How to Run a Food Truck 09: Prepare for the Off-Season

Today marks the start of Unit 3 in the “How to Run a Food Truck” series, and we think you all are really going to love these next few lessons. For the next month on FoodTruckr, we’ll be talking about overcoming challenges—how to deal with setbacks like parking tickets and legal troubles, what to do when you don’t have enough customers, and how to maintain your food truck when it’s having mechanical problems.

The struggles mentioned above are common to all food truck owners, no matter where you’re located, what kind of food you sell, or how long you’ve been in business. However, before we dig into those challenges, there’s one topic we need to focus on that will only apply to some FoodTruckrs—how to prepare for the off-season when you live in an area with cold, unseasonable weather.

Naturally, this is a pretty timely issue for many of you—winter is quickly approaching, and the temperatures have already begun dropping in areas all around the country. Fortunately, the end of warm weather doesn’t have to spell the end of a booming food truck business for you. We’ve got several alternative options you can pursue, and we’ll also explain how to choose the best path for your business in today’s lesson. Let’s get started right away!

Alternative Options for Food Trucks in Cold Climates

Cold weather is approaching quickly, and you need to find a way to keep your food truck rolling through the winter. What should you do?

There are plenty of alternative options beyond regular street sales available to FoodTruckrs in the winter—you just have to be creative enough to think of them and passionate enough about your business to take it in a different direction for the time being.

Check out our five favorite alternative business options for food trucks below—and then consider pursuing two or three of them simultaneously in order to keep your business hopping through the whole season.

1. Pursue Catering Clients

Catering is one of the best ways food trucks can supplement street sales all year long, but it’s especially effective during the cold winter months when your customers don’t feel like braving the snow to get to your truck’s window. Though people in your city might consider food trucks to be a warm weather-exclusive destination, they’ll be eager to enjoy your delicious meals during any month if you’re willing to bring the food to them. From corporate events to birthday parties, people need food all year long—and there’s no better way for you to make up for slow street sales than with a large catering contract that will serve 50 or more people at a single stop.

Plenty of people are on the lookout for food trucks that will cater, too. For instance, food trucks are one of today’s most popular wedding trends because they are unique, affordable, and convenient. If you begin advertising that you’re available to cater weddings and other large events, chances are good that you’ll start getting customer inquiries right away.

Of course, you do need to keep in mind that catering does require some additional skills that fall outside the scope of what you do on a regular day of street service. Be sure to let your earliest catering customers know that it’s your first big event and discuss their expectations clearly in advance. Consider offering them a discount on their service because you’re new at catering, and ask if they will serve as a reference for future clients in return (assuming all goes well, of course!).

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2. Take Your Truck to Events

We’ve talked before about how important it is to take your food truck to events and festivals—but it can have an even bigger impact on your business during the slow winter months. Even if it’s too cold out to park for regular street service, you can still find eager, hungry customers when you bring your truck to a big, bustling crowd.

Naturally, there are a lot more food truck festivals and outdoor events happening when the weather is warmer—but you can still find plenty of things going on in your community if you start researching them early. Look for events like winter carnivals, concerts, holiday showcases, and Christmas tree lightings. Even a busy outdoor shopping mall during the winter can help you find just as many customers as you would encounter at a big event.

Other food trucks in your area are undoubtedly looking for the same opportunities, so you should be researching these options now and applying to as many events as you can if you want to have a chance of landing a spot. Even booking a couple events for each month can make a big difference in your overall winter profit margins.

3. Partner with Local Businesses

Though catering and events are two of the most efficient ways to keep your food truck running during the winter, you can also enjoy the benefits of regular sales by partnering with a local business to sell your food in their brick and mortar locations. This non-traditional alternative to standard street sales will definitely take a little more work (and some brand new research of your local laws to find out what is and isn’t allowed), but it can make a big difference in your bottom line.

To get started, think about what types of businesses might be interested in selling your tasty grilled chicken sandwiches to their customers. You’ll want to look for shops that aren’t your direct competitors—for instance, a small local deli probably won’t be interested in selling sandwiches that could outshine their own, but a coffee shop might love the opportunity to become a lunch stop for their customers. Then, you need to figure out what you can offer your potential partner to make it worth his or her while—this will likely be a fairly substantial portion of your profits (think 30 to 50 percent).

If you’ll be sharing profits and making less on each sale, this path will likely not be lucrative enough to sustain your truck through the winter. However, it can give a boost to your overall profits for the season and also serves as an effective way to keep your customers from forgetting about you.

4. Add More Options to Your Line-Up

As a food truck owner, you already know that it’s important to keep your menu as focused and specialized as you can—but when the weather causes business to decline, it’s time to get a little creative with what you have to offer. The winter months are a perfect time to add more options to your regular line-up.

Story time: Last year, FoodTruckr team member Mindy came across an inventive truck in St. Paul, MN that was selling hand warmers for $3 per pair at a freezing outdoor event. While she waited for her order, Mindy counted—eight out of 12 customers added on a pair of hand warmers to their order (including one customer who bought four pairs!). The truck owners likely didn’t spend any more than $2 for each pair of hand warmers, so this was a quick and easy way to up their profits by offering something new and creative on their menu. And best of all, it definitely made them stand out from other trucks at the event—and gave their freezing customers an extra reason to leave the truck with a smile.

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This winter, think about what kinds of extras you can offer at your truck. It can be cold weather survival gear that your customers might need like hand warmers, hot cocoa, or cheap ice scrapers, or it could simply be some small conveniences and add-ons that will make their meals even better (bottled water, desserts, or the option to get a portion and a half for just a dollar or two more). Be creative!

5. Find a Regular Truck Stop

Our last alternative to typical street service is one of the most reliable ways to keep your food truck business going through the winter, but it is a pretty challenging one to put in place—finding a regular place to park your truck. This strategy is one that FoodTruckrs around the country use all year long, simply because it’s so convenient. Knowing where you’re going to serve lunch each day eliminates the hassle of trying to find a parking spot, and it can also make your sales routine a little more predictable. In the winter, a regular parking spot outside of an office park or business can bring you some practically-guaranteed customers and the convenience of steady sales.

Of course, getting a business or office park to allow you to park outside their building on a regular basis can be challenging, so you’ll need to offer some incentive for the company you’re dealing with. We recommend offering a menu-wide discount for all of the company’s employees (which can be a major perk for their team) or agreeing to give them a flat percentage of all your daily, weekly, or monthly profits. You can also offer to do a certain number of catering events per year for them (such as their holiday party, annual charity benefit, and summer picnic) at a reduced cost (or for free!).

Though you’ll probably need to give something away in order for this arrangement to work, chances are good that you’ll still come out ahead in the long run—especially if you can bring some regular traffic to your business during months that are typically slow and lacking in customers.

Finding the Right Route for Your Food Truck Business

As you can see, there are tons of creative options available to FoodTruckrs who are willing to stretch themselves beyond the traditional route of street service in order to keep rolling through the winter. Now it’s just up to you to choose the best route (or three) to sustain your food truck business.

Follow these four tips to find the best solution for your truck:

  1. Think about your strengths. What’s your favorite part of life as a food truck owner? What sets you apart from other food trucks? What do you do best? Use these strengths and passions to guide your decision toward a creative alternate path. If you love trying new things, the winter is a good time to experiment with your menu and to try serving in new locations. If your favorite part of food truckin’ is interacting with customers and serving big crowds, catering and events are probably the best options for you.
  2. Look at what other trucks in your area are doing. Even if this is your first winter on the streets, chances are good that some of the other trucks in your area have already been around for a season or two. Talk to other truck owners and see what their plans for the winter are. They might have a great tip on a major festival that brings in tons of traffic or they may know of some local shops that would love to have a food truck parked outside. You could even partner up with another truck owner to work larger events that would be tough to manage on your own!
  3. Poll your fans. Sometimes the best way to figure out what your fans want most is to simply ask them. Prepare a short survey (that customers can earn a free drink or dollar off for taking) and ask customers where and when they would be most likely to stop at your truck when the weather is cold. Be sure to find out if there are any different menu items or promotions that would make them stop, too!
  4. Try alternative ideas out during the regular season. If you’re torn between a couple options, start working on them during the regular season so that you can experiment with different models while you still have the safety net of income from regular street sales. The summer is a great time to try out catering and working events and festivals, and you can play around with options like regular truck stops and new menu items all year long.
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Getting Your Truck Ready for Winter

Though the coldest parts of the year are a challenging time for FoodTruckrs, there are many ways you can keep your business going all year long if you so choose. Remember: Food truck ownership is hard work, but it should also be a lot of fun—so be sure to focus on alternate paths that are both rewarding and effective. By working on one or more of the new ideas in this lesson at the same time, you can make sure that your truck continues to bring in new income through the winter. And best of all, you’ll also be developing important new skills in your business that will serve you well throughout your entire food truck career.

Coming up next: If you’re going to continue working through the winter, you need to make sure your truck is in tip-top shape! In next week’s lesson, we’ve got the scoop on the most important food truck maintenance tips you need to know. Stay tuned to keep your truck running at its best and to ensure that your team stays safe on those icy, cold roads!

Until then, we’d love to know what you’re planning on doing with your food truck this winter! Will you be turning your truck into a one-stop, all-inclusive catering machine? Using the time to refine your recipes and to introduce new items to your menu? Or finding another creative way to attract customers with your warm, tasty meals? Tell us what you’ll be up to over the next few months in the comments below or on our Facebook or Twitter pages!

image by Ruth Hartnup

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About the Author

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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