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

Originally published in 2014, this article has been updated for 2020.

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! 

From the cynical to the hilarious to the outright unexpected, you shared tremendously practical insights for any aspiring food truck owner out there. This is precisely the type of knowledge we here at FoodTruckr aspire to share in our quest to create a resource for the entire food truck community. From tips and tricks on compiling the paperwork to advice on fostering relationships with customers, consider this a crash course in food truck fundamentals taught by experts.   

Want to start a food truck? Check out How to Start a Food Truck: The Ultimate Guide

Regulations And Permits 

Hands-down, navigating all the regulations was the most consistent external source of frustration we heard. Luckily, food truck owners had plenty of advice about avoiding potential headaches. 

Want to learn more about permits? You’ll find more info in Lesson 21 of our How to Start a Food Truck Book

First, Do Your Homework 

Ben from Luke’s Lobster  (New York, NY)

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.

Chuy from Mariscos Jalisco (Olympic, CA) 

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 in California and eventually all states. 

Check out Lesson 5 and 8 in our How to Start a Food Truck Book for more info on food truck laws.

Stay Up To Date On Rules In Your Area 

Jordan from Mustache Mike’s (San Francisco, CA) 

As an owner, it can get quite confusing trying to keep up with and understand all of the different mobile vending laws and to obtain all of the required credentials. 

Each state and city’s requirements are 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 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). If you operate in multiple counties or in different cities, you would need a whole new set of credentials for those locations as well.

Roy from Champion Cheesesteaks (Atlanta, GA) 

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.

Note: This food truck has closed since this article was published. 

Felix from Gillian’s Italian Ice (Suffolk County, NY)

GilliansItalianIce

When I bought my truck, I expected to be able to park it somewhere and 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. 

Note: This food truck has closed since this article was published. 

Give Yourself Enough Time To Get Everything Together

Bollywood Zing (Smyrna, GA)

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.

Note: This food truck has closed since this article was published. 

Melissa from Melissa’s Chicken and Waffles (Orlando, FL)

MelissasChickenandWaffles

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.

Note: This food truck has closed since this article was published. 

Finally, Don’t Be Afraid To Challenge Inefficient Systems 

Rachel from La Cocinita (New Orleans, LA)

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. We increased the amount of time food trucks can stay parked in one spot. Most significantly, we completely eliminated the proximity restriction that prevented us from parking within 600 feet of restaurants.

Before You Hit The Streets 

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.

Want to learn more about creating a business plan? Read Lesson 9 in our How to Start a Food Truck Book

Upfront Costs Are Higher Than You Realize 

Lisa from Two for the Road (San Diego, CA)

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 $1,900 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.

Want to learn more about insurance? You’ll find more info in Lesson 18 of our How to Start a Food Truck Book

Joe from Chef Joe Youkhan’s Tasting Spoon (Trabuco Canyon, CA)

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. 

You May Also Like...  How to Run a Food Truck 22A: Market Like an Advanced FoodTruckr

There Are A Lot Of Unexpected Expenses  

Louie & Daniel from Rito Loco (Washington DC) 

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, we hired a marketing/PR rep—a waste of money! We spent extra money all over the place, but learned how to run a really lean operation.

Juan from MIHO Gastrotruck (San Diego, CA)

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 research and development, financial projections, break-even, and capital requirements. Without this essential piece you are setting yourself up to fail.

Note: This food truck has closed since this article was published.  

Do Your Research Before Hitting The Roads 

Leah from Babycakes Truck (Chicago, IL)

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. 

Sameer from Rickshaw Stop (San Antonio, TX) 

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.

Note: This food truck has closed since this article was published. 

The Day To Day Life 

Hands-on ownership is not a suggestion; it’s a requirement. And vacations are hard to come by. Be prepared to roll up your sleeves.

You’ll Do A Lot More Than Just Cooking

Stephanie from Seabirds Truck (Costa Mesa, CA) 

Seabirds

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. 

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, sometimes 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.

John from Capelo’s Hill Country Barbecue (San Francisco, CA)

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.

Food Preparation Is Surprisingly Time Consuming

Christina from Son of a Bun (Los Angeles, CA) 

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.

Want to learn more about shopping for ingredients? Click here.

Guy from Nana G’s Chicken & Waffles (Atlanta, GA)

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 (Milwaukee, WI)

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.

Being Your Own Boss Is A Major Time Commitment   

Paawan from The Chai Cart (San Francisco, CA)

TheChaiCart

I wish I had known that this business would really limit my ability to take vacations. I run three chai carts in downtown San Francisco and chai is something people have everyday. There are really no options for authentic and/or good chai in San Francisco.

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.

Nick from Slider House Burger Co. and Tortally Tasty (San Diego, CA)

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.

Matt from Scratch Truck (Indianapolis, IN)

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 seven days a week, 11 hours 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.

Note: This food truck has closed since this article was published. 

Jamie from Where’s the Fire (Apple Valley, CA)

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 so much time cleaning, shopping, prepping, menu changes & development, driving, on site cooking & cleaning, emails, interacting with coordinator, marketing, increasing catering sales, etc. 

Note: This food truck has closed since this article was published. 

Networking Can Make Or Break Your Business  

Kenneth from Devilicious Food Truck (Temecula, CA)

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 (Los Angeles, CA)

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.

Note: This food truck has closed since this article was published.  

Booking And Working Events

Make food so good it sells itself…almost. Finding the right events and taking advantage of those opportunities is an art in itself.

Watch Out For Hidden Fees    

Stephanie from Seabirds Truck (Costa Mesa, CA)

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. Sometimes 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.

Lisa from Two for the Road (San Diego, CA)

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.

Mike from Garliscapes Food Truck (Orange County, CA)

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.

Rhea from Neri’s Curbside Cravings (Los Angeles, CA)

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.

Note: This food truck has closed since this article was published. 

Account For Prep Time When Planning 

Dustin & Kristen from Dusty Buns (Fresno, CA)

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!

Jim from Jimmy Ray’s Bar-b-que (Woodburn, IN)

JimmyRaysBar-B-Que

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.

Note: This food truck has closed since this article was published. 

Scout The Area To Find The Best Locations

Michael and Cheryl from The Burger Bus (Denver, CO)

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.

Fishlips Sushi (Los Angeles, CA) 

FishlipsSushi

The one thing I wish I’d known: how to find the good location for serving!

Note: This food truck has closed since this article was published.

Maintaining Your Truck

We’ve covered the food side of the food truck business. What’s left? Oh yes, the truck. From temperamental transmissions to wonky power steering, your truck is both your best friend and your greatest adversary.

Become Your Own Mechanic 

Nancy from Kurbside Eatz (Houston, TX)

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!

Justin from Bernie’s Burger Bus (Houston, TX)

BerniesBurgerBus

I would have become a diesel mechanic first.

Andrea from Border Grill (Los Angeles, CA and Las Vegas, NV)

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!

Nic from Blue Sky Dining (Durham, NC)

BlueSkyDining

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

Note: This food truck has closed since this article was published.

Research The Best Equipment  

Nathan from Oh My Gogi! (Oklahoma City, OK)

OhMyGogi

We are going into our fourth 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-customized the interior, had the engine tuned up. But even now I am having some engine issues. 

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, and 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.

Joel from St. John’s Fire (Houston, TX)

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 guidelines on the build 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? 

Note: This food truck has closed since this article was published.

Adam from Food Shark (San Antonio, TX)

FoodShark

I wish we knew that Honda EU 2000 generators were the way to go with generators. 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.

Splurging On Quality Equipment Is Worth It  

Wendy from W.O.W! (Atlanta, GA)

WOWFoodTruck

I wish someone had told me not to cut corners. 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.

Ryan from Dashboard Diner (Indianapolis, IN)

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.

Maintenance Will Be Time Consuming   

Julie from Sam’s ChowderMobile (El Granada, CA)

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.

Evangeline from The Buttermilk Truck (Los Angeles, CA)

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.

Note: This food truck has closed since this article was published.

Connecting with Your Customers 

You’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.

FT In Blog Opt In

Use Social Media To Your Advantage

Chef Heidi from The Flip Truck (Orange County, CA)

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!

Want to learn more about effectively using social media? Click here.

A Strong Brand Yields An Enthusiastic Response 

Mark from The Hogfather BBQ (Pink Hill, NC)

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 was timid driving a large truck.

Want to learn more about building a strong brand? Click here.

A Strong Community Helps You Cope With Setbacks 

Beckie from Quiero Arepas (Denver, CO)

QuieroArepas

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?

We’d 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? Please share in the comments. 

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. 

Images by pasa47, troismarteaux, meddygarnet, BruceTurner, Townsquare Media Albany, AlishaV, weeklydig, and Scott McLeod

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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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