50 Food Truck Owners Speak Out: “What I Wish I’d Known Before Starting My Food Truck”

Do you remember the enthusiasm you felt upon that initial spark: “Hey! I should open a food truck!” What would you say to yourself now, these many moons later? Would you warn yourself off, or encourage yourself forward? We at FoodTruckr wanted to know, and we bet you do too. So we asked food truck owners from across the country one simple question: What’s the one thing you wish you’d known before you started your food truck? Oh boy, did you all deliver with the advice! From the cynical to the hilarious, you shared tremendously practical insights for any aspiring food truck owner (or those that may want some reminders). This is precisely the type of knowledge we here at FoodTruckr aspire to curate and share in our quest to offer the ultimate business resource for the entire food truck owner community. The advice starts with can’t miss business fundamentals.

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Establishing the Business

Establishing the BusinessStarting a business is never easy, but when your business can cross city and county lines on a daily basis, it’s particularly challenging. From fighting City Hall to complying with tricky health code regulations—all while working incredibly long hours—running a food truck is not for the weak-willed. You’ve got to be a tough cookie!

Regulations and Permits

Hands-down, navigating all the regulations was the most consistent external source of frustration we heard. At least one of our respondents decided to do something about it.

Rachel from La Cocinita

LaCocinita
I wish I’d known that it would be so difficult to obtain a permit to operate our truck. That struggle—which took months—was what initially inspired my partner and me to start the New Orleans Food Truck Coalition back in early 2012. We spent a year and a half working with city officials on legislative reform, which were just recently passed by the City Council and the Mayor. Starting in January, there will be 100 permits for food trucks (there were previously only a dozen or so). Also, we have gained access to certain areas of downtown that were previously off limits to us. We increased the amount of time food trucks can stay parked in one spot from 45 minutes to 4 hours. And most significantly, we completely eliminated the proximity restriction that prevented us from parking within 600 feet of restaurants.

Ben from Luke’s Lobster

Luke'sLobster

I wish I had known how anti-truck the NYC government is. If I had known that there was no way I could legally own a permit for my business, that it was illegal to staff my truck the way I staff a restaurant, and that it would suddenly become illegal to sell from a metered parking spot whether or not I pay the meter—in short if I had known that despite running an honest business I would have to operate in gray areas of the law at the whim of the NYPD, I would have been more prepared for the trials of the business.

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Felix from Gillian’s Italian Ice

GilliansItalianIce

I will tell you though that when I bought my truck, I expected to be able to park it somewhere and be able to sell without being bothered. This is not the case, and the special permit needed requires everything from a lease to rent the spot I am parked in, to providing toilet facilities. The fine is heavy if you are caught selling on the side of a road, for example. The other thing I wish I knew, I still do not know. What EXACTLY do my customers want? I have come to realize that customers themselves hardly know what they want. I can take the advice a customer gives, like stocking a different item, just to have that same customer never purchase the item once I have it for sale. Go figure.

Bollywood Zing

BollywoodZing

I wish I would have known what all went into the permitting process and how involved it is so that I could have been more prepared and ahead of the game.

Jordan from Mustache Mike’s

MustacheMikes

One thing I wish I would have known before getting into the food truck business would be all of the needed back-end permits, licenses, certifications and insurance requirements that are all needed in order to operate. As an owner, it can get quite confusing trying to keep up with and understand all of the different mobile vending laws & to obtain all of the required credentials. Each state and city’s requirements are all different, but out here in California, you need about a handful of different credentials before opening up your doors such as a California Seller’s Permit (from the state), a Local Health Department Permit (from the county), a city business/peddler’s license (from the city), etc. As a food truck owner you would also need to have a Food Safety Handler’s certification and even your truck itself needs to be certified as well through the Housing & Community Development (HCD Department)…and if you operate in multiple counties or in different cities, you would need a whole new set of credentials for those locations as well.

Chuy from Mariscos Jalisco

MariscosJalisco

I wish I would have known how much the regulations would change over time with the general acceptance of our industry. I believe there needs to be a central location for all food truck vendors to check the laws and regulations of each county (and hopefully all cities) in California and eventually all states. FoodTruckr note: We’re working on it, Chuy! This is a long-term goal for FoodTruckr.

Food Truck

Roy from Champion Cheesesteaks

The biggest thing: how shocking the regulations in different states are. For instance, in Georgia, we are in the most regulated state in the country, strong in terms of what the health department required, and there’s no streamlined method of being able to get a truck approved because each county is different. It’s almost impossible to get a license.

Melissa from Melissa’s Chicken and Waffles

MelissasChickenandWaffles

I wish I would have known the cities codes and regulations. Sometimes different counties require certain licenses and permits. Also, check with promoters, farmers markets, lunch spots, etc. about their waiting lists for trucks. A lot of trucks come out with the thought that they will be able to bring their new truck to all these events but sometimes the waiting lists are months, even years.

Peter from Organic Oasis

OrganicOasis

I wish that I had known about the bathroom letter requirements for parking more than one hour in Los Angeles. FoodTruckr note: The Los Angeles County Health Department has strict regulations—food trucks parked over an hour must have access to a bathroom within 200 ft of the truck.

Planning the Business

Food trucks may seem like fun, but they require serious business planning to be profitable and sustainable. Many food truck owners expressed great thoughts on this very point.

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Juan from MIHO Gastrotruck

MIHOGastrotruck

Always prepare for the unexpected; truck breaking down, selling out too soon, preparing too much. The best advice I can give is just like any other business you venture into, “Do your homework and write a solid business plan!” There are so many trucks that rolled out that didn’t do the proper R&D, financial projections, break-even and capital requirements. Without this essential piece you are setting yourself up to fail.

John from Capelo’s Hill Country Barbecue

CapelosHillCountryBarbecue

The food truck business is not just about your passion for food. It’s a crazy combination of business, time management, marketing and most importantly making people happy with your product. How you spend your time is extremely valuable to the success of your food truck business.

Joe from Chef Joe Youkhan’s Tasting Spoon

ChefJoeYoukhansTastingSpoon

I wish I would have known how truly expensive it was going to be to get the business off the ground. Even with a detailed business plan, it was 30% more than anticipated.

Lisa from Two for the Road

TwoForTheRoad

Expect it to cost you a lot more than you think to run your business. You need a license for every city you visit. Liability insurance will run upwards of $1900 per year. Fuel costs are very high—most trucks only get about 7 MPG. You will be at the store or stores every day because you cannot buy in bulk, often because you don’t have the space to store the product. This means that you will often pay more than a regular restaurant does.

Sameer from Rickshaw Stop

RickshawStop

No matter how good your food is, your business plan needs to be equally good—if not better—and vice versa. Do your homework about your market. Don’t think The Great Food Truck Race windfalls will be as easy as seen on television. It’s a business, not a cooking hobby.

Leah from Babycakes Truck

BabycakesTruck

I would have to say that I wish I had better understood the food truck climate in Chicago, where consumers are rather uneducated in general about food trucks and the city seems utterly opposed to the entire industry. I had researched the market in LA and New York and had some major misconceptions about how much money a food truck here in Chicago would realistically be able to generate in a day. The truth is, my food truck serves more as an advertising vehicle for other revenue generating channels, such as catering, food delivery and cooking classes. Though we do make money with the food truck at special events, the daily grind is just not that profitable. Luckily I have been able to diversify with various revenue streams to make my company viable financially.

Chea from Little Eataly

LittleEataly

I wish I knew to trademark my business name at the state level & federal level to keep large empires from squashing us little guys.

Louie & Daniel from Rito Loco

RitoLoco

I think the one thing that we wish knew prior to getting into the food truck business is how efficiently we could actually run the business. When we first started in August 2012 we hired a marketing/PR rep—a waste of money! We spent extra money all over the place, and when we got to the winter it taught us how to run a really lean operation.

The Day to Day: Time and Money

The Day to Day- Time and MoneyHands-on ownership: it’s not a suggestion; it’s a requirement. And vacations are hard to come by. Be prepared to roll up your sleeves.

Stephanie from Seabirds Truck

Seabirds

I wish I knew that I, as the owner, would have to be hands on the majority of the time in order for the truck to be successful financially. A few months into starting the truck, I realized that in order for us to grow, I needed to remove myself from the truck to have time for answering emails, booking stops, developing new menus, promotion and marketing, etc. But with doing that, I had to pay about three people to replace me, and I noticed that the quality of product and service dropped. For instance, sometime menu items would be served that were under my standards or we would open our doors for service later than we had on our schedule.

Kenneth from Devilicious Food Truck

Devilicious

We have learned that this industry relies on the cooperation of other food truck owners, local businesses and suppliers. There is more to the back end of the business which we didn’t realize before starting it. There is networking, finding reliable suppliers and food preparation, lots of food preparation. Basically owning a food truck is your life.

Timothy from Flatiron Catering Group

FlatIronTruck

The food truck world is just like a restaurant, it’s dog-eat-dog, and no one is going to help you figure it out. The way to succeed is to earn respect from your fellow food truckers.

Paawan from The Chai Cart

TheChaiCart

I wish I had known that this business would really limit my ability to take vacations. I run 3 chai carts in downtown San Francisco and chai is something people have everyday. As there are really no options for authentic and/or good chai in San Francisco (Starbucks and the likes do not count), my customers expect us to be open every day. It’s great to become part of people’s lives, but it does add the pressure of running the business seamlessly, without any breaks.

Matt from Scratch Truck

ScratchTruck

The one thing that I wish I knew before I started is that the time it takes to make a truck successful. I am sure it is the same in any business, but I didn’t realize it would be a 7 days a week, 11 hrs a day. If my eyes are open, I am working on the business in some capacity. It is all-consuming. I love it, but didn’t realize there would be so much to do all the time.

Selling the Food

Selling the FoodIn a low-margin business, there are a few tweaks you can make to increase your odds of success, especially when it comes to the selection of ingredients and events.

Prep Time

How small are those margins, Nick?

Nick from Slider House Burger Co. and Tortally Tasty

TortallyTasty

I wish I would have known that it’s an endless cycle of long, long hours day in and day out. As Jacob Bartlett of the Mastiff truck said, “We don’t work full time. We work all the time.” And it has been my family business since 1926 so I have a very unique view on it that has kinda been warped by the online business world. There are tiny-ass margins and way too many people to deal with. And what I’ve found in this industry is that the most successful truck operators are the ones who 1) have a passion for food and 2) love people and interacting with them daily.

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Christina from Son of a Bun

SonOfABun

Before I got into the Food Truck Business, I wish I knew how time consuming it was to get all my product. It is difficult for food trucks to receive product deliveries, because a last minute event may pop up and you won’t be able to stay there to receive it. Now, I spend extra time in the mornings just driving around in my cars, shopping for ingredients. My advice: engineer your menus to be simple and don’t use too many ingredients or specialty items.

Guy from Nana G’s Chicken & Waffles

NanaGsChickenAndWaffles

The amount of time you’ll spend shuttling food…I feel like I’m always at Restaurant Depot, Sam’s, or the local grocery store.

Scott from Streetza Pizza

StreetzaPizza

Owning a food truck is a much greater time commitment than most potential owners think. Especially when you are making things from scratch. The amount of prep and post sale time is actually about equal to the service time. Something to take into account when you are estimating your labor costs in your P&Ls.

Events

Food Truck Fest 2013-110Make food so good it sells itself…almost. Finding the right events to attend is an art in itself.

Fishlips Sushi

FishlipsSushi

The one thing I wish I’d known: how to find the good location for serving! FoodTruckr note: It’s the holy grail, right?!

Michael and Cheryl from The Burger Bus

TheBurgerBus

If possible, try to secure some locations to park your food truck. Find as many as you can, they don’t always work out.

Jamie from Where’s the Fire

WheresTheFirePizza

One thing I wish I knew before starting this business is how much work goes into it…I mean I didn’t think it would be easy, but most outsiders just think “Oh my goodness your job is so easy, you cook on your truck for 5 hours and you’re done.” No! It takes soooo much time cleaning, shopping, prepping, menu changes & development, driving, on site cooking & cleaning, emails, interacting with coordinator, marketing, increasing catering sales, etc. Catering for a food truck is where the big bucks are.

Dustin & Kristin from Dusty Buns

DustyBunsBistro

We wish we could’ve known the amount to prep for each new gig. After our first year, we started building charts and learned that wisdom only comes with time and trials. We hope to keep up with the ever-changing market and improve each year!

Stephanie from Seabirds Truck

Seabirds

The nature of the food truck industry relies a lot on chance and luck; you roll the dice every time you go to an event without a guarantee of sales. Sometime you score big and other times you lose money. You have to rely on a lot on the word of event organizers that may exaggerate a little to get your truck to come. Or they may want a fee or percentage for you to be at their big event. You never really know what to expect, but with time you can start to understand the patterns a bit better.

Mike from Garliscapes Food Truck

Garlicscape

Booking, booking and booking. The ability to book the right events is the single most important piece to this “food truck” puzzle. When we started, I thought “if we have great food, they will come”. That is true, but if you’re at a bunk event because you booked incorrectly, you’re out of luck.

Lisa from Two for the Road

TwoForTheRoad

Fees are high to attend events ($200-$900) and many places you stop will require that you give them up to 20% back of your sales.

Rhea from Neri’s Curbside Cravings

NerisCurbsideCravings

Oh, how I wished I would have known right away which locations and events make the most! When we decided to get into the food truck business, we were ready for all the hard work that any business entails. Being in the food industry (having a family run business and my own share of restaurants in the previous years), I know that this is a business that requires a lot of patience, long hours and diligence.

Jim from Jimmy Ray’s Bar-b-que

JimmyRaysBar-B-Que

When we built our food truck, we built it with the intention of concentrating on the on-site catering business. The business has been good, but there are times when you need to fill in with the other types of business as well such as vending. Being at street, farmers markets, fairs, festivals, or special occasion vending are what adds to the fun of your business and definitely help in the bottom line. Try to make setup time, after you reach your site, a quick and somewhat easy chore. It takes us roughly 45 minutes to an hour to setup. Other trucks in the Association are setup in 5-10 minutes. We cook outside our truck, on a large grill, while all the others cook inside their truck.

The Trucks

The TrucksWe’ve covered the food side of the food truck business. What’s left? Oh yes, the truck.

Oh, Those Fickle Trucks

And you thought picking the right food was tricky! From temperamental transmissions to wonky power steering, your truck is both your best friend and your greatest adversary.

Nic from Blue Sky Dining

BlueSkyDining

How to be a better truck mechanic! Anyone can make a pan gravy, but can anyone replace their power steering pump?

Nancy from Kurbside Eatz

KurbsideEatz

One thing I wish I knew was that, I needed to get a job as a part time mechanic, if not, an electrician. I’m sure most will agree!

Nathan from Oh My Gogi!

OhMyGogi

We are going into our 4th week now and my Gogi truck is a 1987 Chevy StepVan. She has “who knows how many miles” and a countless number of people who have tried to rig her to run. Me being a car enthusiast, I want the old girl to run properly. That being said she really needed a lot. Replaced the entire transmission, the driveshaft, tires, brakes, wiring, re-customed the interior, had the engine tuned up. But even now I am having some engine issues. So to answer your question, the thing I wish I knew before starting would be to know which trucks run longer, have the quickest available replacement parts, which is easiest to maintain, the pros/cons of diesel vs gasoline. The cooking, cleaning and serving are the fun part, even if I’m working 18 hour days. Sucks being stuck on the side of the road thinking about all the profits being lost on a Saturday night.

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Ryan from Dashboard Diner

DashboardDiner

We should have built two food trucks instead of one. We have had great success since launching the truck in the fall of 2011 and are currently in the process of getting ready to build another one in the future. The food truck business is the future of restaurants.

Evangeline from The Buttermilk Truck

ButtermilkTruck

The one thing I wish I would have known is all the extra maintenance that comes with owning and operating a food truck; including, but not limited to generator maintenance, equipment maintenance, vehicle maintenance etc.

Julie from Sam’s ChowderMobile

SamsChowderMobile

The one thing we wish we knew before starting in the food truck business is the amount of maintenance/repairs that would be required for our trucks. A typical restaurant deals with ongoing maintenance for the facility and kitchen equipment. With a food truck, you have those same maintenance issues, but in addition, you have all the maintenance issues that come with owning a heavily used vehicle. Our trucks serve the entire San Francisco Bay Area, as far north as Napa, and as far south as Monterey. Being headquartered in Half Moon Bay, they put on a lot of mileage, and there is constant need for them to be serviced, which gets expensive, and causes them to be unavailable for periods of time.

Wendy from W.O.W!

WOWFoodTruck

I wish someone had told me not to cut corners when purchasing the truck. I wish I had gotten a newer truck. We had so many repairs the first year we were in business. We had to replace the engine, transmission, all tires etc…if I had just taken that money and bought a better truck in the first place we would’ve been much better off.

Adam from Food Shark

FoodShark

I wish we knew that Honda EU 2000 generators were the way to go with generators. Well, someone actually suggested we get some and they worked out well (we use 3 every day now). You can take them tens of feet from the truck, so you won’t get gassed out. It’s more for a place where you’re gonna set up and be for awhile with some space around, like we pretty much always are (not for a mobile city unit unless you have them mounted on top but then what a bitch to have to climb up there and start them every day). If you have a big loud generator on the front or rear bumper, you might give yourselves carbon monoxide poisoning which over time is not too good not to mention the noise. Anyway, portable, quietish, dependable generators which you can move fairly far from the truck will keep the occupants healthier, at least for Food Shark.

Jenny

I wish I would’ve taking the opportunity to look at other food truck’s layout, before I customized mine.

Andrea from Border Grill

BorderGrill

We designed and custom built our trucks. This has been incredible…learning how to create a super efficient cooking machine. We can produce just as many orders out of our trucks as a restaurant kitchen ten times the size. We love the trucks!

Joel from St. John’s Fire

StJohnsFire

Since I have been in the restaurant business for over 30 years the easy part was the menu and food. I think what I need most was some guildlines on the build out of the truck. For example, what size of fresh water tank is needed for a two shift day? How much propane is need for a week? Generator size? Does an air conditioner really make a difference in a 130 degree truck in Houston summer? FoodTruckr note: We’re going to guess the answer to that last question is yes.

Justin from Bernie’s Burger Bus

BerniesBurgerBus

I would have become a diesel mechanic first.

Connecting with People

Selling the FoodYou’re nowhere without your customers. And your super-fans are the lifeblood of your business. Becoming a master of ceremony is just as important as becoming a master chef.

Social Media and the Fans

Ultimately, connecting with neat people and engaging them in friendly conversation is the most rewarding part of the business. And if you can keep that going, that’s how you build up a loving community of regulars that shows up frequently.

Chef Heidi from The Flip Truck

TheFlipTruck

The one thing I wish I had known before I began my business would is how critical a big social media push would have been to help launch the business. I would have put way more focus avenues like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and the likes … connecting, announcing, introducing, giving offers, specials and a better communication effort to the world of social media. I didn’t realize the enormous community that relies on social media and had I started that focus three years ago, I feel like we would have come to a certain level of success long before we did!

Mark from The Hogfather BBQ

TheHogfatherBBQ

The one thing I wish I knew prior to operating The Hogfather BBQ food truck is that I never expected such enthusiasm for the brand. I thought people were honking at me because I was driving slow, but once they got up to the side and front of my vehicle they would take pictures, wave and give me a thumbs up approval. It took some time getting used to that, especially when I timid driving a large truck.

Beckie from Quiero Arepas

QuieroArepas

Nothing. It was great to go into this completely unaware. When disaster strikes you are convinced that no one has it so bad. Then, through talks with other owners, the knowledge you gain along the way and the building of an amazing repair person arsenal, you feel empowered that you have EARNED your place every day. There isn’t anything we’d rather be doing. We love our truck!

What Say You?

What Say YouWhat in this round-up resonates with you? Did we miss an important warning to future food truck owners? Please share in the comments! We’d also love to read your response to the all-important question: What’s the one thing you wish you’d known before you started your food truck? If you haven’t started your food truck yet, what’s the biggest question in your mind before starting? We so appreciate your continued input on this important topics because it helps to shape the future of FoodTruckr content. We’re here to serve your interests; we’re building this resource together. We look forward to connecting with you in the comments below!   images by pasa47troismarteauxmeddygarnetBruceTurnerTownsquare Media AlbanyAlishaVweeklydig, and Scott McLeod

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About the Author

FoodTruckr

FoodTruckr is the #1 online destination for current and aspiring food truck owners looking to succeed in the mobile food industry. Self described “food truck devotees,” the FoodTruckr team enjoys reading about successful entrepreneurs, salivating over photos of burritos on Twitter, and long walks through food truck parks. Chat with FoodTruckr on Facebook or check out the FoodTruckr School podcast for more awesome tips to level up your business.

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