How to Start a Food Truck Business: A Step-By-Step Guide

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It doesn’t matter what city I’m in, what I’m doing, or where I’m going - if I see a food truck, I will actively go out of my way to see what they’re serving. 

There’s something so exciting about stumbling upon an unexpected food truck.  The food is quick, usually tasty, and I’m much more open to adventurous options.  Coconut and pumpkin empanadas?  Sure! Hot Cheetos-coated corn dogs?  Count me in! Scallion pancake sandwiches?  Let’s do it.

You might have considered starting your own food truck.  You get to be your own boss, you’re surrounded by delicious food all day, and seeing as how start-up costs are around $40k, there’s a lot less overhead (and risk!) than opening a restaurant.  A thriving food truck can bring in upwards to $500k a year so you can make big money and no one has ever been like, “Aw man, there’s a food truck in this neighborhood now?  Ugh, let’s get out of here!”

Like any business, there are still risks.  The failure rate of a food truck hovers around 60% in three years’ time, whether you have a good or bad day could depend on the weather, and where will you go to the bathroom?! 

If you’re still not deterred but don’t know where to start, we can help put you on the right track. 

So, how does one start a food truck business?

1. Research and planning

Before you can sanitize the piles of money that you’ll be making from your award-winning food truck, there’s some planning involved.  Okay, there’s a lot of planning involved, but brainstorming a plan is always the best part of attacking your goals. Before we get into the super minuscule details, let’s figure out where your food truck will be located.

Being mobile opens up a world of options. Think about your city’s foot traffic. Where are the heavily populated areas? Do you want to be near a stadium or on a college campus?  Do you favor a certain street or want to remain in a particular neighborhood? Can you even be on that street or in that neighborhood?   What’s the zoning situation like? Familiarize yourself with the regulations and laws of your city and state.  You can’t just park outside of a freshman dorm building and think everything is all good. You could get a ticket...or arrested for being a creep.

2. Determine your cuisine

This might have been the first thing you considered.  If you want to open a food truck business, I’m assuming there’s a love of food involved, but in case you haven’t figured out what you’ll be serving, now’s the time. Is there a type of food you see missing from the local options? Maybe you come from Chicago, and now you live in Eureka Springs, Arkansas (population: 2100), and you’ve noted that there’s a serious lack of deep dish pizza in your new town.  Boom! You are now the best (and only) deep-dish pizza food truck for miles around! Maybe you think there’s room for more organic or healthy options via a food truck?  Wellness is bigger than ever right now.  Perhaps there’s an ethnic cuisine that you really love? (White people, tread lightly with this one.) That could provide your customers with a new culinary favorite!

3. Brand DNA

I use the phrase “brand DNA” a billion times a day. It’s so important to figure out who you are before somebody else decides for you. Once you figure out what your truck’s personal brand DNA (“organic Greek salads served in a transparent truck” “chicken with various sauces inside waffle cones” “Jewish and Japanese fusion food with a post office theme”), think about the elements and details needed to drive this image home.  

Pick a name for your truck that encapsulates the brand of your business.  Make sure to check with the United States Patent and Trademark Office that this name isn’t already in use.  Be careful with names that are too in-the-moment. I’m always down for a good pun, but some things don’t age well.

You will also need a logo and a design for your food truck. It’s always good to aim for something eye-catching and fun for Instagram.  I know, I kind of hate myself for saying that, too, but this is the life we all lead now.

4. Money, money, money

One of the most integral parts of your master plan is the business plan.  As my friend Sarah once told me, “you can’t manage what you can’t measure,” so you’ll need to map out the goals you have for your truck and the metrics you’ll be using.  Your business plan should outline what you want your business to look like, market analysis you’ve done, an idea of how much everything will cost you, expenses, projection of your profits and losses, the structure of your organization, even if it’s just you and one other person right now. At this point, you might be the only employee, but it’s still important to know the responsibilities of the job.  

If you’re looking into funding and trying to secure investors, you will also need to know how much money you’re looking to secure, where this money will go, and what you are offering these potential investors. Watch Shark Tank if you need a clearer idea of what this will look like—it’s a great resource.

5. Make it legal

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You have to spend money to make money.  Welp, get ready to spend some money because you’re going to need a few types of licenses and permits. It will change depending on where you live, but you will need to look into:

  • Business license
  • Vehicle license
  • Employee identification number
  • Health department permit
  • Food handler’s permit
  • Fire certificates
  • Mobile food facility permit
  • Worker’s compensation
  • Alarm permit
  • Zoning and parking permit
  • Incorporation filing

You have your work cut out for you; you might not need all of the things listed above, or you may need more.  Find out what is required in your city and state.

6. Buy a food truck

If you don’t have a spare food truck lying around, you’ll need to acquire one. To save yourself some money, you might want to buy a used food truck.  Not only will it be cheaper, but, likely, it will already have some of the customizations you’d be looking to make if you had bought a new one. However, depending on the truck's age, you might have to spend more on maintenance and restorations, and you probably won’t have insight into how well the previous owner kept things.

With a brand new truck, you wouldn’t have any of the wear and tear a used truck might have, and you’d be able to get a warranty at the time of purchase.  It would be clean, and you can expect it to run perfectly; you would also be able to put in all the customizations you actually need and not just whatever someone else wanted. This option would undoubtedly be more expensive, and it might take a while for your food truck to be ready, so if you’re looking to get up and running ASAP, this might not be the best option.

7. Equipping your truck

You finally have your food truck!  Huzzah! You’re almost done!

Depending on what kind of food you’re looking to serve, you’ll have to equip the inside with all of your kitchen tools and supplies.  Do you need grills, fryers, or toasters?  Do you need countertop food warmers so that things don’t go cold? Do you need a fridge or freezer to keep things cold? 

What about the workspace?  Will you need a prep table? Will you need bins to keep any toppings or fixings? Will you need knives because you have plans to chop, dice, and mince? What about serving the food?  You’ll need some containers and utensils. Will they be paper or plastic?  Will they be organic or recyclable?  Are you willing to pay more?

Think about the entire food experience you want your customers to enjoy.  From the second they see your truck and walk over to you, think about all the steps they will need to take.  Are you going to have a menu board that the customers can read as they wait in line, or are you going to have small flyers they can take with them? 

Take stock of everything you do when you buy food from someone else’s food truck.  Aspire to provide that same (or better!) kind of service when they step up to your window!

8. Hire your staff

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As I mentioned before, at the moment, this might just be you.  You might not have any money to hire anyone, but think about all the things that must get done and if you can feasibly accomplish that with one person.  Are you going to be able to greet customers, get their orders, process their payments, and cook and package their food all by yourself?

If that doesn’t seem likely, it might be time to consider hiring someone.  If that’s really not an option, ask some of your closest friends to help you out until you start making some money.  If that doesn’t work, ask the people who have promised always to love and help you: your family.  Parents, siblings, maybe a spry grandmother.  It takes a village, man.

9. Marketing: No one can buy from you if they don’t know you exist

You’ve decided on your dope menu, you have a cool food truck design and name, you’ve borrowed from the bank (or if you’re lucky, you have an investor!), and you now have a’re so close! 

Now you need to market the hell out of your food!  Create a website and social media page. Ask your friends to tell their co-workers. Offer to cater to people’s baby showers, birthdays, office parties.  Right now, all you’re trying to do is get your name out there. Research any upcoming food truck festivals or events and get to know your fellow food truckies.  

Think about all the times you’ve been hungry and willing to pay anything for food (after a late night in the office, when you were drunk in college, stuck in traffic) and go to where those food starved people await!

10. Learn from your mistakes and evolve

Running a food truck, like starting anything, will take time. You will make mistakes, you’ll have good days and bad days, you’ll create new systems for yourself and you’ll get rid of old processes that don’t work.  Eventually, with patience, you will figure out your own best practices. Whether this is just one step towards a bigger goal or something you have always wanted to do, take pride in your burgeoning business, and best of luck! 

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