Everything You Need to Do Before Starting a Food Truck 

Jessica Elliott

Jessica couples her 24 years of restaurant and hospitality industry experience with meticulous research to deliver insight into technology, operations, and marketing topics. Her optimized copy helps companies engage their audience while strengthening their communication with clients, employees, and management.

Many culinary entrepreneurs dream of starting a food truck business. It’s a unique way to share your cuisine and concept with your community with lower risk. But, mobile food operators also face challenges. 

Sure, food trucks cost less than a restaurant. But opening a new company still involves plenty of hurdles like permits and licensing requirements. Yet, “the number of mobile food vending establishments climbed by 231% between 2009 and 2018,” according to USA Today

Begin your food vendor journey with ample preparation. You’re going to need it. Follow these steps to start your food truck business and turn a profit. 

Couple buying pasta from food truck at outdoor market

Research the local food truck market

As with any business, research is crucial. Learn about your ideal customers, target market, and competitors. Each detail helps you form your branding, business, and marketing plans. Gathering information is time-consuming. But, it’s better to learn about local neighborhoods and customer behavior before launching your food truck company if you want to be successful. The neighborhood doesn’t need a fourth grilled cheese truck no matter how good your grandmother’s recipe is.

Determine your ideal food truck customers

So, who’s going to stop by your food truck? Explore potential guests using data from your local government and the US census bureau. Learn about their demographics, like age and income levels. Then, get an idea of your ideal customers’ behavior. 

An afternoon crowd in an affluent neighborhood may appreciate your gourmet desserts. Whereas, busy professionals may opt for an energy-boosting drink and a quick snack. Evaluate the needs of your guests. Then, discover why they visit food vendors. Commonly shared motivators include: 

  • Speed
  • Quality
  • Price
  • Convenience

Analyze the food scene

Talk to your local food truck association, trade groups, and culinary institutions. Find out what types of food products are in demand. Next, compare market and customer data to find neighborhoods suited for your brand. Consider how locations and timing affect your clientele, sales, and marketing.

Examine your competition

People love choices. By investigating your competitors, you pinpoint gaps that your food truck fills. According to IBISWorld, 23,872 food truck businesses exist with a total revenue equaling one billion dollars.

But, you’re not only competing with other food trucks. Your competition may include fast or quick-service restaurants, gas stations, and food markets.

Make a list of all direct and indirect competitors. Then perform a competitive analysis to see where you stand.

Learn about licensing and permit requirements

Permits, licenses, and zoning restrictions vary by location. Don’t get caught off guard with unexpected expenses. Instead, head down to your local government office. Ask about the requirements for starting a food truck business. Key areas to consider include: 

  • Local zoning restrictions on food truck parking
  • Health department codes
  • Fire department regulations
  • Neighborhood rules for parking your truck after hours

Your local government may require you to use a professional kitchen for food prep as well. Food truck owners also need a business license, sales tax permit, and a tax ID number. Your local and state websites provide information on each requirement. 

Create your food truck business plan

Your food truck startup needs a customized business plan. This strategic document outlines each step that brings you closer to profitability. Develop the bones of your business plan. Then, add more details in relevant areas such as: 

  • Branding and design
  • Market research
  • Menu information
  • Finances
  • Marketing

Figure out your food truck financials

While cheaper than a full-scale restaurant, starting a food truck requires a chunk of money. Food Truck Nation suggests, “The average cost of starting a food truck business is $50,000 to $60,000.”

Yet, the price varies widely depending on your location. Howard Jeon, the co-founder of New York’s food truck, Yumpling, told CNBC, “If you ask a lot of food truck owners how much it costs to start a truck, a commonly quoted figure is $100,000.” Expect 20% of your budget to go towards permits and licenses. Another 65% to buy and equip your vehicle. Plus 15% to cover general startup costs and a three-month operating fund. 

You have choices when it comes to funding, although it may differ from a traditional loan. Many entrepreneurs starting a food truck create a crowdfunding campaign. Others use personal savings to fund their startup. Access to capital is a critical factor in success rates. So, plan for unforeseen expenses and other needs as well. 

Starting a food truck: Initial costs 

  • Food truck purchase and modifications 
  • Truck wrap and design
  • POS, inventory, and payment systems 
  • Startup inventory and supplies 
  • Insurance for business and vehicle
  • Advertising, marketing, and PR costs
  • Legal fees and licenses

Starting a food truck: Recurring costs

  • Payroll
  • Equipment rental
  • Credit card processing
  • Monthly insurance payments
  • Fuel expenses 
  • Propane or generator fees
  • POS hardware or service
  • Inventory restock
  • Ongoing marketing and advertising expenses

Food truck on a street in New York City, USA

Brand your mobile food truck business

From your menu board to your truck wrap, branding your food truck startup is vital. Review your unique selling point (USP). Then figure out how to turn that statement into captivating design elements.

Professional design services create a logo that looks incredible on your website. But, they also know how to turn a one-inch logo into an eye-catching truck wrap. Your truck wrap markets your business daily. So, it’s important to make it stand out.

Locate and outfit your food truck

When starting a mobile food business, the vehicle is the most expensive part. You may buy a truck that requires a few modifications. Or start fresh by equipping a passenger van or truck. Personalize your mobile food business by: 

  • Working with a contractor who understands your local regulations.
  • Hiring a designer for a professional truck wrap design.
  • Adding decorative lighting or paint accents.
  • Making your truck Instagrammable with graphics and a hashtag. 

Develop your mobile food marketing plan

A well-designed food truck provides marketing just by driving it around. But that’s rarely enough to sustain a business. Develop a marketing strategy that makes good use of your resources. Create a budget for pre-launch and launch marketing. Then, keep extra funds for ongoing marketing needs. For instance, you’ll want to: 

  • Design a website.
  • Create an email list.
  • Deliver a postcard mailer to local neighborhoods.
  • Get active on social platforms, like Instagram

Create a pre-launch and launch promotion strategy

Generate excitement months before starting your food truck business. Select a few goals to boost brand awareness in various neighborhoods. Then, get your local community involved by: 

  • Sharing sneak peeks of your menu. 
  • Hosting a contest or giveaway.
  • Answering questions from new fans.

Don’t forget about the power of photos, videos, and PR. Share before and after moments of building your truck. Plus, reach out to local bloggers and social media influencers to get the word out. Social media boosts your visibility months before you sell your food.

Run through your plan of operations

The joy of the open road is thrilling. But, attracting customers and not losing your profits to spoiled food is vital. Consider each element of your daily operations. Anything you turn into a repeatable process saves you time and money in the long run. For example: 

  • Payment processing: Will you offer mobile payments?
  • Inventory control: How will you account for inventory and sales? 
  • Food prep: Where will you prep your food and store dry goods?
  • Accounting and payroll: How will you track sales, taxes, and payroll?  

Knowing where you’ll go every day or what events you’ll attend helps you generate a sustainable income. Start with a local calendar of events — mark off those days on your schedule. Then use your map to create a weekly route that targets your ideal customers at the best time.

Starting a food truck: Resources for your next steps

With the right amount of prep, starting a food truck is a profitable venture. But, any business involves risk. Fortunately, the mobile food industry is a community of friends who want to see others succeed in their dream. 

Get involved in your local neighborhoods and talk to other food truck vendors. With a lot of planning and networking, you’ll be ready to launch your food truck business. Use these resources to learn more about the food truck industry:

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