The 3 Biggest Myths of Starting a Food Truck

If you're looking to start a food truck, make sure you're prepared.
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The Cinnamon Snail food truck on the streets in New York City before it closed in 2015. (Photo:The Cinnamon Snail)

Since 2009, cities across the country have seen an explosion in gourmet food trucks on their corners and streets, serving everything from Maine lobster rolls to Korean­-inspired burritos and tacos. They’ve been immortalized in movies like Jon Favreau’s “Chef” and profiled on their own Food Network show, “The Great Food Truck Race.”

And they’re big business too. According to IBISWorld, a global business research organization, the average revenue generated per truck in 2015 was $290,556, and overall, the industry has seen its seventh year of growth.

While food trucks are lucrative, restaurants and individuals hoping to start a mobile food business need to know these three myths about truck life first.

Myth: It’s inexpensive to start a food truck

Compared to restaurants, food trucks do indeed have a lower startup cost. Between buying a truck, wrapping it in advertising, and purchasing equipment, launching a website, buying a POS system, insurance, and permits, a food truck costs about $90,000 on average to get going, according to IBISWorld.

But after that, there are constant repairs and other costs that quickly add up, warns former food truck owner Adam Sobel, who ran one of New York City’s most popular food trucks, The Cinnamon Snail, until he closed it in 2015 and opened the business as a cafe.

“A lot can go wrong,” he says. “You have every issue that happens to a restaurant, but you also have to rely on the mechanical stability of their vehicle.”

Sobel recommends not buying a used truck and refurbishing it. “Once everything is inside, you’re tied to using that truck forever,” he says. “You’ll have to keep fixing and replacing it.”

Many first-­time food truck owners also assume that a food truck means no rent, and you just park the truck and make money. If there’s not enough space for additional cooks in your truck or if you’re an individual without access to a commercial kitchen, you might need to rent space to prep ingredients for the truck, depending on the complexity of the food you’re serving, Sobel says.

Myth: Food trucks are simpler to run than brick-­and­-mortar restaurants

The cramped confines of trucks can be much more restrictive than restaurants, as far as what food can be cooked.

When it was open, Sobel’s vegan truck turned out labor­-intensive breakfasts and lunches, as well as pastries that were made overnight. Everything was made from scratch. And while he doesn’t regret the complexity of his food, he says the simpler the food, the fewer the headaches. Food truck food should be efficient and easy to prepare, which means you might not be able to recreate restaurant dishes without modifications.

Operating a full-­time food truck also means you are exposed to the elements all year long, says Toby Kremple, mobile manager for Mobile Mavens, a Seattle-­based fleet of mobile food businesses housed in retro campers and bike carts. Kremple says if you hate sweating in the summer or shivering in winter, then a food truck is not for you.

Food trucks also require a lot of day-­to­-day planning that restaurants don’t have to think about, Kremple says. Food truck owners have to think about where to park the vehicle when it’s not being used, where they get their power and water, what noise regulations exist in the area, where you’ll prep and store food overnight, and where you’ll get the truck repaired.

“The list goes on and on,” he says.

Like restaurants, food trucks also require very long hours. Running it for lunch and dinner everyday means 14-­plus­-hour days, while using the truck for special events and catering could mean less of a time commitment.

Myth: You just park it and sell

In New York City, gourmet food trucks have dwindled because the city’s permit laws have not kept up with their rise.

There is a set number of permits available and a waiting list so long that, Sobel says, food truck owners have to resort to the black market, where permit owners rent their permits (illegally) for 200 times what they paid (Sobel’s cost $20,000 a month). But other cities like Boston and L.A. are more generous with their permits.

Research the regulations in your city, and ask food truck owners about the current climate. Kremple recommends doing your homework early.

“Navigating all the regulations and requirements to run a food truck can be a challenging process,” he says. “Be sure to research well in advance, because [permits] can sometimes take months to secure.”

Like restaurants, food trucks also need to have curb appeal. But this can present a challenge if city regulations require trucks to be parked in areas without foot traffic.

“Having a great-­looking truck with a phenomenal product is not enough,” says Eric Weiner, founder and owner of FoodTrucksIn.com, an online database of 6,000 trucks in 1,300 U.S. cities. “Finding locations to vend and events to attend takes a lot of planning in advance and time to grow.”

As with any business, Weiner says, proper planning is the most important thing. “Having a solid business plan, clear marketing plan, and strategy [for balancing] street vending, public events and private events/catering is a key to success,” he says.

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