How to Start a Food Truck 06: Find Prime Parking

Last week’s chapter of “How to Start a Food Truck” marked the start of our research unit as we began discussing how to learn about food truck laws and restrictions in your area. Let’s be honest—that was a big post. We covered everything from the questions you need to ask (“How big can your truck be? Where can you park? How long can you sell?”) to where you should go to find the answers (Food truck associations! Your local chapter of the Small Business Administration! FoodTruckr.com!).

Now, if you’ve already gotten started on the research from that chapter, you probably have a much better idea of whether or not a food truck is really a viable business option for your city. Assuming that your research confirmed the viability of a food truck business in your area and you want to keep learning how to start a food truck, we’re going to move on to the next topic in this section—finding prime parking opportunities for your food truck all around town!

Don’t worry if you haven’t finished all of the research from last week’s chapter yet! There was a lot to cover, and you can continue to look for the answers you need as you move on to the rest of the “How to Start a Food Truck” series. In fact, this week’s lesson ties in very closely to the research you’ve been doing. After all, a great parking spot is essential to your success as a food truck owner—so you’re going to need to make sure that you can find one in order to determine whether or not your food truck dream is really practical.

As always, FoodTruckr’s got the dish on the best business advice for food truck owners around the country! Let’s get started by digging into the importance of a great spot.

Location, Location, Location

Real food truck owners know that parking matters above all else. Your parking spot determines how much you’ll sell on a given day and how many people will come to know your truck on a first-name basis, so to speak. A great parking spot can help you build a reputation that sticks with fans and keeps them coming back for more over time (to the extent that they’ll actually be seeking you out!), while a less than ideal parking spot leaves you feeling easily forgotten and wholly undervalued.

Most importantly, when your business becomes a memorable and integral part of your local community, the magic really starts to happen. Your most loyal fans will return again and again, but you’ll also have the opportunity to become an iconic local fixture that visitors seek out and citizens go crazy for. When you reach this level of immersion in the community, you’ll also start to gain access to parking opportunities that weren’t necessarily accessible before. Perhaps a local business lets you park outside their shop on a busy Saturday when they’re having a major sale. Maybe the mayor of your town gives you permission to park in the usually-restricted downtown area so that the whole city can enjoy your spicy buffalo wraps (and so the mayor’s office staff can get their fix!).

Though this level of success is a ways off right now, it’s okay—and encouraged—to dream big right now. So, are you ready to find that prime spot that will really boost your sales? Before you can lock it down, you’ll need to do a little research to find out what areas are available in your home city.

What Kinds of Parking Laws Will You Face?

We covered a lot of ground in last week’s post on researching local laws, so we won’t go too in-depth here about the types of questions you need to consider and where you can find the answers. Instead, we’d simply like to raise a few points that you should consider as you start researching the parking opportunities in your city.

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First of all, it’s important to keep in mind that the degree to which restrictions are enforced can vary dramatically from city to city and even from day to day. Though you might luck out some days in an area with lax policing, you need to be prepared for every law to be carried out to its full extent.

Here are a few of the most common restrictions on where and when food trucks can park:

  • Many food trucks are required to only sell on the sidewalk side of their trucks. This means that your truck’s order window needs to be facing the sidewalk at all times rather than making customers line up in the street.
  • Some cities require food trucks to be within a certain proximity to a bathroom at all times. For example, in some parts of southern California, you must be located within 200 feet of a bathroom if you’ll be parked in the same spot for more than an hour.
  • You may need to park a particular distance away from brick and mortar restaurants. The battle between food trucks and brick and mortars is a controversial one, and many cities across the country have instituted laws that keep food trucks from parking anywhere within 500 or 600 feet of an established restaurant as a means of compromise. If these laws exist in your city, make sure you understand what constitutes a restaurant. In some cases, even establishments like convenience stores that sell pre-made sandwiches can fall under these types of laws.
  • Many cities require food trucks to be parked at commissaries overnight. We’ll talk more about commissaries later in the research unit. For now, you should simply know that even if you don’t have to rent commissary space to prepare your food, you may need to pay for somewhere to park your truck each night.
  • In some areas, food trucks are only allowed to park on private property, which cuts out the potential of street parking almost entirely. If you can only park on private property, it’s helpful to plan your routes far in advance and build relationships with business owners who will work out long-term agreements with your truck.

Be aware that you will typically need to pay for parking at special events and festivals, and that you may also have to pay for your regular spots each day. Use your best judgment to determine whether or not a particular spot is worth the cost. To get a general estimate of a parking spot’s value, figure out how much parking will cost for an hour, a day, a week, or a month—and then calculate how much you’ll be able to sell in that particular spot in comparison to how much you could sell in a less cool but free or cheap spot. Can you realistically sell enough to recoup your losses and turn a profit? Parking is a reasonable and very real business expense, and the right spot is often worth ponying up some extra cash.

The Top Four Places to Park Your Food Truck

In theory, there are all sorts of places to park your food truck—but in reality, where you can park is heavily limited by your city’s local laws. As you research those laws and begin planning your daily route, consider these four prime parking destinations. These are the most common types of spots that food truck owners in any city are likely to find, and with a little preparation, you can fit all of them into your monthly routine.

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1. On the Street

Street parking is the first thing that most people think about when they consider places for food trucks to sell their food. It’s the image that aspiring food truck owners conjure up when they think about driving their trucks around the city—and if your city allows it, street parking should almost certainly play a role in your overall sales plan.

However, finding a great (and totally legal) parking spot on the street is much easier said than done. To find the best parking spots, you’ll need to think about who your target customers are, where they’re most likely to be, and when they’ll be in those spots. For instance, if you’re planning to run an ice cream or specialty coffee truck, parking spots near schools, parks, and shopping centers are all great choices that will bring you close to kids, teens, and families as they go about their normal routines. If you specialize in late night snack grub for the bar crowds, you’ll have better luck frequenting entertainment districts and downtown areas and staying away from the ‘burbs.

2. Food Truck Parks

Your first instinct as a food truck owner might be to take your truck to an area of town where there aren’t many other trucks. However, parking near other food trucks isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Many food truck owners have found that their sales increase when they sell in a food truck park or at an event attended by other food trucks because people are more likely to buy one thing from each truck so that they can sample everything. The diverse options available at a food truck park are also great for families or large groups where everyone wants to eat something different. At the food truck park, no one has to compromise—it’s easy to find something that everyone will like.

You can also host special events with suggested food and beverage pairings from multiple trucks or games and activities geared toward families, teens, or young adults. For example, the SoMa StrEat Food Park in San Francisco regularly hosts events like “Trivia Night at the Park,” “Oscars Viewing Party,” and even a weekly “Bottomless Mimosa Brunch.” These special events bring all kinds of new customers out to the park and to the windows of local food trucks.

Of course, you do have to be aware of the competition—for example, a specialty waffle truck probably shouldn’t park too closely to another truck selling gourmet waffles. But if you specialize in greasy chili drizzled with a homemade cheese sauce, that little vegan bistro truck serving up artisan quinoa salads probably isn’t going to steal your customer base. And if you are working with other trucks that sell similar meals, you can still create schedules that complement one another so that you can cover longer hours and reach more customers with your cuisine of choice.

3. Outside an Office or Business Park

When finding a great street parking spot isn’t an option and you’re looking for a regular place to serve, parking outside of an office or business park could be the best choice for you. If your city allows it, look for regular parking spots near major offices and business centers where the 9-5 workers can reach you easily on their lunch breaks. You can also contact companies and see if they’ll allow you to park on their private properties in order to provide catering services for their employees. Many large businesses and office parks are interested in the cost-effective, low-maintenance, and fun option of bringing in a food truck to provide meals for their employees so that they don’t have to invest in a kitchen or an on-site catering staff.

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Keep in mind that if you can persuade a business to let you park outside their offices during the lunch rush every day, you’ll have landed a steady, reliable gig with a constant pool of hungry customers. For many food truck owners, that type of reliability is worth a slightly smaller profit margin. Think about offering the company a 10-15% lunch discount for their workers as an incentive for them to sign you on for daily meals. Alternatively, you can also offer the company a small percentage of your overall sales as a sort of cash-back bonus.

4. At a Festival or Event

Without a doubt, festivals and events offer some of the best selling opportunities for food truck owners and mobile vendors of all kinds. From festivals that are centered around food trucks like The World’s Largest Food Truck Rally to state fairs where the food trucks are simply a convenient way to feed the masses, these events are prime selling opportunities to present your product to huge crowds of people. And remember—even if you don’t book a spot at a particular event or festival, you can still catch a lot of traffic coming and going when you land a prime street spot near the venue.

Many events and festivals book vendors early, so you’ll need to be on the lookout for these types of events constantly if you want them to play a major role in your overall sales goals. Interested in learning how to book more events and catering gigs? Check out this FoodTruckr post on working with event professionals and this article on joining event associations.

Finding Your Prime Spot

Once you’ve gotten an idea of some of the types of places you can park and you’ve figured out what kind of parking is legal in your area, you might feel like there aren’t a lot of options left. In some cities, limited parking is a very real problem for food truck owners because legislation around the industry is still very much in flux.

If that’s the case, you might just need to get a little creative to find the best spot for your truck. And once you’ve found an awesome spot, do whatever you have to do to make it yours! Arrive early to reserve it or make arrangements with the property owners so that you can serve there frequently. Most importantly, don’t forget to tell your fans where you’re going to be. People who have enjoyed your truck before will welcome the opportunity to see you again—you just have to make it easy for them to find you.

What’s the prime spot for food trucks in your city? Is there a place you’d love to park but you don’t know how to get the owners to let you move your truck there? Contact us on Facebook or leave us a comment and let us know what you’re up to and how we can help!

image by AtHandGuides.com

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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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  • ausitn

    Im starting a new food truck biz.. I am interested in finding a private location to park.. In my city you can only do private locations and st fairs or, public ways and no st fairs.

    • foodtruckr

      Finding a regular private location to park is definitely a huge asset to any food truck owner, but it’s especially important when you live in an area with pretty heavy restrictions. Have you checked out office parks or major businesses where there are lots of employees who need fresh lunch options?

      • James Marcella

        I have been researching a parking spot that is approved by the city to park my future truck. I went there one morning with two clickers and counted the amount of cars and pedestrians that would pass my potential spot. In 4 hours I calculated 3,200 cars and 848 pedestrians. Out of that, is there anyway to figure out how many people would stop at my truck?

        • foodtruckr

          Hey James,

          That’s an interesting question, but unfortunately I don’t know of any averages or formulas that would help you figure out what percentage of regular traffic would stop at your truck. There’s a lot of factors involved: What are you selling? Does it look/smell good? Does your truck design or something about your menu catch people’s interest? Is there a line of people already standing outside your truck (effectively acting as an endorsement for what you’re selling)? And that’s all before you even get to the timing issues and questions that can also change your results, such as what time of day it is, what day of the week, what city you’re in, how many other food trucks/restaurants are around, etc.

          To get a better idea of the amount of business you might be able to do, I’d suggest talking to some other food trucks in your area who park in similar spots. See if they can give you an idea of the number of sales they do in an average hour, day, or week or if they have estimates on how many people stop at the truck vs. how many people ultimately place an order. This is one of those questions that sort of just has to be answered through trial and error (or through trial and success!), though your best predictions will probably come from other local food truck owners who have better insight into your area.

          Do let us know how things go for you, and please feel free to reach out if you ever have any other questions!

          Best,
          Nicole at FoodTruckr HQ

          • WJ Bish

            We have been calculating what percentage of people would stop at or truck when we know how many people will be attending the event we are at. In most cases its between 10 and 15% this is not a fact but it always comes close. We use this percentage to calculate how much product we will need on board. Bill Bishop
            The Panwich company

  • Apollo

    Parking is such a big concern for anyone involved in a mobile food business, especially when in a more downtown core of a city. Instead of just driving somewhere and hoping for the best, I would suggest doing your research and calling city officials to find out what kind of restrictions or options there are for mobile food businesses as far as parking. In my experience, I’ve noticed that typical parking bylaws and restrictions don’t always apply to mobile businesses, so it’s definitely worth looking in to.

    • foodtruckr

      Thanks for the great response, Apollo! You’re so right — parking laws can vary dramatically, and the laws that apply to passenger cars aren’t always the same for food trucks and street vendors. Calling in advance is most definitely the way to go so that you don’t end up driving around aimlessly looking for a spot when you could be parked and making sales!

  • Kazoua Frazier

    HI foodtruckr, I am about to start launching my food trailer. I am having a hard time finding location to park my trailer. I have found some places that would be great locations for my business. Some of those places have already turned me down, so desperation is up and moral is low. Do you have any advice/suggestions on how to approach businesses? Any feedback would be greatly appreciated!