How to Start a Food Truck 15A: Buy or Lease a Food Truck

We’re right around the halfway point in the series, and it’s time for us to take on one of the most exciting topics we’ve ever covered: how to buy a food truck. Like last week’s lesson, this is a pretty big topic, so we’re splitting it into two parts. Today, we’ll discuss where to find food trucks for sale and how to choose the best vehicle for your business, and next week, we’ll tackle some of the specifics of what exactly should go inside your truck.

Learning how to start a food truck is not an easy task, but you’ve kept with it—and we’re really proud of you! Today, all of that preparation, research, and planning is going to pay off.

How do you know if you’re really ready to take this major step toward your dream? Remember the advice that Juan Miron from MIHO Gastrotruck offered to new food truck owners in one of the very first posts on our site:

“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 R&D, financial projections, break-even and capital requirements. Without this essential piece you are setting yourself up to fail.”

As an experienced food truck owner and caterer turned restaurant owner, Juan knows what he’s talking about. No matter how badly you want to own a food truck, you shouldn’t purchase the actual vehicle until you’ve really researched the viability of your food truck dream, written a comprehensive business plan, and set up an emergency fund and secure financing source.

But if you’ve done your research? Completed the lessons in “How to Start a Food Truck?” Gotten your finances in order? Well then, you’re probably just about ready to dig in and buy your truck. Give yourself a big high five, grab your planning documents, and read on to learn about finding the best food truck for your business.

Three Preliminary Decisions You Need to Make

If you’ve spent any time looking for food trucks for sale in your area before, you’ve probably already noticed how many different styles and sizes there are to choose from. Whether they opt for a small food cart or a massive trailer that hitches to a huge truck, FoodTruckrs across the country have found some creative ways to serve up their tastiest creations. To narrow the field a bit and to determine which type of food truck you should be looking at, you’ll need to make the following three key decisions. Think of them sort of like the parameters you’d set before going out to buy any new car. Rather than choosing from every car on the lot, you’d start out by determining some general factors like whether you’d prefer a convertible or a minivan, an automatic or a manual transmission, and to spend $5,000 or $18,000.

1. What Size Should Your Truck Be?

One of the first things you’ll need to know before you can select a food truck is the best size for your business. Remember: many cities have restrictions on food truck and parking space sizes, so it’s important to make sure that any vehicle you’re thinking about buying will adhere to local codes. If you’re not sure which size is best, learn how to find the laws for your city in Lesson 05 of “How to Start a Food Truck.”

2. Do You Want an Outfitted Truck or a Custom Build?

Once you have a better idea of the size your truck should be on the outside, you need to determine what you’re looking for on the inside. There are all sorts of food trucks available for sale that are already outfitted with all the kitchen equipment and sanitation systems you need to run a successful mobile restaurant that adheres to local health code laws. We’ll explain some of the specific equipment and accessories you should be looking for in next week’s lesson. You can also buy basic trucks or vans that have never been used to sell street food and modify them to house all of the equipment you need.

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Naturally, the initial cost of a basic truck will be lower than that of an outfitted truck. However, you’ll quickly invest a lot more into the truck when it comes time to purchase and install all of the equipment and tools you’ll need. We can’t say for sure that one option is cheaper than the other, as the costs can vary dramatically based on factors like the condition of the truck, the equipment you need, and where you buy your vehicle from—so it’s important to compare prices carefully and to factor in additional considerations like the time you’ll invest in a custom build or the flexibility you could enjoy by choosing your own equipment.

3. Should You Buy Used, Buy New, or Lease?

Finally, you’ll also need to decide whether to buy a used food truck, buy a new food truck, or lease a food truck. There are definite benefits and risks associated with each option, so you should consider your funding source, your projected costs, and your anticipated profits carefully before you begin signing any papers. Again, it’s tough to say that one method is any more cost-effective than the other because the final price will depend greatly on your individual situation and the truck itself. However, you should keep in mind that if you have a lender or investor, their funding may be dependent on you choosing a particular type of truck, particularly if you outlined costs in your business plan based on a specific option. It’s always a good idea to seek guidance from your financial backers or a trusted business advisor who can help you choose the best option by taking your funding situation and the market you’re working in into consideration.

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Choosing a Used, New, or Leased Truck

Whether you’re more interested in a used truck, a new truck, or a leased truck, you can fortunately choose to get an outfitted or basic vehicle of any size through each option. Use our brief guide to determine which buying or leasing path may be best for you and your food truck business dream.

Buy a Used Truck

When you’re aiming to buy a food truck, used vehicles are cheaper than new trucks in the short-term. Choose from outfitted food trucks from business owners who are closing up shop or upgrading to bigger, better trucks—or find a used truck on the cheap that looks like it could adjust well to a second life as a mobile restaurant with a bit of renovation and TLC.

The Perks: There are two distinct benefits to buying a used food truck: 1.) it’s cheaper than buying a brand new custom truck and 2.) the work is often already done for you. Figuring out what kind of equipment your truck needs can be complex and confusing, especially if you want to have some flexibility in the types of food you’ll cook or which cities you’ll end up spending most of your time in. Buying a used food truck is straightforward because there are fewer choices to make and much of the work is already done for you. You simply have to figure out which used truck best fits your needs.

The Risks: Just like buying a used car, buying a used food truck can be risky. It’s great to cut costs on the upfront purchase of your truck, but you do need to keep in mind that you’re at a higher risk of repair costs and maintenance work than someone who opted for a new truck. Always have a trusted mechanic check over any used food truck you’re thinking about buying before you put down any money—and if you’re able to, request a full vehicle history report to make sure you’re fully informed about the truck you’re buying. You don’t want to start missing scheduled truck stops right after you’ve opened for business because your vehicle keeps breaking down unexpectedly.

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Where to Buy: You’ll find used food truck listings on a number of popular auction and sale sites, including eBay and Craigslist, and your local food truck association may even have a place for food truck owners to sell their vehicles and equipment. You can also check out sites like Road Stoves and Commercial Truck Trader or your local car dealership for listings of used food trucks for sale. Finally, don’t forget to ask your favorite local food truck owners where they got their trucks! While most FoodTruckrs lead extremely busy lives, many of them would be happy to answer a simple question or two about where they bought their trucks to help out another aspiring food truck owner (especially if they have a couple minutes to chat with you while they’re preparing the tasty lunch combo you just ordered!).

Buy a New Truck

For food truck owners with a healthy nest egg or a reliable financer backing their endeavors, new food trucks could be the way to go. Find a brand new truck that suits your dream or find someone who can build a custom truck for you with the exact equipment and layout you need inside.

The Perks: With a new food truck, you won’t have to worry about costly breakdowns and major repairs until you’ve driven many, many miles. There’s no need to be concerned about whether or not the last owner really took care of the truck, and you’ll probably receive an enticing warranty to protect you in the case of an emergency over the next few years. And of course, if you opt for the custom route, you can design your truck to be set up any way you want so that cooking is as convenient, efficient, and enjoyable as possible.

The Risks: New food trucks are costly, so you need to be sure you absolutely have enough funds available before making a pricy decision like this one. You’ll also probably be waiting longer to have a custom food truck built and shipped to you than you would if you chose a used truck or an already-built new food truck. Since you’ll have invested a lot more initially in your truck (particularly if it’s a custom build), it may also be awhile before you can afford to renovate your truck or add new equipment—so you should try to make sure that the layout and pieces you start out with will last you for at least the first few years.

Where to Buy: Sites like Prestige Food Trucks and Custom Concessions USA offer a range of customization options for aspiring FoodTruckrs who are interested in ordering or building their own new trucks.

Lease a Truck

Hoping to save your startup funding for other areas of your business? Not sure if the FoodTruckr lifestyle is right for you? Leasing a truck could be your best option. There’s less financial risk involved, and you’ll have some time to develop your skills and instincts before taking the full leap into food truck ownership. Instead of making large payments upfront, you’ll also be able to pay off your truck over time, which could allow you to get a higher-priced truck than you would otherwise be able to afford. You may even be able to make some of your future payments with money you made from lunch sales on the truck!

The Perks: Leasing allows you to get your truck now and come up with the cash later. Since buying a food truck is one of the most expensive aspects of starting a food truck business, it makes sense for many aspiring entrepreneurs to delay the heavy investment portion of their journeys initially.

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The Risks: If you don’t own your truck, you need to have a clear plan in place from the very beginning as to what you’ll do when the lease runs out. Try to set up a lease agreement that has either a lease renewal or purchasing option so that you can keep the truck you’ve built your business and name recognition on. No food truck owner wants to get three years into a successful business only to have to give his or her truck back to the dealer!

Where to Lease: You may be able to lease a food truck through a local car dealership, but you can also check sites like Mobi Munch or Prestige Food Trucks to find leasing options near you. Look for a truck that is already designed to fit most of your needs, as your leasing agreement will likely prevent you from making major changes to the interior of the truck.

Find the Best Option for Your Business

Buying or leasing a food truck is a huge step on the path to achieving your food truck dream, and we couldn’t be more excited that you’ve reached this point in your journey! Whether you choose a used truck, a new truck, or a leased truck, the most important thing is to select a vehicle that supports the goals you set out in your food truck business plan and one that you also feel comfortable in. We have a feeling that many food truck owners just know when they’ve found the perfect truck, so don’t be afraid to wait for that “a-ha!” moment if you’re looking at all the options and feeling a little unsatisfied.

Of course, there’s still a lot more you need to know before you can really look at food truck listings and know which vehicle is right for your business! Fortunately, we’ve got all those details coming for you soon on FoodTruckr. In next week’s lesson, we’ll cover some of the specific kitchen essentials and equipment you need to have in your food truck. Stay tuned next Wednesday for this special post.

In the meantime, do you have questions about buying your first food truck? Are you unsure about whether buying or leasing is a safer choice for your food truck business? Contact us via email, on Facebook, or on Twitter for feedback on your food truck decision. We’re always happy to help our fans find the best trucks for their dreams, and we can’t wait to hear from you!

If you’re a FoodTruckr who already owns a truck and is living the mobile dream, we’d also love to hear about your food truck buying experience—where did you go? Did you choose to lease or buy a used or new truck? The aspiring food truck owners in our community would love to hear your stories!

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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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  • smashleygood July 22, 2014, 1:30 am

    What about the commercial kitchen to prepare your food? What is the best way to go on that?

    • foodtruckr July 23, 2014, 11:50 am

      I’d recommend starting out with this post on commissaries that we wrote as a part of the “How to Start a Food Truck” series. It will give you some more info on the different types of commercial kitchen spaces available, as well as the main benefits you can get from them. Let us know if you need anything else!

  • Laura Burrell December 27, 2014, 8:09 am

    As a Mobile Food Consultant, my best advice is if going the route of a used food truck is to buy it directly from a reputable manufacturer; this can assure a quality build-out. If you cant afford that, consider a large stainless steel cart.

    Many restaurants on the east coast particularly New York and Philly are adding on Carts to increase their profit margin. These carts are easy to haul, much cheaper to build and can rake in over a thousand a day with an innovative menu.

    In regard to new custom trucks and carts, I work with Manufacturers to keep them VERY affordable, but also built with unbeatible quality and creativity.


  • Eric March 5, 2015, 11:04 pm

    I have a bar that at one time did have a kitchen and the bar was great. I would like to talk to them about me running a food truck kitchen for them exclusively. because the truck would not move how should I proceed? I would also have a different cuisine evey day.

  • JJ Hall July 8, 2015, 1:09 pm

    Thanks for the invaluable info! I am just starting to research what is needed for a mobile food business.

  • Peter Houm November 30, 2015, 6:45 am

    Very interesting article!

  • FoodTruckBusiness February 10, 2016, 4:09 pm

    Here is a link if anyone is looking to buy a food truck!!

  • ChalkBoard Special June 23, 2016, 12:17 pm

    We have a concept that we are currently building and trying to get on the road that fils the gap and the divide to many of these issues. A fully adaptable food truck that can be a daily rental and is fully customizable on the outside. So regardless of what your testing out it can be changed daily. We want to make it affordable to anyone with any idea, anywhere they see they can get back the info necessary for them to move on to the next step. We want to be the platform and launching pad for people with great ideas but in that limbo of not having enough money to start.