Are food trucks a cash cow or bottomless pit? Should your restaurant take the plunge and go mobile?
Read on to discover the benefits of a food truck for a restaurant, and whether it’s the right decision for you to take your restaurant on the road.
They may seem like the fresh-faced darling of the food industry, but food trucks have been around since before the 1800s. From chuckwagons to keep cowhands on the trail for months at a time, to the mobile canteens operated by the army in the 1950s, even the hilariously touted “roach coaches” and “gut trucks” serving blue-collar workers… Food trucks have historically provided a much-needed service to hungry men and women on the go. But they have come a long way from their humble beginnings.
In the past 5 to 8 years, the food truck industry has seen rapid growth fueled by a post-recession need for cheap food and the millennial demand for a delicious photo op. With movies like “Chef,” Food Network’s “The Great Food Truck Race,” and over 3.5 million #foodtruck posts on Instagram, it’s clear that they’re here, they’re trending, and people are into it… but what are the benefits of a food truck for your restaurant, and should you jump on the bandwagon?
Food trucks might be small, but they pack a major punch. The food truck industry has grown an astonishing 7.9% in the past 5 years, compared to the average 2% growth of brick and mortar restaurants. If you’re looking to expand your restaurant’s reach, a truck might be the solution.
Although your truck is on the go, by the sheer nature of its size it is significantly less expensive than opening a traditional brick and mortar location. The average truck costs around $100,000 to start. If you build out a completely new truck it can run you closer to $250k, but if you choose to refurbish your own it can be as little as $50-70k.
But keep in mind, you need fewer staff—usually no more than three people. You’re purchasing less equipment, with the added bonus of not needing to maintain an indoor hospitality space.
If you already run a successful restaurant and are looking to diversify, odds are you already have a following. With a food truck, you have the unique ability to broaden your audience without limiting the new growth to a specific neighborhood. With music festivals, food truck parks, outdoor events, and the sheer number of street corners to park on, the opportunity to reach more people is nearly endless. Diversifying with a food truck will spread the word of your restaurant, and people will know that even if the truck is in a different neighborhood that day, the restaurant is open, and not moving locations any time soon. It’s a win-win.
A lot of people assume that once your truck is built you have carte blanche to park wherever you want, open your doors, and start serving. The reality is that each state and each city has very specific rules and regulations, licenses to procure, certifications to pass, etc. Making sure you have all your ducks in a row can be time-consuming, stressful, and confusing.
Some requirements include, but are not limited to: a sellers permit, health department inspection, peddlers license, food safety handlers certification, and business permits. Keep in mind, you need a separate version of these for each city you’re serving.
Many cities limit the number of food truck permits they issue every year, which can leave restaurateurs stuck for months on end before they can even get their business off the ground. You have to pay close attention to parking regulations—paying the meter isn’t always enough. Proximity restrictions can tighten your options as well. Some cities regulate how many feet your truck can legally be parked from a brick and mortar restaurant, and require you to move location every two hours.
Another thing to consider is the sheer amount of time a truck demands. Much like opening a restaurant, when you own a food truck, especially a popular one, there is no such thing as off days. Once you build a following, the customers expect you to be open every day. Vacations become nigh impossible. And if you do decide to take time off, it is important to consider how many people you have to hire to replace you in your absence. Odds are, when you own the truck, you do the work of about three people.
Once you make the decision to grow your business by adding a food truck, there are several things to keep in mind. A love of food and the ability to create a delicious dish is simply not enough, it wasn’t with your restaurant and it won’t be with your truck. You have to be just as remarkable at the business side of things.
Consider location. Yes, you are mobile, but choosing where to kick off matters immensely. The most profitable food trucks based in university towns, coastal cities, and cities with mild weather. Portland, Seattle, Austin, and San Francisco are the current food truck front runners. Targeting event centers, music venues, parks, and festivals is a smart game plan, but most trucks make the highest percentage earnings on street corners.
Evaluate the market. Opening up a burger truck in a burger town isn’t going to encourage a lot of buzz. Ask yourself “Is this unique? Or does it already exist?” Look at what is trending in your neighborhood, and fill a void. The most successful trucks specialize in a niche category and put a fresh spin on presentation/preparation/cost. While we’re on the subject of cost, it should be low. Not fast food low, but low enough that the customer feels like they’re getting something exceptional for a steal. Most truck lunches average around $10, while dinners sit closer to $15. No one wants a $30 dollar lobster roll from a truck.
Once you build your truck and are ready to hit the road, take a lesson from the boy scouts and “always be prepared.” Things will go wrong. You need to know how to handle it. Elements like running out of propane, prepping too little food, or prepping too much food can cut the legs right out from under you. Getting your truck set for the day is a delicate balance that will take time to learn. If you forget a key component, driving all the way back to your docking location can annihilate your sales for the day.
The food industry is cut throat. The truck side is no different, but forming relationships and building respect between your fellow truckers can make a world of difference. Not only for support and morale but for getting on your feet, finding reliable vendors, knowing who to call when the truck breaks down (and it will break down). No one knows better how to handle City Hall, find the right equipment outfitters, or get the best deal on propane, than the people who’ve been running successful trucks for years. Ask for help!
It’s definitely a hard question. The good news is, you have a restaurant, you have a name, and people know who you are. If done right, a truck will drive more people to your brick and mortar and vice versa.
Do your research! Be open to diversifying how the truck functions with your restaurant. A lot of successful food trucks provide catering, food delivery, and cooking classes as well. The food truck industry is not for the faint of heart. It requires problem-solving for logistical nightmares, patience with the City Hall powers that be, and runs on a steep learning curve. But with high risk, comes high reward, and it could be the perfect expansion to growing your brand and reaching more people.
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