How to Start a Food Truck Business

8 Steps to Start Your Mobile Culinary Journey

Male owner adjusting board on concession stand while female coworker opening shade of food truck
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Food trucks provide an opportunity for people to get a variety of meal options and quickly experience new kinds of cuisines in convenient locations. And at a time when outdoor dining and social distancing has become more prevalent, mobile food service can be a promising, flexible, and ultimately rewarding small business idea for innovative, independent entrepreneurs.

In fact, research firm IBISWorld provides a positive outlook for the food truck industry, forecasting continued growth beyond 2021 due to factors like improving economic conditions and consumers opting for pricier gourmet food options. 

However, while the mobile food industry’s future looks encouraging, it’s important to keep in mind that setting up this type of business and running it successfully has its challenges. For example, there are startup and operating costs to consider, and it may take some time before you break even or make a profit. Still, taking the food truck route instead of opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant allows you to get on the road, share your cuisine, and potentially build your brand faster than you would at a standalone location. To help you get started on your mobile culinary journey, use the following guide. 

8 Steps to Start a Food Truck

Step 1: Start With an Idea

To formulate a game plan, start asking yourself the following questions:

  • What kinds of food trucks are already operating in your city? 
  • Is there any local interest in the type of food you want to serve? 
  • What is your favorite dish? 
  • Which cuisines, themes, or chefs inspire you? 

You don’t need a profound reason to start a food truck business. But make sure that you take some time to examine why you want to start a food truck, and assess your values, goals, and vision for your business.

Step 2: Create a Business Game Plan 

Every business needs to clearly define its business plan (including an executive summary), marketing goals, and budget—and food trucks are no exception. Failure to develop a basic food truck business plan can be detrimental, especially in a potentially risky industry like mobile food service.

Along with developing a business plan, you should choose a business name and branding image that reflects your food, area, and vision. 

An impactful, cohesive first impression is essential, so when choosing your brand identity, consider who your target customers are and what makes your business unique. 

Step 3: Acquire Funding 

Whether you accumulate savings, get a small business loan, or secure investors, keep in mind that while food trucks may be cheaper than opening a restaurant, they can still require a sizable financial investment. Expect to spend anywhere from $50,000 to well over $100,000 in startup costs that cover licenses, permits, equipment, food, branding, and the truck itself.

Step 4: Get Your Equipment in Order

You can rent a food truck instead of buying a new one, refurbish a used model by customizing it for your business, or even opt for a van, cart, or trailer for your business. Whichever option you choose, make sure it fits your budget and goals.

Install all commercial equipment needed such as a POS system, stainless steel counters, refrigerators, fryers, multi-well sinks, lighting, and flat-top grills. If a custom vehicle wrap for signage is out of your price range, you can install a menu board and use a vehicle decal instead. 

Step 5: Scout the Best Locations

Research and decide on your chosen operating range. Events such as festivals, fairs, and parades can help you get your feet wet. In addition, check local event boards and social media for new location opportunities, and reach out to shopping centers, offices, bars, and pubs to form potential partnerships. If you don’t want to travel, however, consider renting a paid space in a food truck park or business lot.

Step 6: Make Sure You Have Permits and Licenses, and Are Up to Code

To operate successfully (and legally), your food truck needs to be properly insured and licensed before you launch. First, research mobile food restrictions and regulations for your local (city and county) and state governments. 

Next, find out how much it costs and what it takes to apply for licenses and permits for the areas in which you’ll be operating (see New York City guidelines here and here, for example). Fees may vary depending on the locality and state, but according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, it can cost an average of nearly $30,000 in permits, licenses, and legal compliance to start and maintain a food truck for one year. 

Finally, be prepared for health inspections by making sure your food truck is thoroughly cleaned, food is properly labeled and stored, equipment and evacuation safety measures are being observed, and that you have adequate ventilation and running water. 

To get ahead of the process, you can create and regularly use your own digital checklist for self-inspection. 

Step 7: Develop Your Menu

The most successful food trucks tend to have a unique take on food—often by serving a signature dish—and a passion for sharing it with others. 

As your day-to-day goal should be to serve delicious and memorable food quickly, keep these four food truck menu elements in mind:

  • Fast: You’ll lose customers to long lines if you can’t serve food promptly.
  • Filling: Save the artful chef plates for your future restaurant; food truck menu items need to be substantial.
  • Flavorful: Have you tested your menu out with others? Would you order it yourself? Let your menu evolve. If an item isn’t selling, replace it.
  • Fairly priced: For the quality and amount of food you’re offering, what’s a fair price to charge? Assess your location, dishes, and competitors, and adjust your prices accordingly.

If your customers are not satisfied after standing in line and trying your food, they likely won’t return or tell their friends, either. Developing a unique menu is valuable, but make sure you have the budget and resources to pull it off consistently. 

Step 8: Promote Your Launch

Whether in cities, suburbs, or rural areas, social media marketing can be a powerful tool for announcing your launch and building your food truck fanbase. Use platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to promote your launch to your respective networks, and inform them about where you’ll be located. Use these platforms to post clear, attractive imagery of your dishes and featured menu items, and to plug any launch promotions. 

At a time when roughly 70% of customers check out a restaurant online before deciding to eat there, it’s crucial to make sure they know who you are, where to find you, and what to expect. 

The Bottom Line

The road to success in the food truck industry can be fraught with financial and logistical challenges. But as a sense of economic optimism pervades, it could be timely and beneficial to make your culinary break in a mobile operation—especially considering the flexibility, independence, and room for innovation it affords. If you budget, plan, and prepare accordingly using the outlined steps above, you can launch a unique, memorable dining experience that will hopefully attract an array of customers and keep them lining up for more.