How to Run a Food Truck 11: What to Do When You Don’t Have Enough Customers

Financing

Today’s an exciting day here at FoodTruckr—it marks the return of the “How to Run a Food Truck” series! We can’t wait to continue bringing you the brand new business advice and insider tips that will help you run a successful food truck, so we’re going to dig right in.

When we left off last, we were in the midst of Unit 3—a section that’s all about overcoming the most common challenges FoodTruckrs face. We showed you how to prepare for the off-season in Lesson 09, and helped you perform preventive food truck maintenance in Lesson 10. Today, we’re going to tackle another especially important topic that every new food truck owner needs to consider: What do you do when you don’t have enough customers?

As always, FoodTruckr’s got the answers you need! Check out our top five tips to get your business booming again.

1. Examine Your Business Closely

First things first—you’re going to need to determine what “enough” customers really looks like. Figuring this out is tough, and it’s made even harder by the fact that your definition of “enough” will likely change throughout your time as a food truck business owner. For instance, “enough” customers when you’re just starting out might be however many meals you need to sell to break even on your expenses—but as your business progresses, it might be however many meals it takes to net you a healthy five-figure salary each year.

So before you can take steps to bring more customers to your ordering window, you’re going to need to evaluate your business, your needs, and your current customer base. Here are a few questions to consider:

  • How much are you spending each month?
  • How much are you making each month?
  • Who are your customers (i.e., where do you sell most frequently and who’s buying the bulk of your meals)?
  • What are your customers’ buying habits (i.e., what do they purchase most often)?
  • How are you marketing your food truck?
  • Are there any items on your menu that simply don’t sell?
  • Are there any items that are the clear stars of your menu?
  • What percentage of your sales come from catering gigs or appearances at events?

Examining these questions should help you get a good idea of where your business currently stands, and where you can start to go in order to make it better. We’ll examine a few of those potential ways to improve in the next few steps.

2. Reevaluate What You’re Spending and Using

Once you have a clear picture of your food truck’s finances and you know which items are and aren’t selling, it’s time to reevaluate what you’re spending.

First, let’s start out by looking at the ingredients and tools you’re purchasing to keep your truck running on a daily basis. Are there any menu items that aren’t selling well that require you to purchase special ingredients or tools? Consider taking them off your menu and focusing on items that will sell better. How about the ways you’re packaging your food? For instance, do you really need to have plates for people who want to eat right then and to-go boxes for people who are on their way back to work? Perhaps you can eliminate the plates from your weekly budget and instead give everyone their food in a box.

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You can also cut back on supply waste by offering bags to customers instead of automatically giving them away with each order, and by setting napkins and silverware out on the counter where customers can easily see and take them instead of putting them in every single bag. Many people don’t need these items and will throw them away as soon as they reach their destination anyway, so you can save money (and the environment!) by only providing them to the people who want them.

After you’ve figured out how to reduce product and food waste on your truck, it’s time to take a look at your overall budget and how much you’re spending on categories like marketing, repairs, and truck improvements. We could go into a lot more detail on all of these topics (and will in the future), but for now, it’s simply important to be really conscious of your spending and to look for ways to reduce your costs. Here are a few ideas:

  • Instead of spending money on print and radio ads that simply tell people you’re around, put your marketing funds toward a promotion that will get people excited about visiting your truck and advertise the event on social media and by putting fliers up around town.
  • Look for coupons or membership clubs from auto repair shops that can help you get your food truck repaired for less. Many garages have discounts such as $20 off a $200 service, or a free oil change after you’ve gotten five oil changes. These discounts might not seem like much in the larger sense of your overall budget, but they do add up over time and are a good habit to get yourself into.
  • If you’ve been thinking about making an improvement or modification to your truck but you’re struggling to get enough customers each day, it might be a good idea to hold off for awhile longer. Unless the improvement is something that will directly allow you to bring in more customers each day, it’s probably best to wait until business is doing a little better.

3. Update Your Schedule

Now that you’ve got a clear idea of where your business is and how you can cut back on your spending, it’s time to start looking at some ways to bring in more money. One of the first things you should try is updating your schedule.

An update to your schedule could mean selling at a new place, selling at a new time, or selling at a new place and time. It’s up to you to determine which change will be most effective for your business. We recommend trying a few new options out over the course of a couple weeks to see what type of results you get. Consider these ideas:

  • If you normally park downtown all day long, try staying downtown only for the lunch rush and then taking your truck elsewhere in the afternoon and evening. Parking near somewhere that teenagers might go after school is a great way to pick up some extra sales during a lull in the afternoon when most people are at work.
  • If you’re typically a lunch truck, try switching things up and focusing your service on the bar crowds for a week or so. Though you’ll need to make sure you’re allowed to park near the facility, many bar owners welcome food trucks near them who can serve patrons who are hungry throughout the night (and especially at closing time!). If you don’t mind working late hours, this can be an especially effective time and location to sell.
  • If your lunch sales are pretty sporadic and most customers seem to be people who were simply walking by, try to see if you can arrange a partnership with a business or office park to serve lunch daily to their employees. Many food trucks have found great success by serving lunch at a regular spot to people who are more than happy to have food brought right to their parking lot.
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4. Give Your Menu a Facelift

Sometimes it’s not the when and where of your selling that’s the problem, but the what—and in that case, it might be time to give your menu a facelift.

Think back to the questions you answered in the first section when you examined your business closely—are there any items that simply don’t sell, or any items that are clearly the stars of your menu? You can use this information to revamp what you’re selling and to make your menu more appealing to current customers and newcomers alike.

We’re written before about how important it is to have a unique selling proposition (USP) for your truck. To summarize, your truck’s USP is your focus, or what sets you apart from other food trucks. If you’re looking to breathe a little new life into your menu, you need to keep the USP in mind and ideally make it even clearer.

For instance, if the star of your menu is a customizable burger where people can choose their own toppings, you could consider adding even more available toppings or creating a list of pre-designed burgers with popular combinations of toppings for people to choose from. Or if your truck’s homemade milkshakes have become the surprise star of the show, consider adding on an option where people can add a shake to any meal order for just a $1 or $2 more. These simple changes don’t require you to buy any extra ingredients or to make any extra food, but they will encourage people to buy more and to add on items that they might not have otherwise purchased.

If you do update your menu, be sure that people know about it. Run a special promotion for the first week or two of the new menu to call attention to the fact, or ask visitors if they’ve tried one of your new items. Get a new menu board printed, or simply post some signs advertising your new specials and features. You can even introduce something like a “combo meal of the month” or a “weekly special” to keep fans engaged and interested in what you have to offer—and to make them see that you’re always interested in innovating and improving.

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5. Partner with Another Truck or Business

Our last tip to increase your business requires a little more legwork, but it’s definitely worth it if you’re willing to put in the effort. If you can find the right partnership, working closely with another truck or business is one of the best ways to improve your sales and to keep your food truck running.

Here’s how: Working with another truck or business can eliminate some of the pressure to provide everything your customers need while also simultaneously bringing more people to your truck. When you have a partnership with someone else, you’ll automatically also get their customers looking at your marketing messages and their customers seeing what you have to offer. For a FoodTruckr who’s just starting out or for a FoodTruckr who’s struggling to bring in enough customers each week, a partnership with a complementary food truck or with a local bar or business can really make a huge difference in your bottom line (and in boosting your self-confidence!).

We’ve mentioned a few of these ideas already, but it’s worth going over them again. Here are several types of trucks and businesses you should consider pursuing partnerships with:

  • Food trucks that complement your truck (such as a truck that exclusively sells desserts if you sell meals, or a truck that sells a different type of cuisine than what you sell)
  • Food trucks that sell similar food to what you offer (This one’s a little trickier, but you can make it work if you make cooking and selling into a bit of a performance or a competition!)
  • Bars and pubs that don’t sell food
  • Local shopping malls or outdoor shopping centers
  • Big office buildings and office parks
  • High schools and colleges
  • Sporting and concert venues
  • Local restaurants and shops that might be willing to sell some of your pre-made food inside

No matter what type of partnership you arrange, even knowing the simple fact that you have someone else on your side can really help your truck to flourish. Partnerships are a great way to build your business up, to form positive connections and relationships, and to establish yourself as an integral part of your local community.

Keeping Your Business Moving

We know it can be tough to stay motivated when you’re struggling through a business slump—but by carefully examining where you’re at and looking for ways to bring new life to your business, you can survive the challenges and come out on the other side as an even more successful FoodTruckr. And of course, our team and our community of food truck owners are always here to help you through the rough spots! Email us at [email protected], send us a message or Facebook, or contact us on Twitter, and tell us what you’re struggling with and how we can help. We’re here to serve your needs!

Coming up next: We’ll move on in Unit 3 with a new lesson on dealing with major setbacks. From parking tickets to canceled events, we’ll show you how to overcome some of the biggest roadblocks you’ll encounter on your way to life as a successful FoodTruckr! Stay tuned for next week’s lesson.

image by Kurman Communications, Inc.

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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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