How I Started My Own Food Truck Business in 5(ish) Steps

When I started S’wich It Up, I spent about a year planning and researching everything I needed to know about starting a food truck. Believe it or not, but back in the ancient time of 2012 there wasn’t that much information on the internet about how to start a food truck. In fact, information was scarce. I had to do all this research the hard way. But it really shouldn’t be so hard.

Anytime an interested food trucker has asked, I’ve been happy to share the information I’ve learned over the years. In fact we created the Food Truck Academy for that very reason. And in that time we’ve helped a lot of people learn about the industry and put them on the path to food truck ownership. And that’s why I’m sharing these 5 Steps to starting your own food truck, to put you on the path to creating your own food truck and sharing your love of food with the world!

s'wich it up

The S’wich It Up Food Truck in all her glory.

STEP 1: Come Up with Your Specialty

Tacos. Sandwiches. Burgers. Pizza. Ice Cream. Every food truck has a specialty. And at this stage in the food truck game, customers expect that. If you mentioned to 10 people that you were starting a food truck, all 10 of them would ask “What kind of food do you serve?” Obviously you’ll want to have an answer for them.

The other reason to have a specialty is because food trucks only have so much capacity. Having a specialty allows you to carefully plan out your menu and run an efficient operation. Make sure that you focus on a cuisine that allows you the flexibility to remain creative for years, but also is specific enough so you don’t overstock your truck and create a lot of food waste.

For example, let’s say you want to start a taco truck. Tacos are a very specific type of food, but one that has a ton of versatility. You can come up with thousands of combinations of tortillas, fillers, toppings, and sauces. And because most of your tacos will have some similarities (the tortillas and probably the toppings will be the same in all of your menu offerings) you won’t have to worry about keeping a fridge full of limited-use ingredients.

And at some you may find that you’ll need to pitch your business. Your pitch will be centered around one thing: your food and concept. Without this, there is no reason to support your business. But more on this later.

business-kit

STEP 2: Cost Out a Truck

Once you have settled on the kind of food you will be serving, you can plan your kitchen. Remember earlier when I said food trucks have limited space? Well you’re about to find out how limited. Planning out your truck equipment, sizes, and placement is very important. Unless you are able to build your own food truck, you won’t have the opportunity to later change your kitchen without spending a ton of cash and time. And both of those are vital to your operations.

Pro Tip: Learn more about the price of starting a food in our helpful cost analysis spreadsheet.

In addition your startup cash is extremely valuable, so you definitely don’t want to overspend on equipment you most likely won’t need later. Eliminating unnecessary equipment gives you more space for storage, which is extremely valuable on a food truck.

So it’s a good thing you decided your food truck’s specialty. That’ll help you focus on the essential equipment for your truck.

Here is a quick list to give you some ideas to consider when planning your truck:

What is your budget? This will determine if you are buying a brand new truck built from scratch to meet your specifications, or you are buying a used truck already built from another owner.

How much food truck do you need? (What’s your food truck size?) Some trucks are as small as a minivan or as big as a bus. The type of cuisine you serve may help determine your size (for instance, for coffee service a van sized vehicle may be all you need).

What type of equipment will you use? Equipment comes in all shapes and sizes and types and it can be easy to get overwhelmed, but try to keep it simple for now. Think about basics (refrigerator, flat top grill, prep table, shelves, generator, propane tanks, sinks, water heater, fire extinguishers, fume hoods, etc) and go from there. Remember you don’t need to buy anything right away, but having a general estimation of the cost will be very valuable when budgeting for this purchase.

When thinking of the truck and equipment you need remember to look at your local food truck regulations like fire safety and health requirements. These will also help guide you on any necessary equipment and safety considerations that you’ll need. For instance, some cities require trucks to have a fully working fume hood and kitchen fire extinguishers. Not every government has the same requirements so be sure to check with your local authorities.

My brother and I serving up serving up some delicious empanadas.

My brother and I serving up serving up some delicious empanadas at an event.

Now that you have a general idea of what you want or need you can start to go shopping:

Check out the huge list of builders on Food Truck Empire to find a builder near you that you can talk with and get a quote that meets your exact needs.

Check out used food truck marketplaces like Ebay and Used Vending to see prices for trucks that are currently on the market. Even if you don’t want to buy a used food truck knowing what is available and how much it costs will help you understand your budget needs. You can find a more detailed list of  places to buy a food truck in this post.

Finding a food truck that fits your needs and your budget is incredibly time consuming but it will prepare you for the next step…

STEP 3: Create a Plan and Get Money

Are you fortunate enough to be completely self-funding your business operations? Well then go right ahead and skip this step.

Most likely, however, you will need some amount of money to get your food truck off the ground. But before you even start to think about where you are going to get money from you need to have a plan.

That’s right… the dreaded business plan.

If you follow the steps here, you’ll be able to build a pretty compelling plan that you can show to anyone. But even still a business plan feels like a really daunting task. I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t have to be. We created the Food Truck Academy to walk you through all the steps necessary to creating your business plan and understanding every facet of the food truck business. The Food Truck Academy will give you a massive head start in your food truck business.

In general though, writing a business plan doesn’t have to be an exhaustive 100 page report. I’ve seen plans of all sizes, from 1 page on up. The key is to make your plan specific to your business. Focus on yourself and explain as much as possible. The goal is to demonstrate to someone else that you are invested in your business and you are worth the investment.

Pro Tip: You can check out the exact business plan I wrote here and listen to an audio lesson explaining how I got started. 




 

There are even some circumstances where you may never even show another person your business plan. But you’ll be much more knowledgeable about the industry and your specific needs because you have considered all the options and have prepared yourself well. The business plan is the embodiment of that preparation.

Once you have a business plan you can start looking for money. When it comes to finding cash there is no amount of searching that can be enough. So I encourage you to leave no stone unturned. But to get you started, here are a few ways you could get money:

Business loans are a lot of work to get. Let’s face it, when asking a bank for money you expect to be grilled and tested to determine how much risk the investment will be. They will most certainly require a business plan, a background check, a credit check, and maybe your first born (or unborn) child. It will also be very difficult if you are a first time business owner, or your food truck is in its first year. But there are options out there so keep at it and persist. In fact your persistence will be a huge benefit, because that passion is what funders want to see in their investments.

Crowdfunding seems like a low hanging fruit, but trust me, it is a lot of work. To raise the money you need, you’ll need to market your crowdfunding page as if you were marketing your food truck, but without actually having the food truck. Don’t get me wrong, it is an incredibly valuable process, but don’t expect to raise $30,000, that is a value for the crowdfunding elite. $1000-5000 is very attainable however, so aim low and shoot high. But like with a loan, you’ll need to have some concept of a plan. On your crowdfunding page, you’ll need to clearly communicate your food truck concept, your menu, where you’ll be, and what makes you special. Just like with the banks, you’ll really want to let your passion and personality shine.

Grants are extremely hard to get and very unlikely. There aren’t too many business grant opportunities, but you can partner with a nonprofit organization to create a really impactful program and do some social good. Think about partnering with shelters or family needs organizations to provide the food services. Usually in these instances, profitability is not the goal so keep that in mind before pursuing this option.

Family and Friends are always an available option. If you decide to ask family and friends for startup cash, keep the request extremely professional and clear. You will need to clearly lay out the needs and detail all of the expectations for both parties. Money can affect relationships both positively and negatively and you don’t not want this to play a role in your personal life, the business side is hard enough! If you borrow money, create a repayment plan. If there is no expectation of repayment get it in writing! Be clear, detailed, and precise.

Investors are common in the restaurant industry, but less common in food trucks. But if you are lucky enough to have an investor willing to pony up a large portion of the business startup costs, remember: your investor is EXPECTING a return of investment. Hopefully, there is a very clear plan of the expectations so that there are no surprises and you can actually build these expectations into your business plan for future reference. Preparation is everything.

Once you have secured some startup revenue you can begin to spend that money…

STEP 4: Licensing and Fees

There are a bunch of licenses and fees you’ll have to pay for right off the bat, but luckily these are inexpensive compared to the rest of the business operations.

First you will need to register your business with the IRS, then with your local state and city governments. Make it easy and use a service like LegalZoom to handle all of this for around $200.

Next you will need to acquire some business licenses, most likely: a health permit and a fire safety permit. Not only are there nominal fees for these licenses, but you’ll also need to undergo inspection processes. Expect this to take some time to get prepared and approved. Make sure you communicate with your local offices early enough to figure out the required steps and timeline for these processes.

Finally you will definitely need insurance. At the very least you will be required to have commercial auto insurance (this is a food TRUCK after all) and you will need business general liability coverage. Each state has different insurance providers so make sure to ask around. In fact, speak with insurance agents and they may point you to providers in your area even if they aren’t that person. Depending on your local laws you may even need workers compensation, especially if you intend to hire employees.

Again be sure to check with your city’s local business registration office to determine if there are additional licensing requirements. But once you complete your business licensing you are ready to get your food truck ready for it’s first day!

Just another day on the S'wich It Up food truck.

Just another day on the S’wich It Up food truck. 🙂

STEP 5: Open For Business

By this point you will have done all the heavy lifting, but there are still a lot of smaller projects to tackle.

Hopefully you’ve planned your menu, but if you haven’t you’ll definitely want to do that first. Figure out your recipes and ingredient lists. Maybe you want to have a seasonal menu and plan out your menu for each season of your first year. Once you get rolling it will be really hard to experiment, especially in that first year. As you get more comfortable with your menu, the truck, and your business you will operate more efficiently and your time will free up. But that first year of operations will be a doozy!

Once you have your ingredient list find your food sources. You can use warehouse stores like Costco and Sams, or food providers like Sysco. Since you have limited space on the food truck you may not need to buy in bulk much of the time, so even grocery stores can be useful. Talk to local butchers and grocers and make special deals to highlight their skills on your truck, if you play your cards right you can get a much better quality product for near or lower cost than the grocers. Thanks to innovations in food delivery in recent years you can also turn to Amazon Fresh that offers fast and free shipping just about anywhere if you sign up for their Prime membership option.

Test your menu. Host some friends and family and ask for honest feedback. Also do a little social media marketing and host free tastings for potential customers. Refine your recipes and perfect them and then hit the ground running.

And speaking of social media, setup accounts on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Build yourself a website, or hire a web designer to do it for you. Sites like Weebly and WordPress work great for very little monthly fees. Create business listings on Google, Yelp, and Roaming Hunger. The idea is to build your presence online. As a mobile business you need to make sure customers can find you in as many different ways as possible.

Start marketing your truck at least 6 months out. Unveil teaser pics, host tastings, participate in festivals, and get the word out about your business. Then carry all of that momentum into your first day of business and beyond!

Naturally, you could write an entire book on the topic of starting a food truck and there are a lot of unique details to the process of getting started that will be unique to your city or region. As with any business, there are a lot of tiny little details that make up getting started. But take it from me and my experience, if you take it one step at a time and remember to enjoy the ride you will achieve your goal of owning and operating a food truck business of your very own. I wish you nothing but the best on your own journey!

Be sure to sign up for our early-interest list for Food Truck Academy to be notified when our next live class opens up and aquire EVERYTHING you need to know about starting your own food truck business. This is a twice per year class where I work hands on with new food truck owners to help set their business up for success.