purchase takeout containers, disposable cutlery, and paper napkins. Consider opting for eco-friendly options, if possible.
Supplies – Don’t forget about the food! If you already own a restaurant, chances are you have suppliers on speed dial; if not, you’ll need to connect with local vendors to develop your supply chain. Now is a terrific time to finalize your menu, as it’ll dictate what food you’ll need to order.
Step 8: Hire staff
While you can run a food truck alone, it’s not recommended. Ideally, you’ll hire staff to help with prep, cooking, and taking orders—and, eventually, to take over the truck so you can enjoy a weekend off.
When hiring employees for your food truck, look for workers with:
Experience – Ideally, your new hires will have food truck experience; if not, general food industry experience is a must.
Relevant skills – Depending on your cuisine, different kitchen skills and techniques will be more valuable.
A solid work ethic – Employees should be reliable, consistent, and able to work well under pressure.
A pleasant disposition – Mobile kitchens are tight (like, really tight), so liking the people you work with is a plus. Additionally, friendly customer service will help your food truck succeed.
Step 9: Promote your food truck
What’s going to convince would-be customers to check out your new food truck? Marketing. If you don’t invest some money to spread the word about your business, locals won’t know it exists.
To draw out a crowd, start promoting your food truck before it even opens. You can experiment with the following tried-and-true marketing tactics to make your opening day (and every other day) a success:
•Create a professional website and follow SEO best practices
•Post to your personal social media and create business accounts
•Take out ads on local radio or TV
•Print out flyers
•Sell branded merch
•Drive around to generate buzz
Step 10: Launch your food truck
Finally, it’s showtime. Whether your first day is at a local food truck festival or on a busy street, seeing the fruits of your labor will be a treat. You’ll likely be (very) busy in the kitchen on opening day, but hopefully, you can take a moment to step back and admire your hard work.
Try a different approach to on-the-go food
Food trucks represent an excellent way to bring your food to hungry customers. Compared to opening a traditional restaurant, owning a food truck is more affordable, more flexible, and—dare we say it—maybe even more fun.
That said, opening a food truck is not without its challenges. And if running a food truck appeals to you because you want to open a restaurant without opening a restaurant, there’s another option worth considering: CloudKitchens.
At CloudKitchens, we’ve eliminated the friction associated with starting a food service business by providing you with a stocked ghost kitchen and an end-to-end delivery system that connects your customers with your food—fast. And when you open a virtual kitchen, you can go from concept to cooking up a storm in as little as four weeks.
To find out more, tour one of our kitchens or get in touch with us today.
IBISWorld. Food Trucks in the US - Number of Businesses 2005–2028. https://www.ibisworld.com/industry-statistics/number-of-businesses/food-trucks-united-states/
Food Truck Nation. Report Insights. https://www.foodtrucknation.us/
U.S. Small Business Administration. Write your business plan. https://www.sba.gov/business-guide/plan-your-business/write-your-business-plan
CNBC. Opening a food truck costs about $100,000—here are all of the expenses that come with running one. https://www.cnbc.com/2019/09/20/the-hidden-costs-of-running-a-food-truck.html
Food Truck Nation. Report Insights. https://www.foodtrucknation.us/
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