How to Start a Food Truck in Nashville, TN

food-truck-battle-yummyThere may be two main cities in the United States, the Capital of the country Washington D.C. and the capital of business/tourism/important stuff New York, but to any country music fan there’s only one center to our country, Nashville. Tennessee’s 2nd largest city, and capital, has racked up an impressive list of singers coming out of its gates, not to mention a list of people going IN to visit this big tourist city. With these strong seasonal traffics of persons roaming the streets, and a very food-centric local populace, it’s no wonder that the food truck craze eventually found its way here.

NDTDespite the fact it has absolutely no Food Truck Park (yet), the area is currently thriving, with over 40 mobile culinary businesses having sprung up over the past few years. Being lucky enough to get on the scene rather early for the country, the trucks began looking for their foothold in 2011/12; as always, it was slow at first, but since has exploded. Deaderick Street sees at least 12 trucks parked along it every week for ‘Street Food Thursdays,’ and downtown is often quite hoppin’. Not to mention the various music festivals that go on throughout the year.

Kelly Whalen has been operating in Nashville for over a year and already has carved herself a strong niche spot within the city. Slinging out sweet and savory ‘pies’ from the apply-named Pie on the Fly truck, for what southerner (or any red-blooded American for that matter) doesn’t love a good piece of pie, they’ve had the chance to explore all aspects in the city, from street parking to a wide range of event styles. We sent her a list of our poignant questions concerning the city’s truck scene, and she graciously answered back with awesome detail and information! A great big thank you to her goes out for taking the time out of her day to do this with us, we’re very grateful to have yet another interview which we are positive can help to assist any new truck owners looking to start out in Tennessee. Good luck to Kelly and her team, as well as anyone else using this article to start up their planning!

Question: Why don’t you start off by telling us about the truck. How and when did it get started, what do you do, and how have you been navigating Nashville’s streets so far?

Kelly: We purchased the truck in September of 2014. My boyfriend and co-owner, Youree Jones, is the one who built the truck from top to bottom. He had it ready to hit the road for our first day on April 30th, 2015. We serve toasted sandwiches cooked in cast iron pie presses, hence the name “pies”. All pies are about 4″ round and 1″ thick. We serve (6) savory and (3) sweet pies. Nashville definitely has a very competitive food truck scene. The first few months of owning the business were really tough. We weren’t able to apply to be in the NFTA (Nashville Food Truck Association) until mid-July, so we were basically on our own for 2.5-3 months. Picking up events was very difficult because no one knew who we were or how our food tasted. However, we slowly gained momentum and now we get plenty of booking requests!

Q: Nashville has been rather successful with its food truck scene so far; how particular has it grown from what you’ve seen, and what’s it like now?

11406935_1655567964675853_8870927387778929941_nKelly: I think that people are now realizing that if they want to succeed in this business, they need to offer something unique. There are already so many established and awesome burger trucks, sandwich trucks, snoball trucks, etc. that if you don’t have a unique concept you are less likely to be chosen for events. With our induction into NFTA there were (9) other trucks that were welcomed into the association. That grew NFTA’s total number to over 60 trucks. I definitely think that the good majority of Nashvillians now see food trucks as a reputable meal source instead of as “roach coaches”. Nashville’s food truck scene is continuing to grow, and I’m excited to see where it goes from here.

Q: Have you noticed any particular advantages, or simply unique aspects, to operating a truck in Nashville compared to other cities?

Kelly: I think the biggest advantage is that the food truck culture is so young here. It gives the opportunity for people to go out and try new things and really get creative with their businesses. As the market gets more saturated, I definitely think it will be more difficult for newer trucks to become established. Right now, however, I think there is certainly room for more growth and new concepts in this market.

Q: Are there any particular difficulties or hardships?

Kelly: Yes and no. Most of the time the good times outweigh the bad times. I think the most difficult thing is building up your business and getting your name out there. Social media platforms are such an AWESOME source of advertisement and it is also relatively cheap. The other difficult thing is the hours. Especially if you are serving a lunch and dinner day. You very realistically may end up working 12/14 hour days 5 days a week until you start getting into the big events. Yes you may only be in service 11-2 and 4-7, but you have to do all of your prep work beforehand and cleanup after the fact.

Q: Regulations and permits for food trucks vary widely city to city; besides what you may have mentioned so far, are there any distinct regs and permits in Nashville that new truck owners should DEFINITELY pay attention to? Or just anything interesting you’ve noticed?

Kelly: I would say the biggest thing is to get in touch with the health department early on. I formed a relationship with one of our metro area health inspectors before we even began to build our truck. She was such an awesome resource to have, and now I have someone to shoot and email to if I am unsure about anything. Other than that, if you have worked in a kitchen before you should know basic concepts of the health department inspections. Sure there are a few minor details that are different, but one thing always stays the same; wash your hands!

11350478_1648554855377164_6398111473636426675_nQ: The city definitely has a long history with music, so I imagine there are quite a few music festivals and events that happen all year. Do these act as a good resource for food trucks to find Event gigs, and are there any of these or other events that new owners should definitely look to try and get into? Any tips on the matter?

Kelly: I would definitely recommend getting into music festivals and events. A lot of times people will be drinking at music events and let’s face it, drunk people like to eat! However, I would be wary of (2) major things. The first would be vendor fees. Some vendor fees are small, some are OUTRAGEOUS. Make sure that you are 100% confident that the vendor fee is small enough for you to make money. The second thing, look at the event’s Facebook page. If there are only 1500 people going on Facebook, but the organizer is saying something about 10,000 people, there is a good chance that the organizer is being very unrealistic. Just be smart when booking your events. If you think you can’t afford a vendor fee, don’t take the risk.

Q: What IS the exact parking situation like on the streets? Is it easy to get in and vend, or does the city make it difficult? Are there just a few main areas for lunch parking or can one go just about wherever they want within reason?

Kelly: There are (9) spaces located throughout the downtown metro area that are specifically set aside for food trucks. For someone to be allowed to park in these spaces they need to be in the Nashville Mobile Food Vendor Program. It is a $50 fee for the year. You can park in the spaces from 10AM-2PM and 6PM-3AM. However, some spaces are only Monday-Friday so you have to read the signs. Out of the (9) spaces, only 2 or 3 are actually worth your time to go sit and park in. You are much better off setting up lunches with businesses the majority of the time.

Q: Do you have any last bit of advice for new food truck owners who are looking to start up in Nashville?

Kelly: Make sure that you have enough money. Don’t expect to be able to write yourself a paycheck for the first 5 months or even longer, depending on what season you open your truck. Have confidence in your food and don’t be afraid to stand out on the sidewalk in front of your truck and talk to people! Most importantly, enjoy the food truck lifestyle. You will meet some of the craziest, funniest, most genuine people that you will ever find, and they will take care of you if you take care of them. Feed them and let them feed you. Offer them events and they will probably hook you up. The Nashville food truck community is a big family, learn to love it. I sure do!

Learn More

Case Study – Committed to starting a mobile food venture? Check out our complete case study that guides you through the process of getting started.

Cost Breakdown – Wondering how much it will cost to launch your food business? Get cost estimates in this handy-dandy spreadsheet.

About Andrew

A graduate in Bachelors of the International Culinary School at the Art Institutes, Andrew Steifer has spent his days obsessing over everything food and drink. While working towards his Wine Certification, he started writing his own Food Truck Blog focused on reviewing all the mobile vendors of Minnesota.Being the first person to stubbornly pursue a blog like this for their newly budding street food scene, it's safe to say Andrew's love of food trucks is almost dangerous, at least to his wallet. He's been writing since 2013, drinking since 2010, and consuming every delicious morsel he can find every chance he gets.