The great thing about the food truck business is that you can set it up just about anywhere in the United States. Since this page is all about doing just that in Austin, Texas, let’s talk about that. The city has a population of about 843,000. That’s a lot of potential customers. It’s a promising market, but you need to do research first before taking that first step. Fortunately, Chef Jen of The Ginger Armadillo was more than willing to share her experience setting up her own food truck. She’s been running a successful 2-year operation in the city. We highly suggest paying her food truck a visit to sample her best sellers. For more information, please drop by her website to see their schedule. Now let’s move on to the interview.
FTE: Tell me a bit about yourself, your business and how long you’ve been operating in your city.
Chef Jen: I’m a chef in Austin, Texas, but most of my 12 year culinary experience is in Dallas, Texas. I was lucky enough to get a cookbook published “Gourmet Meals in Crappy Little Kitchens”. When I originally thought to open a food truck, I was going to name it the Crappy Little Chuckwagon. Everyone…EVERYONE told me not to do that. So I went back to the drawing board. 4 years ago I headed to Austin to start fresh, and I’ve been operating the Ginger Armadillo for over 2 years now.
FTE: Where did you get information about how to set up a food truck business in your area?
Chef Jen: I started with a book called “How to open a food truck”, and it was quite helpful on where to start: budgets, business plans, etc. It didn’t matter, though. In the beginning we still did everything wrong and looking back, nothing would change that but experience. There are resources for small business owners, but not really anyone specifically for food trucks. Even if there were, each truck business model is so very different; you’d be hard pressed to find a group geared toward you. For example, we don’t park in a permanent location, so the advice you’d give a food truck stationed in a food trailer park does not apply. At the start we wandered aimlessly looking for places to park, like our bank and the local YMCA, and it didn’t look good. Turns out that all of the mega office complexes in Austin are managed by only a few property management companies, and almost none of these buildings have built in food establishments. Once I contacted them, we suddenly had parking agreements with captive audiences all over town. No one knew to tell us that 2 years ago…
FTE: Where should entrepreneurs go to find information about the local health code and other regulations?
Chef Jen: The health and safety regulations are easy to find online at the city health department website. City regulations can be a bit trickier. When we 1st opened we applied for the City of Austin mobile food permit because all of our locations were addressed Austin, TX. Well it turns out, that even if the address is Austin, it’s possible for the location to be outside the technical city limits requiring a Travis county mobile food permit. We got a random inspection at a location that turned out to be 2000 feet outside of the Austin city limits. Literally if we’d been on the other side of the parking lot, we’d have been fine. I went to go apply for the Travis county permit, and it turns out that they are the exact same staff in the exact same office as the city inspectors. It’s just a formality/opportunity to charge you for another permit from the exact same entity. Another Health Dept debacle came in the form of not knowing that getting your kitchen inspected by the health inspector wasn’t sufficient. Beyond the obvious, you must pay for a separate inspection (of the same space and probably by the same inspector but for an additional fee) to receive your “Change of Ownership”. Get it? Because you don’t own the kitchen. It’s all very counter intuitive, and not explained well anywhere. You can find a list of requirements, but there is no effective way to glean which apply to you, even if you’re able to decipher what they mean…
FTE: In other areas, available parking space has been a constant problem among food truck operators. How is it in Austin, Texas?
Chef Jen: It’s honestly not too bad in Austin. If you have a big expense budget, you can almost pay to park anywhere. There are some requirements like being a certain distance away from other food establishments, and code enforcement officers are everywhere, so I wouldn’t try parking at a meter or anything. But for the most part, if you have permission from the building management company or a lease with a property owner, you’re good to go.
FTE: What are some of the unique challenges of operating a food truck in your city?
Chef Jen: See question 3
FTE: Finally, if you could give only one piece of advice for new food truck entrepreneurs, what would that nugget of advice be?
Chef Jen: Everything is going to break. Whatever you budget for working capital, double it. I’ve told others that, and inevitably they come back to me and say, “You were right. Everything broke.” Your engine, transmission, exhaust lines…you name it, and it doesn’t matter that you have a warranty. It’s going to take a minimum of a week to fix. Sometimes up to a month. If you haven’t saved or have some other way to save yourself, rich grandmother or the like, you will run out of funds. Plan, plan, plan for everything to break.
Thank you Chef Jen!
Additional Reading Material
Need more help? Here are important links that can help you get started.
Mobile Food Establishments – This page is where you need to go if you’re thinking of setting up a food truck business in the city. It’s all here—everything you need to know including requirements and the application process.
Health and Human Services – Here’s another page on the Austin Government’s website. You’ll need to check this one out too because it contains pertinent information on operating a food truck in Austin as far as the Health Department is concerned.
Running a Food Truck for Dummies Cheat Sheet – Need I say more? Now this one’s not directly referring to operating food trucks in Austin, Texas, but it’s worth the read.
The Ginger Armadillo – Don’t forget to pay our good friend Chef Jen’s site a visit.