How to Start a Food Truck 07: Learn About Commissaries

FoodTruckrs, you’ve been doing great work lately in learning how to start a food truck—figuring out the basics of your business and getting started on all the research you’ll need to complete to put your plan into action. Way to go!

We’re halfway through the research unit now, so it’s time to move on to learning about the health code laws and restrictions that could have a major impact on your business. This is a big topic, so we’re splitting it up into two weeks. Today, we’ll focus solely on commissaries (how they work, when they’re required, and why you might need one)—and then next week, we’ll be back with a closer look at common health code laws and some rules you need to be prepared to face.

Let’s get things started with a question that many of you have asked: what is a commissary?

A Basic Guide to Commissaries

What is a commissary? Here’s the short version: a commissary is an established commercial kitchen where FoodTruckrs and other food service providers can go to prepare and store food. Many food trucks and mobile vendors also park their vehicles and store their equipment at commissaries overnight.

Some food truck owners use commissaries because they’re convenient—renting space in a commissary where you can cook and prepare your food is more affordable in the short-term than building a functional, up-to-code commercial space of your own. And remember—many FoodTruckrs opt for mobile restaurants instead of brick and mortar locations simply because they’re looking for a low-cost way to enter the food industry.

However, other food truck owners use commissaries because they’re required to do so by the local city or county health departments. In most cities, you’re not allowed to prepare or store food that you’ll be selling in your home—and some cities won’t even allow you to make food on the truck. If that’s the case, you must store your food, and often your truck, at a kitchen that is licensed for commercial use.

Wondering where you can find a commercial kitchen space to store your famous steak burrito fixins and to prep your salsa verde? Read on to learn about the most common types of commissaries for food truck owners.

Find the Best Commissary for Your Truck

Before you start looking for commissaries in your area, you’ll need to research your local laws. Find out whether or not you’re required to work from a commissary and if there are any additional licenses or health code requirements you’ll need to follow to use one. There are several different types of commissaries, and you’ll need to choose the one that best fits the needs of your truck. The available equipment, space, and storage facilities at your commissary will dictate what kinds of food you can prepare, how far you can transport it, and how many people you can serve in a single day.

Additionally, when you’re choosing a commercial kitchen, keep in mind that the commissaries are also subject to health inspections and must maintain their local certifications. If your kitchen loses its license for a time, you might not be able to continue selling until the commissary gets everything back in order. Be sure to find out how long any particular commissary has been in operation and how they maintain their licenses. Do an inspection of the area where you’d be working yourself to see if the commissary’s conditions meet your understanding of local laws.

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Here are a few of the most common commissary options for FoodTruckrs:

Shared Space in a Commercial Kitchen

Most food truck owners entering the world of commissaries start out with shared space in a commercial kitchen. With a shared space commissary, you and several other food truck owners, caterers, or chefs will all have access to the same group kitchen. Overall, shared commissary spaces are cheaper than having your own private space, making them a draw for new business owners who are just entering the industry and looking to keep their costs down. However, you will have to coordinate your schedule with everyone else who is sharing the space so that you don’t double-book the kitchen.

Food Trucks

Private Commercial Kitchen

If you’re looking for a little more control and ownership over your kitchen space, you may want to look into a private commissary. Though a private commercial kitchen space costs more than a shared one, you won’t have to work around anyone else’s schedule and you’ll always have all of the equipment and storage space to yourself. You also won’t need to worry about working in a space that is cluttered with equipment and ingredients that you don’t need or can’t use. If you’re dreaming of owning more than one truck, a catering business, or expanding to a brick and mortar restaurant, now could be the right time to dream big by opting for a private commissary.

Rented Space in an Existing Restaurant’s Kitchen

In addition to renting a shared or private space in a licensed commercial kitchen, you can also rent a kitchen from some existing brick and mortar restaurants in your area. Some restaurant owners are happy to rent out their kitchens during hours when the establishment is closed in order to make a little extra cash. This is a great way to cut your commissary costs and to enjoy access to a full range of licensed, professional kitchen equipment.

Other Certified Commercial Kitchens

Finally, some food truck owners also rent space from other local certified commercial kitchens like churches, public and private schools, hotels, retirement homes, and cooking schools. Many of these organizations have regularly inspected, fully certified commercial kitchen spaces in their buildings—and they are happy to rent them to you at an affordable cost or in exchange for a favor such as an agreement to provide future catering services.

The Benefits of Commissaries

Now that you have a better understanding of what a commissary is, you’re equipped to determine whether or not you really need one. As we mentioned earlier, that’s going to depend heavily on the local laws in your city—but it also depends on your truck’s basic needs. A few weeks ago, we talked about defining your truck’s unique selling proposition. Commissaries are all very different, and not all licensed commercial kitchens will be right for you. The needs of mobile food vendors and caterers can vary widely, so you should be aware that some certified commissaries simply won’t work for you as a food truck owner. You’ll need to think carefully about what type of equipment and storage space you need and evaluate each potential facility before signing on to lease space.

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However, while commissaries might not be necessary or required for every food truck owner, they can be extremely convenient. Check out the top six benefits you’ll enjoy when you use a commissary.

1. Convenient Storage

Clearly, storage space is one of the greatest benefits of renting space in a commissary. Whether you’re just storing your truck or using the commissary to house all of your ingredients and supplies, it’s incredibly important to have a licensed, food-safe facility in order to make sure you’re meeting all health code requirements. Having more available storage space also allows you to buy some ingredients and supplies in bulk that you would otherwise not be able to fit on your truck.

2. Available Supplies

Many commissaries also offer a range of commonly used supplies and ingredients. You can find goods such as water, ice, canned and bottled beverages, staples like bread and rice, produce, meat, dairy, snack foods, desserts, utensils, plates, napkins, gloves, kitchen supplies, cleaning products, and propane. Generally, commissaries don’t require you to purchase supplies from them, though you should read your contract carefully to be sure that renting space doesn’t stipulate any further purchases.

3. A Place to Park and Recharge

As we mentioned before, many cities require food trucks to be parked at commissaries overnight. Your truck needs electricity to make it through those long days driving downtown, and a commissary is a great place to recharge your truck. Though you might be able to find electrical outlets at large festivals or food truck parks, most food truck owners will be relying on their existing power and generators the majority of the time. Charging your truck regularly overnight at a commissary ensures that you retain enough power to keep trucking all day long and to make sure that any refrigerated areas you have onboard stay cooled to food-safe temperatures.

4. Cleaning and Disposal Areas

In many areas, commissaries are also required because they provide cleaning and sanitation areas and facilities to safely dispose grease, used water, and solid waste. Commissaries typically have washbay facilities where you can dispose of wastewater and grease to be treated and cleaned. The commissary should also have dumpsters for solid trash, and some commercial kitchens offer recycling facilities. FoodTruckrs build up a lot of trash and recyclables in the average week, so we highly recommend finding a commissary where you can recycle as many materials as possible in order to limit your impact on the environment!

You can also use commercial kitchen space to clean the equipment and kitchen tools you use each day on your truck. Generally, any surfaces that come into contact with food should be cleaned at least once every day. If a surface regularly comes into contact with potentially hazardous foods (such as raw meat), it should be cleaned at least once every four hours.

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5. One-Stop Maintenance and Service

When the kitchen’s going and there are hungry people lined up outside the window, your food truck is a restaurant that just happens to be located on wheels. But at the end of the day, your truck is a vehicle first and foremost—and that means you’re going to need a mechanic. Now, you can definitely find a qualified mechanic at a local auto shop who can help you out with engine problems and oil changes, but he or she might not be equipped to handle issues with your kitchen equipment, refrigeration system, or plumbing.

Fortunately, many commissaries offer on-site mechanics who can inspect and repair your truck right there so that you never have to miss valuable time on the road. Find out whether or not potential commissaries offer truck repair services or on-site inspectors who can make sure your truck stays up to code. We’ll talk more about buying a used food truck later in this series, but you should also keep in mind that some commissaries even lease and sell used food trucks. Your commissary may also offer towing services and have spare trucks available to rent in case you suffer a major breakdown that puts you out of commission for a few days or more.

6. Miscellaneous Services

Though you won’t find these services if you’re renting space at a restaurant or local school, some commissaries that are designed specifically for food trucks also offer a range of miscellaneous services that can simplify your business and make it easier to start a food truck. Some commissaries are equipped to help you get permits, food handling certifications, menu boards, and graphic materials for your truck. Your local commissary may also offer some administrative support by helping you schedule inspections and audits and plan for events. Commissary employees interact regularly with food truck owners and can help you find the tools you need to succeed as a food truck owner while also acting as an intermediary between you and the local health inspectors.

Share Your Progress

After you’ve researched the local laws about commissaries in your city and figured out what type of commercial kitchen space is most appropriate for your food truck, you can start scouting locations. When you’re ready to find a commissary in your city, we recommend connecting with local food truck owners to find out which kitchen spaces they use or checking out this great list of commercial kitchen spaces from IcyProfits.com. Your local health department may also offer a list of certified commissaries in your area, so be sure to check out their website or contact their offices for more information.

Next week on “How to Start a Food Truck,” we wrap up the research unit with more information on health code laws and restrictions you need to get ready to face. In the meantime, we’d love to hear about the progress you’ve made so far! Tell us what you’re up to and what questions you have on our Facebook or Twitter pages.

image by BrickWares

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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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