How to Start a Food Truck and Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

The food truck is to 2016 what the cupcake was to 2006: the tastiest trend.

Thinking about jumping on the bandwagon and starting a mobile small business of your own? Mull over these steps before you start providing meals — or treats — on wheels.

Establish a Worthy Menu

Whether you’re planning a menu that’s savory, sweet, or a little of both, keep in mind that simplicity and efficiency are key qualities for a successful food truck. And ultimately, your food has to be nothing short of addicting.

“What you are going to sell to people has to be relevant in the current food climate,” advises Adam Terry, the mastermind of Waffle Love, based in Provo, Utah. “It has to be something worth tracking you down for.”

A decadent menu is what keeps customers, including Bill Murray and Darius Rucker, lining up for Sweet Lulu’s Bakery On Wheels in Charleston, South Carolina. Karen Moran, the company’s self-proclaimed “chief shuga momma,” fills her vintage camper with cupcakes and pies served in mason jars.

“My menu was based on a few things: personal preference, Southern culture, and things that remind you of grandmother’s home baking,” says Moran, whose treats have garnered praise on the Cooking Channel and in The Huffington Post.  

Create a Thorough Business Plan

Mouthwatering food can only get you so far. Just because a food truck isn’t a brick-and-mortar operation doesn’t mean you shouldn’t vet your victuals.

“Food trucks require serious business planning to be profitable and sustainable,” says Toby Kremple, mobile manager of Mobile Mavens, a fleet of Seattle-based food trucks. “Make sure to include items like where you will store your vehicle, where the food will be prepped, and where you will get water and power in that plan.”

Terry adds, “Be realistic, conservative, and plan for unexpected expenses.”

Kremple suggests doubling the proposed budget for such unplanned costs. “That way you will be prepared to handle unforeseen operating costs and truck maintenance when it arises,” he says.

Research Local Regulations

Navigating the regulations and requirements to run a food truck can be challenging, Kremple says, so don’t make it a half-hearted effort.

“Be sure to research your city’s permitting and licensing process well in advance, because they can sometimes take months to secure,” he advises. “Also remember that permits can vary dramatically by city, county, and state. Make sure you know how different locations may affect your business plan.”

Buy a Truck

With a firm strategy in place, it’s time to procure your wheels. There are a few options: purchase one ready to roll, hire someone to build one for you, or DIY.

Terry was tight on cash when prepping to launch Waffle Love, so he chose the latter. “It was definitely challenging, and I spent more time and money than I’d care to admit,” says Terry, who enlisted his wife’s help to paint the exterior with intricate designs and bold colors.

People tend to judge a truck by its cover, so choose your look wisely. For Moran, her chic camper has opened doors to catering opportunities, which tend to be more lucrative than conventional food trucking.

“By designing a food truck that didn’t look like a traditional truck I’m able to cater at plantation weddings that literally every other truck here except one is unable to get into. Venues are very particular about the look and feel of their outside vendors. It’s not a worry I have,” says Moran, who hired CH Campers to create the exact look she wanted.

Terry says that spending extra to get good-quality equipment, like a quiet generator, pays off. “People have a hard time enjoying the experience when the generator is blaring in the background,” he points out.

sweet lulus

Build Your Online Presence

Nowadays, if you want a strong following you have to be in your customers’ digital sphere.

“It’s even better when you pair great food with great branding,” Terry says. “It resonates with people and helps draw them in to see what you’re all about and give your food a try.”

Avi Shemtov, owner of Boston’s The Chubby Chickpea, knows that keeping an active social media presence is vital to establishing a brand.

“A strong brand is necessary to compete in the high-volume environment food trucks have become,” he says. “We focus on Twitter and Instagram and try to post relevant, informative, and entertaining information.”

Complementary websites can also help drive traffic to your truck. Creating and maintaining a WordPress website is easy with Bluehost. If you’re out on the road too often to set a site up yourself, you can hire one of our professionals to do the legwork for you. Then use these handy plugins to set up online ordering and offer a location-based calendar to make your food all the more appealing.

Roll Around Town and Dole out the Goods

You may have the cops called on you a few times. You may have a malfunction or two. But at the end of the day, you can ride off into the sunset knowing that you’re taking your work home with you in the most delicious way possible.

Emily Edmonds was the editor of a business magazine for eight years and currently teaches a college news writing course.

Photos by Anne Rhett.