A relatively new fashion is eating from food trucks. Knowing how to navigate the food truck economy and make your mark on the mobile restaurant world can be cut throat.
Probably every country and region in the world is associated with its characteristic street food: hoagies in Philadelphia, rice balls in Taiwan, arepas in Colombia, roadside crepes in France.
In most cases, the origin of these dishes was borne of necessity: workers heading to the fields or factories had little time to prepare their own meals, so a cheap and filling substitute that could be ready in minutes and eaten on the go was the ideal solution.
Evolution of Food Trucks
Over time, customers became more discerning while a wider range of ingredients became available, and many of these dishes became gourmet items that just happen to be served in seconds.
Plenty of people make a meal – or a substantial living – out of the food truck economy. Knowing where the road narrows and where the on ramps are can help you find gourmet experiences in the open air, or even quit your job and start up your own truck becoming a hot dog gypsy traveling from event to event, or a street corner fixture.
If this sounds like an attractive lifestyle to you, read on for a few hints to help you avoid getting hit by a taco truck.
Know Your Market
You might love the idea of serving escargot nuggets to the masses, but odds are others are unlikely to share your enthusiasm. Choose your signature dish carefully as it must appeal to the generic palate.
Even if you have culinary ambitions, crowd favorites like hot dogs and sandwiches will always sell. Remember that, if you set up shop in a family environment, it will generally be the children who decide where to go, so make your van attractive to them foremost.
How To Stand Apart
If there are multiple food vendors where you pitch your tent, however, you need some way to make your offering stand out from the rest. There’s nothing sadder than a line of food stands all selling the same things at the same prices.
So simply offering a selection of tasty and unique sauces might be enough to draw people to you instead of your neighbor. The bigger the town you’re in, the more luck you’ll have with ethnic or weird cuisine.
Location, Location, Location
The fast food business, whether mobile or within walls, is all about feet. You can move to where the people are, but don’t do this every day – regular customers are pure gold, so stick to one spot long enough to see if you can build up a reputation.
Make sure you get permission where you need to; once you’ve stepped on police toes, they’ll generally be looking out for you. Don’t park right in front of a brick-and-mortar restaurant selling food similar to yours, and take the time to clean up after yourself no matter how long the day has been.
Hygiene, Hygiene, Hygiene
This should go without saying. Poisoning customers is a big no-no in the foodservice industry, and the way you do things in your own kitchen may not be good enough. If in any doubt, take a quick course in food handling. Health inspectors are generally good sources of advice too, as long as you approach them before you screw up.
Sidewalk service is all about speed. Forget about linen tablecloths and chandeliers, your customers will be hungry and impatient above all else. The more you can do in a static kitchen – slicing, precooking, portioning, preparing side dishes – the better.
Customers will not care how fast you can serve them when nobody else is around; the important metric is how quickly you can deal with a line of a dozen people. Having a prep facility will also allow you to operate several trucks efficiently.
Do the Financials – Several Dozen Times
When planning a new business, it’s way too easy to plug rosy-looking numbers into your spreadsheet; this is one reason why so few businesses outlast their first and second years. Keep your business plan up to date to reflect changes in business trends.
Since a food stand is a cash business, basing your planning on cash flow above all else makes sense. Always bear in mind that one rainy month can wipe you out if you don’t have a cash cushion to see you through.
A really successful restaurant has a return on investment figure of only about 5% – 10%, due to high staff costs and capital outlay. You will have very little overhead, luckily, but everything will still depend on getting a minimum number of sales every week.
You may be thinking that having a bright sign and awning is all you can do to promote your food truck, but that would be lazy. You will need to build a distinctive, recognizable brand to attract all-important repeat and word-of-mouth business.
Consider building a website that shows where your truck is located in real time (the best location in the morning may be dead after noon). In the food industry, giving away bite-sized samples is never unwelcome and one of the best tools you have.
Remember that you’re only paying the food cost, but the customer is getting retail value so finding and keeping customers is going to be paramount to your success. If your food is unique, you should even consider publishing your recipes.
This will take away a minuscule amount of sales, while generating interest and showing that you are confident of preparing your own food better than your customers can.