When you think “food truck,” what comes to mind? Is it the image of a 14-foot tall tin box at the local state fair, serving up greasy burgers and fried treats on a stick? Is it a humble hot dog cart parked outside the neighborhood baseball field? The perception of food trucks has evolved and expanded over the years.

Today, food trucks are an opportunity for aspiring restaurateurs to spark interest in their culinary creations while saving to grow their business or simply satisfy their restaurant owning itch without the big commitment. Sound familiar? Then a food truck could be the right venture for you. 

What is a Food Truck? 

A food truck is a large mobile vehicle that stands, on average, at 14 feet tall and around 34 feet wide, and is equipped to prepare, cook, and store food. Food trucks can either have the ability to drive, like a van, or it can be a trailer that is towed around. These compact restaurants have the ability to move between locations to diversify their customer base and reach a larger audience. 

Starting a Food Truck: Why Do it? 

A Food truck can be a more affordable option for those looking to start a restaurant but cannot afford the startup costs of a brick and mortar restaurant or are not ready to commit to one. This means you won’t have to invest as much of your personal assets in order to get started. There is less risk. The upkeep and maintenance costs of a food truck are also considerably lower compared to the costs of a traditional restaurant. 

If you are determined to eventually open a restaurant, entering the food truck industry will give you the opportunity to work out the kinks of your operations. You’ll be able to figure out what procedures work and don’t work, what processes are the most efficient, and what food is a home run or a total foul. Just as important, this will also allow you to grow a loyal customer base so you’ll already have a following to serve food to when you open up a stand-alone restaurant. 

How to Start a Food Truck Business that Sets Itself Apart

Long gone are the days of food trucks exclusively representing greasy fair food. Today’s food trucks are so much more than that, getting creative in their specialties and truly carving out a niche in the market. This is so important to your food truck’s success. Much like restaurants, the industry is saturated with them. Mediocrity is frequent and true excellence is rare. Preparing top-notch food is just as important as serving food that is unique and memorable. 

Some unique food trucks that have been changing the industry: 

  • Grilled Cheeserie: Gourmet grilled cheese (Nashville, TN)
  • Mac Mart: Classic and wild mac n’ cheese variations (Philadelphia, PA)
  • Cinnamon Snail: Innovated vegan food for the carnivorous customer (NYC)
  • Bon Me: Bánh mì, a Vietnamese sandwich (Boston, MA)

These are just a selection of the many jaw-dropping, mouth-watering food truck concepts that will get you reaching for your wallet. Others have ventured into specialties such as BBQ, crepes, waffles and pancakes, wood fire pizza, tacos, and specific genres of food like Mediterranean or Chinese. 

Food Truck Financing 

Similar to your 2018 Honda with the swanky sunroof, you can’t drive off the lot without setting up some financing. Food trucks, though much cheaper than a restaurant, can still be a considerably pricey investment (you just had to get the sunroof). 

With a food truck, the financing can be a little more complicated than a regular car. This is because you have loads of kitchen appliances inside of it. If you buy a truck that doesn’t have all the fixings in it, or if you bought a used truck that needs to be updated, you’ll be financing stoves, griddles, and refrigeration on top of the truck itself. 

Thankfully, there are plenty of options available for financing your food truck. First, make sure you have a separate small business savings and checking account set up. This will make securing financing and keeping track of spending easier. Then, consider the following:

Equipment Financing

This is a quick way to get your food truck up and running. It will help with purchasing the truck itself and getting the necessary equipment. When you go with this type of financing, the equipment you purchase will become the collateral for the loan so it’s crucial to ensure all of your payments are on time. 

The size of this loan will range depending on the cost of your equipment, but usually will cover it in its entirety. The term of this loan will usually be as long as the usable life of your equipment. Be warned, interest rates for this can be a little steep, hitting as high as 30 percent. 

Business Lines of Credit

If you are looking for financing beyond just your food truck and its equipment, you may want to research a business line of credit or a business credit card. 

A line of credit will allow you to access a general sum that you can use for whatever your business needs, as you need it. With this option, you will only ever pay interest on whatever you actually spend. So, if your line of credit is $5,000 and you spent $2,000, you would pay interest on that $2,000 only. Usually, these lines of credit are revolving, meaning you won’t have to apply for credit again and again. You can pull from it again, so long as you have credit available. Paying off your credit line in full each month is always recommended so you always have emergency funding. 

Business credit cards are best for smaller purchases. You wouldn’t exclusively rely on a business credit card to fund large purchases like equipment. These are a great option for building business rewards if you secure a card with an associated rewards program. Shop around to find the best business credit card for you. 

SBA Microloans

These small business loans are $50,000 or less, and can help with smaller purchases. This microloan is through the Small Business Administration Loan program that is meant to stimulate small businesses and the local economy. You can use this loan for most purchases. However, to qualify for it, you must have a decent score across the 5 C’s of credit, a healthy financial situation, a solid business plan, collateral, and a personal guarantee. 

Crowdfunding

Food trucks, once successful, are oftentimes cherished by the entire community. Leaning on the community for funding is an effective way to finance your food truck endeavor, especially for those who don’t have the credit to secure the above financing options. This is a great option for those of you who have already served the community with your product, perhaps through an online method or at a smaller scale stand at local farmer’s markets. You’ll have a reputation in the community to realistically ask for help. 

How to Start a Food Truck

Draft a Business Plan

Before you start applying for lines of credit and committing to an actual truck, take a moment (or a few weeks) to really flesh out your business. 

Writing up a business plan for your food truck business will allow you to gather vital research regarding the industry and your competitors. This will help you understand the various challenges you may face while trying to establish your presence in the community and what you may need to do to stand out. This plan will also help you construct a concrete mission and vision statement for your food truck that will represent what your business does and what it hopes to grow into. This will drive future decisions as you grow. Be sure to explore the following in your business plan: 

  • What does my food truck do? What types of food will I be serving? 
  • Why does my food truck do what it does? Do you have a sustainability or charitable angle? 
  • The details of your product. What is it, how is it made, what makes it different from other competitors
  • Market analysis. Who are your competitors? What do they do? Is this different from you? What is the market outlook for this industry?
  • What are the details of how much your business will cost? 
  • If you are asking for funding from investors or lenders, how will this loan be used? 
  • What is your strategy for promoting your business so it earns success?
  • What will your business organization look like? How many employees? Who is the management team?

Get the Necessary Licenses

Just because you don’t have a brick and mortar business, doesn’t mean you’re exempt from the legal requirements that come with being a business owner. 

With a food truck, you need various licenses and certifications. The food industry comes with its own unique set of requirements. Be sure to do your research on obtaining the following licenses or permits so you can operate: 

  • General business license 
  • Vehicle license (your business is on wheels, after all!)
  • Seller’s and food handler’s permits (this will allow you to purchase and handle food for your operations, and the requirements vary depending on the state)
  • Health Department permit. Food safety is critical. 
  • Parking permits for all areas you wish to do business in
  • Employer Identification Number (EIN)

The standards for general business licenses, and many legal permits, are ever-changing according to your state and industry. Be sure to always stay updated on these changes to ensure you remain in compliance.

Find the Right Food Truck

A truck is a truck is a truck is a…

Not quite. 

Not all food trucks are made equal, so there may be one size and style that is better suited for your specific needs. Consider the following when finding your perfect truck: 

  • Size: The average trucks are about 14 feet to 34 feet long. Ask yourself if you plan on cooking and serving on site. If yes, you may want a bigger truck to give you room to comfortably and safely so. Don’t forget to factor in other bodies, like employees, who may share the space with you. If you opt for a smaller truck, then keep in mind that you may have to prepare all of your ingredients (or even cook) at home. You can also park your own food truck or trailer at a commissary, which houses a community commercial kitchen where you can prepare your food alongside other food truck owners. 
  • Type: Do you want a legitimate food truck, or perhaps a trailer or cart. The traditional food truck allows you to drive it from destination to destination. The trailer needs to be hitched to a separate vehicle, but still can offer you the same amount of space and equipment to serve a large crowd. Food carts are usually for beginners and are very low maintenance. These also need to be hitched to a separate vehicle and don’t have the capabilities to cook or serve mass audiences. 
  • What will you be cooking? If you need a lot of storage or refrigeration, make sure your truck can accommodate this. 
  • Cost: Before choosing a truck, secure the funding needed to finance one. This will help you go shopping with a realistic budget in mind. Then, factor in whether you’ll buy the truck or lease it. 

Get Insurance

Since this business is on wheels, you’ll need to get car insurance for your business. Be explicit with the insurance provider about what your business is and how you provide your product, because operating open flames and preparing food with sharp tools is a major liability. All of this will be taken into consideration when developing your insurance plan.

Invest in Technology 

Point of sale systems (POS systems) will help you quickly take, track, and process orders, without the bulk of a traditional register. POS systems, like Square, Clover, or Shopify, can transform easy-to-use smart devices such as an iPad or your iPhone into a terminal where your customers can pay. This will be especially helpful when you’re putting together cash flow analyses or calculating balance sheets. POS systems can offer valuable transparency regarding your sales.  Be sure to invest in a good cellular data plan for your device so you’re never without your sales terminal.

Scope Out Ideal Locations

Look for areas that can attract a lot of people. Ideal spots may be the heart of your city’s downtown area, where professionals are walking around on their lunch breaks. You may want to visit popular parks on the weekends where people are lounging around, or partner with local retail vendors and set up shop on their property. Do some research to see if there is a food truck association in your area that you can join. Often they have designated days and areas where the food truck community comes together to serve residents. 

Build Your Community

Begin to build community connections. Join the boards of restaurants, food trucks, or small business associations to show your investment in your industry, craft, and overall community. Consider donating your operations to community events to earn buzz and network, and invest time into external catering opportunities for local companies and government boards. Because food trucks set up shop all-around an area, they are truly a part of the community. Do more than serve incredible food. 

Build Your Brand 

Branding is important for all businesses and should never fall to the bottom of your priorities. Social media is your best friend within a tech-driven world. Follow local restaurants, community organizations, and small businesses within and outside of your business. Show your support for the work that they do by actively sharing their work on your own feed. This will help you build strong relationships with other entrepreneurs. Post daily, whether it be of your truck, of your product, or your life (customers love a relatable business owner!), to showcase the personality of your business and the core values that you stand by. 

Now is an excellent time to embark on a food truck adventure. The industry has grown exponentially throughout the years and now provides so much flexibility and creativity to all who wish to open shop. Lean on this guide to help start your journey.