How to Run a Food Truck 01: Train Your Food Truck Employees

Welcome to the first lesson of our second food truck business planning series: “How to Run a Food Truck.” We’re so excited to have you here!

Whether you’ve just hit the streets after following along with the “How to Start a Food Truck” series or you’ve already been rolling around town for awhile, we’ve got all kinds of valuable business strategies and inside industry tips to satisfy your appetite.

This series is designed especially with the brand new food truck owner in mind. If you’re still in the early stages of your business and you’re looking for ways to improve your daily operations, customer outreach, and long-term goals, then this is the series for you.

We’re going to focus on a new unit each month, starting with several lessons in September that will help you navigate your first weeks on the streets.

So, what’s up first on the menu? Training your employees so that you can make sure everyone on your team is on the same page when it comes to running your truck. Let’s begin by looking at one of the most important things you’ll need to teach your team members—the culture behind your food truck.

Defining Your Food Truck’s Culture

What is culture, and how can you determine whether or not your food truck has one? To start with, let’s be clear—every food truck has a culture, and that culture is both unique and different from the larger culture of food trucks as an industry and trend. According to Merriam-Webster, culture in a business setting is “a way of thinking, behaving, or working that exists in a place or organization.”

To get a little more specific, the culture of your food truck is the way that you and your employees run things. Your culture is definitely related to your food truck’s brand and to the values you hold dear. It’s also influenced significantly by the people who make up your team, which is why we explained how important it is to hire reliable, passionate people in Lesson 27 of “How to Start a Food Truck.” (Note: If you’re still looking for employees for your truck or you’re hoping to expand your team, be sure to refer back to that lesson for the best places to find applicants and our tips on evaluating job candidates!)

Before you can begin teaching your employees about your truck’s culture, you need to define it clearly for yourself. Consider the following questions to determine what principles guide your food truck every day:

  1. Where did your food truck come from? The personal mythology of your food truck (where you got the idea, how you got started, what you’ve achieved so far) plays a big role in your workplace culture. Make sure new employees understand how hard you’ve worked to get your truck up and running and why your mission is so important before they get started.
  2. What values are most important to your truck? In Lesson 20 of “How to Start a Food Truck,” we spent some time defining your food truck’s values (or the “why” behind your truck). Whether you have a mission to bring affordable, healthy food to your community or your primary goal is to make the most delicious piece of pizza the world has ever tasted, it’s essential for new employees to understand the reasons your food truck exists.
  3. What promises do you make to your customers? Of course, your values are just a part of your truck’s overall brand—and all employees should also be fully versed in the other components that make up your truck’s identity. Teach new employees about your food truck’s brand (including what sets you apart from other trucks, who your customers are, and what people can expect when they walk up to your ordering window) so that they know what your fans should get.
  4. What’s the “behind the scenes” atmosphere of your food truck like? Your food truck’s culture is made up of more than what you’ve promised to your customers—it also exists in the kitchen. Does your team spend a lot of time joking around and experimenting with new recipes, or are employees expected to act strictly business at all times? Introduce new employees to their working environment by describing what the atmosphere is like to them.
  5. What unspoken rules or procedures guide your daily operations? Finally, think about the unspoken rules and procedures that you and your team members follow each day and communicate these to your new employees. For instance, the official policy might be that all employees are expected to arrive on time for their shifts, but your truck might have an unspoken rule that any time within five minutes of the shift’s start time is acceptable.
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By helping your new employees understand what expectations you and the rest of the team have for their behavior, you can help them fit in and become accustomed to the working environment more quickly.

What to Teach Your Team Members

In addition to teaching your team about the culture and values that drive your truck’s daily operations, there are a number of more clear cut procedures and tasks that new employees will also need to learn before they can be trusted to operate your truck. Once you have a larger team in place, you may be able to hire individual people to be in charge of separate categories—but for now, we recommend making sure that each person working on your truck is cross-trained and capable of performing every one of the following procedures. You never know when someone may call in sick or have a personal emergency that keeps him or her from coming in, and it’s important to have another person who can keep the truck running available.

In general, the things your new employees need to learn will fall into two categories—information they need to memorize (or know where to find the answers) and procedures they need to learn how to complete. Here are a few examples of each:

Information Employees Should Memorize

  • What goes in each item on the menu
  • What ingredients or preparation methods may be dangerous to people with food allergies (and if there is an alternative way you can safely prepare the customer’s meal)
  • Health code laws
  • How food can be stored (including where and at what temperatures)
  • Any special promotions your truck runs
  • Your regular schedule
  • Where you can park
  • Information about catering and other services you offer

Procedures Employees Must Learn to Complete

  • How to interact with customers and handle disputes (topics we’ll cover more in Unit 2!)
  • How to prepare each menu item
  • How to clean the truck
  • How to use your register system (including ringing up sales, printing receipts, applying discounts, tracking inventory, and managing customer loyalty programs)
  • How to operate the truck (including driving and managing all equipment onboard)
  • Any other daily operations that need to be performed

That’s a lot of information to cover! Your new employees will probably feel a little overwhelmed at first by everything they have to learn, so it’s essential to have an effective and efficient training system in place. Read on to learn about the two-step approach to training we recommend.

How to Train New Employees

Have you ever started a new job with a large company where you had to watch training videos, complete written exercises, and shadow a co-worker before you were allowed to start working on your own? While many small businesses adopt more informal training practices for their new employees in the name of efficiency, the larger companies actually have the right idea when it comes to multi-faceted approaches to learning.

See, many companies provide multiple types of training because people learn differently—and while a hands-on activity where you get to practice what you’ll actually be doing might be more helpful for you, someone else might learn how to complete the task better if they first spend some time reading about it or watching a video where someone else does the activity. So while going through the same lessons in multiple formats might seem a little repetitive, it’s actually a good way to make sure that everyone has access to the learning format that’s most useful for them.

Because you’re running a pretty small business and you’re still in the early stages of building your team, we recommend taking an approach that falls somewhere in the middle of a large company’s multi-faceted training methods and a small business’s informal approach. The best way to train new employees for your food truck is to use a combination of written learning materials and hands-on training.

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Remember when we divided the lessons your new employees need to learn into two categories above? Coincidentally, the items in these two categories also lend themselves well to these two different learning styles.

Here’s when you should use each one:

When to Use Written Learning Materials

Written learning materials are the best way to present information that employees should memorize, such as the ingredients in various menu items, the health code procedures they need to follow each day, and where your truck is and isn’t allowed to park. It’s important to have this information written down so that your employees can really take the time to study it and memorize the details—and so that they’ll have something to refer back to if they have trouble recalling the information later on.

Prepare individual training packets for each new employee with worksheets or informational pages that list all of the important details they need to know. These don’t need to be anything too fancy; a simple folder with some pages you printed off at home will do. Let each employee take his or her packet home to study.

To make sure your employees have really studied the information and learned what they need to know, you should:

  • Ask the trainee questions. This can be done as an informal conversation where you ask a few questions about information in the learning packet to make sure they really read it, or you can give a written quiz and grade the new employee on how many questions he or she gets correct. You can let trainees know ahead of time that they’ll be quizzed or make it a pop quiz—just make sure to test their knowledge in some way or form.
  • Encourage the trainee to ask questions. Your new employees should almost certainly have a few questions after they’ve finished reading through the informative training materials. Let them know that they’ll be able to ask plenty of questions after they’re done reading so that they can make notes while they’re studying.
  • Prepare worksheets or other learning aids to help them absorb the information. If you really want to make sure the information in your training packet is easy to digest, you can prepare worksheets, checklists, or charts to help your trainees learn everything they need to know. Though putting these assets together takes a bit of extra time, the benefits of doing so can have real long-term benefits to your team’s knowledge and performance.

Once your new team members have studied all of the written materials, make sure that the information is also easily accessible on your truck. Put together separate binders, signs, or even posters with relevant information and store them in places on the truck that are easy to find.

For instance, you should have a copy of your truck’s schedule and sheets with information on your catering services and weekly promotions located somewhere near the ordering window (where customers are most likely to request these details). Keep a binder with health code procedures and allergen information on a shelf or in a drawer somewhere in the kitchen.

Make sure that employees know where to go to find the information they need whenever they have a question. Finally, post a list of emergency contact information somewhere near the truck’s register—including your personal cell phone number so that your team can always get ahold of you.

When to Use Hands-On Training

While lots of information is best presented in a written format, some aspects of your food truck’s operations are best learned through a hands-on approach. Food trucks are very active businesses, and your new employees need to be able to handle a fast-paced environment. With that in mind, we recommend looking for people who are quick learners and able to perform a variety of tasks comfortably when you first hire new employees.

After you’ve introduced your new employees to your truck’s culture and some of the standard procedures and guidelines that define your daily operations, it’s time to dig in to the meaty part of running a food truck—preparing meals, ringing up sales, and keeping the truck clean and pristine. This is where the hands-on training comes in. Though it can be helpful to prepare written protocols for some of these procedures in the long run, for now, it’s most effective to have your new employees spend some time working one-on-one with you or another experienced team member who can show them the ropes.

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Here are a few principles to keep in mind when you’re offering hands-on training:

  • Show the trainee each step thoroughly. Once you’ve done something hundreds of times on your own, it’s incredibly easy to gloss over steps that won’t be obvious to a new employee. If decorating a cupcake requires using a particular frosting tip, make sure to show the trainee where they can find all of the tools they need.
  • Encourage the trainee to ask questions. Questions during a hands-on training session should be encouraged, and if your trainee isn’t asking them, all of the information might not be sinking in. Let the new employee know that you’re happy to go over anything twice or more until they fully understand each step of the procedure.
  • Have the trainee watch you first and then do the task on his or her own. During each new procedure, the trainee should first watch as you complete the task and then perform the task on his or her own while you watch and offer feedback. Make sure to stay positive—let new employees know when they’ve done a good job, and kindly point out where there’s still room for improvement or greater efficiency.
  • Schedule training sessions on a day your truck is closed or during a slow time. Training someone during a busy lunch rush or while you’re working at a hectic event is a bad idea. You won’t have time to give your trainee the attention he or she needs, and the trainee will likely be too overwhelmed by everything that’s going on to really absorb the information. Schedule training for times when things will be a little more relaxed.
  • Wait awhile before scheduling trainees on their own. Don’t send new employees out into the wild by themselves until they’ve already worked at least two month’s worth of shifts with you or another experienced team member by their sides.

The goal of hands-on training is to give new employees a true taste of what running a food truck is really like. Make sure to make the training session as realistic and thorough as possible. And remember—it’s okay to have fun with it, too! There’s a lot your new employees need to learn in order to be able to operate the truck successfully, but at the end of the day, running a food truck is an incredibly fun and rewarding experience—and it’s something that everyone on your team should enjoy.

Hitting the Streets

It’s tough to underestimate the value that a team of great employees can bring to your new food truck. The right people can make your schedule easier, your life less stressful, and your days a whole lot more enjoyable! And when your new team members see that you’re all in this journey together, they’ll be more motivated to do their best work and to make your food truck a success.

Coming up next week, we move on to another tasty topic that’s guaranteed to make your customers even more excited to enjoy their delicious meals. We’ll be talking about plating and presentation and showing you a few simple ways to make your awesome lunches look even more appetizing!

Until then, be sure to tell us what lessons you’re looking forward to most in the “How to Run a Food Truck” series! Connect with us on Facebook or Twitter and tell us how we can help you make your food truck business even better.

image by U.S. Naval Forces Central Command/U.S. Fifth Fleet

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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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