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Starting your own food truck

By Lily Bellow and Jackeline Pou

A new trend is sweeping the food world from coast to coast: food trucks. And many cities are even changing their laws to keep up with this growing business. This past Tuesday, Los Angeles passed an ordinance that would require the city’s 9,500 trucks to post letter grades imposed by health regulators. And just like restaurants, L.A. trucks can now find themselves out of business with a grade C or lower; potential violations include dirty counters and unwashed hands.

(Watch our video: Street smarts: The proliferation of gourmet food trucks.)

The new law may seem like a setback to some food truck owners but it’s also one of the surest signs of how these new businesses (once considered fringe) have become part of the mainstream commercial culture in many American cities. Despite the new regulations, owning a mobile business still has many advantages, including comparatively low overhead. The average cost of starting up a brick-and-mortar restaurant can be $100,000 to $300,000. That includes the costs of a wait staff and ventilation systems that mobile vendors simply don’t have to worry about.

Depending on where you live, the cost of owning a successful mobile restaurant can be as low as $30,000 and can run as high as $80,000. But while you might think that running a food truck is as easy as pie, don’t be fooled. While the initial start-up cost is lower, the truck biz comes with its own set of problems. Costs include a vending permit, employees, food (of course), and the truck itself, as well as the depot where it’s kept. And in some cities, you have to factor in the rent of a commercial kitchen.

In Chicago, for example, vendors aren’t allowed to prepare food inside the truck­­ — although that law could soon change. And if you so desire, renting a commercial kitchen will allow you to serve up a lot of food, especially if you live in a big city. Another hidden cost is parking tickets. Many truck owners see parking tickets and fines as part of the overhead. (Fines in New York City can be as high as $1,000.) The best place to find this information is probably from your comrades-in-arms: Talk to fellow truck owners in your area to determine how damaging fines in your city can be.

Photo: Flickr/Adam Kuban

Still interested in started up a gourmet food truck business? Now that you have a sense of the overhead, we thought we’d break it down a little further. Here are the five things you Need to Know to start your own mobile food business.

First thing’s first.
You need a concept. Korean BBQ tacos. Designer soft-serve ice cream. Artisanal hot dogs. These are all catchy concepts that have proven successful on the street. Take a walk around your city. Do some Yelping. What’s missing? Is there a popular cuisine you can find in a restaurant that hasn’t yet hit the streets?  Maybe there’s even something delicious that isn’t being served anywhere at all! Has anyone cornered the gourmet breakfast market? Is anyone satisfying that late-night fried chicken craving? Do you live in an area somehow devoid of cupcakes? You get the idea.

Now you need a truck.
Whether you decide to rent or buy, the cost will vary greatly. Some truck owners scored their trucks online — in fact, a quick search will yield dozens of websites facilitating the sale of used catering trucks. Word to the wise: on eBay you can find a “mobile kitchen” for as low as $5,000, but as any experienced eBayer knows, these deals aren’t always as sweet as they sound. Elsewhere, fully loaded vehicles can run up to $60,000, so before you blow five grand on that impulse bid, do a little research and make sure the product is up to snuff. New York truck owner Oleg Voss found a short cut: “We bought a truck from Pennsylvania, it wasn’t that expensive. The actual truck itself cost us about $6,000.  The expensive part is actually just retrofitting it.”

Get a permit.
It may seem like all you need is a truck and good food, but it isn’t that simple. First, contact your city or county health or environmental department to determine licensing requirements for a mobile vendor. In Philadelphia, a permit is only $150, but in bigger cities like Los Angeles a permit is $695. In New York City, a permit is technically $200, but good luck getting one. New York City has a cap of 5,100 trucks on the streets, but there are an estimated 10,000 vendors in operation — meaning most truck owners find themselves buying a permit on the black market. The cost of a black market permit can run as high as $15,000.

Photo: Flickr/Ricardo Diaz

Develop your brand identity.
As with any other business, branding is key. Most of the successful food trucks you find on the streets are tricked out; they don’t look like your average dirty water hot-dog cart. Spend some time working out your title, your logo, even your color scheme. When your business is mobile, it should also be eye-catching to draw a crowd.  And speaking of crowds — don’t forget to go ahead and register a Twitter account so you can announce your route and your menu; some trucks even take advance orders.

Scope out a good spot.
Repeat after us: location, location, location. “Business is all about location. You don’t have a good location you’re stuck,” says Los Angeles truck owner Jose Perez.  Maybe there’s one corner that’s totally unoccupied, although you might want to ask yourself why. If there’s already a place where underserved hungry crowds naturally gather (college campuses, concert venues, subway stations), you’ve found your spot. In New York City, for example, one truck serving up Kosher food has cleverly stationed itself outside the largely Jewish B&H photo superstore. If your truck caters to the bustling, grab-and-go-on-your-pathetic-excuse-for-an-office-lunch-break demographic, find a busy office building. If your city is already inundated with mobile vendors, though, you might want to work out a rotating schedule. Be mindful of your fellow merchants: You don’t want to step on anyone’s toes!

It’s important to note, however, that the street-food movement is more than just a quick way to make a buck. “Some of these street truck owners have no connection to the food they’re serving,” Zach Brooks of the popular food blog MidtownLunch.com told us. “That’s not what street food is all about.” Like any good product, the most important ingredient is love.

If you aren’t quite ready to start a business of your own, but all this talk about gourmet street food has got your stomach grumbling, here are a couple websites where you can find food trucks in your area:

www.mobilecravings.com (for a general list)

www.midtownlunch.com (NYC)

www.bingfoodcarts.com (Portland)

www.roaminghunger.com/la (Los Angeles)