Thinking about starting your own coffee truck? In this blog post we guide you through the steps required start a profitable mobile coffee business from someone that’s already done it.

Our goal is to give you the real deal of what it’s like to operate this type of business (spoiler alert: you’ll need to be an early riser) on a daily business to help figure out if this really is the right business model for you.

coffee trailer

Learn how to start a small coffee trailer like this one.

Table of Contents

Background

Matt Drew’s story began not unlike other mobile food entrepreneurs I’ve interviewed in the past. Drew was employed as a marketer in a corporate setting and found himself less and less passionate about the work.

Drew also had a daughter on the way and started to question the point of putting in 12 – 16 hours per day for someone else, and ultimately wondered what his legacy would be if he continued down this path. So Drew made the decision to change the trajectory of his life in a big way by starting a coffee truck.

Growing up in the Pacific North West, Drew had a hard time finding a really good cup of specialty coffee in the Dallas area and started his education on how to bring a really great cup of coffee to Texas.

Related Reading: Why Do Coffee Shops Fail? 232 Owners Share Top Reasons

Drew reached out to Coffee del Ray in nearby Plano, Texas, offering to work for free in exchange to learn the business model. In exchange, Drew would share some of his marketing / branding expertise with the organization. And so began Drew’s journey toward owning the Mo’ Joe A Go-Go coffee truck.

Listen to the full podcast interview, you’ll learn how Drew created a one-of-a-kind brand for the Mo’ Joe A Go-Go coffee business. From sourcing of product to the equipment used on the truck everything is 100% unique.

Developing a Brand

The first step you need to take in starting a coffee truck business, before you even start thinking about the equipment, the size of cart to buy or the licenses you’ll need to operate is to take some serious time to consider the brand you want to grow.

Whether talking to specialty coffee shop or truck owners that have been successful this is the biggest piece of recurring advice that’s brought up again and again. You can grab a cup of coffee for less than a buck at a gas station. What’s going to differentiate you from everyone else in your market is the brand vision and mission statement.

Italian coffee truck

Outside an Italian style coffee truck.

We dive deep into the details of developing a unique coffee brand here. But here are some of the specific elements Drew utilized to make his coffee startup:

  • Organic Products: Drew emphasized that everything sold on the mobile unit would be organic and sustainably grown whenever possible. This requirement applies to every detail of the business from the food to drinks to the dairy served. The tagline of the business even reflects this: The Freshest Coffee Sustainably Grown and Artfully Crafted.  
  • Responsibly Sourced and Fair Trade Beans: One regrettable aspect of the coffee industry as a whole is farmer’s are often located less developed countries have often made the least amount of money from their product. Drew has worked to ensure that the beans purchase with his business are through farms are Fair Trade, meaning they have responsible growing practices and are fairly compensated.
  • A Unique Product: By As you can see from the examples above that by following these brand guidelines, it results in a product you can’t get anywhere else locally as a consumer. If you want a cup of coffee with an impactful story behind it there’s only one place to find it.

To have any type of successful food business, you need to be able to differentiate the core product in a meaningful way. By establishing the things that are most important to your business first can make this process easy.

Daily Operations

Wondering what it’s like to operate a coffee truck truck on a regular basis? Here’s what you can expect based on the experience of Drew’s first 3-months in operations. 

The mornings for Drew typically starts at 3 a.m. This has been a challenge because Drew has historically been a night owl. But in order to get the serving windows up between 6:00 – 6:30 a.m., it requires waking up a few hours early to prep for the day, driving to the vending location, and preparing for service.

Here’s what a typical day in the life of a coffee truck owner looks like: 

Prep Work

It takes roughly an hour each day to complete prep work. This includes cleaning for the day, grinding coffee beans, getting drip coffee ready, placing breakfast items like muffins out. Much of this work is completed at a commissary before heading out on the road.

Travel to Vending Location

One of disadvantages of operating any type of food or beverage truck is that you need to commute to a different destination each day. Take the distance between your commissary and vending location into consideration before committing to it.

Commuting to and from your home base is a non-revenue generating activity. The farther you drive the more gasoline you use too. Try to keep one-way drive times under 30 minutes whenever possible as a best practice for saving time and money. 

Running the Coffee Truck

As you might expect, morning is the busiest time for a coffee truck business. Coffee is a beverage most people enjoy after they wake up. As a result, you can expect more traffic before lunch as a general rule of thumb.

But Drew insists that you shouldn’t limit yourself to operating in the AM as a coffee truck. A rush of customers can happen at just about anytime depending on the location. As you get more familiar with your regular vending spots, you’ll start to get a sense of regular cadence between busy and slow times. 

Refuge Coffee Co. Food Truck.

Refuge Coffee Co. Food Truck.

When you do get the opportunity for downtime, make sure to take advantage of it. Use these breaks as an opportunity to clean the truck, promote the business on social media, or follow up on catering opportunities. 

As Drew stresses in the interview, every day operating a food truck is a little bit different. Be prepared for anything in the early days and recognize that you will be looking for ways to improve processes and operations overtime. 

How Much Does It Cost to Start a Coffee Truck?

Expect to invest $30,000 minimum for a coffee truck that will pass your local health inspections, has quality equipment installed and is reliable. You could easily spend as much as $90,000 depending on the equipment you select and if the truck is brand new.

You might read something on blogs or forums of folks that have been able to get started for less and if you need to get started for under $15,000. It is possible by investing in a coffee cart that is lower cost. But keep in mind that you’ll still need a vehicle haul the unit that isn’t included in these costs. If you already own a truck this is a good option. 

Related Reading: How to Start a Coffee Shop on Your Own Terms

The other thing you want to keep in mind is that the truck is literally the face of your brand. If the truck doesn’t look good on the outside, people will associate the appearance with the quality of your coffee too. You’ll want a vehicle that looks good to give yourself the best chance of success. Going for the 

Keep in mind that the figures mentioned above are broad estimates. Determining the the average cost of a coffee truck is always difficult to answer because it’s a variable cost that will depend on the size, year, equipment installed (this is a big one), business licenses in your area, if you’ll be operating a truck or trailer, and who is building it.

This is a lot like asking someone the average price of a car. The price of a car will depend on the model, age, mileage, and other factors. 

How Profitable is a Coffee Truck?

Based on our survey of 223 full-time food truck owners, over 50% report generating at least $150,000 in revenue per year. Coffee truck owners can expect to see similar revenues if you operate the business full-time and establishing name recognition locally. 

Keep in mind that this survey was conducted with owners that have been in operation at least 2 years. You should not expect similar sales numbers during your first year in business.  

Overall, coffee is a high-profit margin business. A cup of coffee that costs you less than .50 cents to produce can be sold at retail for $2.00 – $3.00 a cup on average. 

wandering coffee
This business model works well on a trailer or truck.

You can start to estimate your break even numbers for the business as a whole by determining the cost of your coffee, how many sales you anticipate, and the profit margin of each customer. We always advise putting together a formal business plan to come up with a basic sales forecast. 

As a general rule of thumb, you’ll want to shoot for over $100,000 in sales per year as a full-time owner operator. This will ensure you’re able to pay for licenses, the truck, insurance, inventory and other expenses for the business. 

Coffee Truck Equipment Checklist 

This is a checklist of basic equipment installed on a coffee truck.

  • Espresso Machine:<