How to Start a Food Truck 02: Decide What You’ll Sell

Last week on “How to Start a Food Truck,” we explored the business model differences between food trucks and brick and mortar restaurants to help you decide which one best fits your vision for life and work. There’s nothing wrong with going the restaurant route, though we certainly have a special place in our hearts for food truck businesses. Assuming you’re keen to pursue (or at least learn more about starting) a food truck, let’s dig into this week’s topic—which is a little more fun and a lot more creative.

That’s right—it’s time to talk about how you make smart decisions regarding your food truck concept and menu!

Of course, deciding what you’ll sell is another of the biggest business decisions you’ll make. After all, your truck’s concept and your menu will singlehandedly attract most of your business. You won’t develop loyal fans simply by being a restaurant that’s conveniently located on wheels—you’ll build a passionate following by offering crazy-delicious food and something unique that customers can’t find anywhere else.

That said, coming up with a concept for your truck and planning your menu should be pretty easy—because it should be based on the food you’re passionate about making and the food you’re passionate about eating. When you’re truly in love with your concept, your care and commitment will shine through everything you prepare.

To get started, let’s think for a minute about why setting yourself apart from other trucks is so important.

Your Unique Selling Proposition

Ever heard of a unique selling proposition (USP)? It’s a marketing theory that was originally proposed in 1961 by Rosser Reeves, a game-changing ad executive whose professional accomplishments are said to serve as the inspiration for Don Draper of AMC’s “Mad Men.” In his book, “Reality in Advertising,” Reeves explained that ads should always focus on a company’s USP—the single quality or reason that makes your product different or better than your competitor’s. Reeves put this principle into practice in all of his advertisements, including one of the most famous slogans he ever created—”Melts in your mouth, not in your hand”—for M&M’s.

Your USP shouldn’t try to appeal to everyone. Instead, it should target your ideal customer: the fan who values freshness or fast service or low prices or healthy alternatives above all else. At its core, your USP describes who you are and what you stand for. In a way, it’s your Declaration of Independence, your manifesto, your fight song. It’s the one thing that will set your food truck apart from the 20 other trucks roaming your city’s streets at lunchtime.

There are tons of food trucks doing this the right way: Bacon Mania, where everything—even the brownies—is wrapped in or layered with bacon; Clean Street Food, a truck that cooks up nutritious, gourmet foods from fresh ingredients at street fare prices; and Waffle-icious, where the menu is all about delicious gourmet waffles topped with everything from Nutella to black forest ham and Havarti cheese. When customers hear about these trucks or see them parked on the street, they know exactly what they’ll get—and they know that they won’t find it anywhere else. Each of these trucks has a strong USP that appeals to people who want something different than the norm.

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How to Create a USP for Your Food Truck

The USP—or the concept that you come up with for your truck—is one of the key ingredients in your recipe to successful food truck ownership. You’ll be working with the USP and refining it a lot over the next several months, but for now, it’s simply important to come up with a solid idea with a supporting plan that’s as detailed as possible. So grab your favorite note-taking device and start those brain engines—we’re about to do some serious thinking!

1. Make a List of Everything You Want to Sell

First, let’s start by making a list of everything you could possibly be interested in selling. That’s right—we said everything. Now, some of you may already know exactly what your dream food truck would offer, but many of you are probably working with a more general picture of yourself cooking up delicious eats in a truck that can go around town and appear at events and catering gigs. No matter which point you’re at in the process, go ahead and make this list.

Include everything that you would enjoy preparing for hordes of loyal customers—gourmet hot dogs, tasty specialty cupcakes, meaty burgers, Asian-fusion tacos, gooey cinnamon rolls and pastries, healthy smoothies, or vegan alternatives to traditional meals. Remember that you can start a food truck that focuses on nearly any type of cuisine you want. You can experiment with something exotic and unique that no one else serves (like The Boba Truck, a specialty tea shop with flavors ranging from Japan barley green milk tea to Valencia orange zest black tea), or you can take a tried and true classic and do it super well (like Peanut Butter Bar, a truck that’s found a way to make plain old PB&J gourmet).

Now, take a closer look at everything you wrote down. Which items appeal to you the most? What kind of menu could you create from these main dishes and related sides? What will your signature dish be? Keep in mind that you’ll be cooking a lot of the same things over and over again for loyal fans who expect to enjoy the same quality and consistency each time they return. Make sure to choose something that you won’t get tired of preparing and that you know you can rock every time.

2. Connect the Dots

Next, analyze the items on your list and look for relationships and possible pairings between various menu concepts. You might not have noticed initially how well green smoothies and vegan black bean burgers could pair together, so this is the time to give consideration to some unexpected food relationships!

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How can you tie the various items on your prospective menu together? You can always take a page from Boardwalk Breakfast Empire, one of the teams that competed on Season 4 of “The Great Food Truck Race.” When we spoke with team member Ilene Winters a few months ago, she told us that when the Food Network originally changed their team’s name to Boardwalk Breakfast Empire, the teammates weren’t thrilled because they “didn’t want to be pigeonholed into having to cook breakfast.” However, she said, they quickly realized that they could “have an egg or a pancake in a dish to put something breakfast-related in everything.”

Though some of the ideas you came up with in step one might not seem related, see if there are any common threads or consistent ingredients that could tie them together. You never know what kind of fan-pleasing ideas you’ll come up with.

When you’re done connecting the dots, you should have a condensed list of amazing meal ideas that work well together AND, collectively, are rather niche. Keep the USP premise in mind—always.

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3. Analyze Your Competition

In some cases, you might come up with the perfect concept right away—but upon further investigation, you figure out that the awesome idea you had isn’t as unique as you first thought.

Research other food trucks and restaurants in your area to figure out what’s available and where customers can get foods that are similar to the cuisine you’re considering. See, in the food truck world, uniqueness is the name of the game. You’ve already got a leg up on local brick and mortar restaurants by offering something different than a sit-down dining experience, but you still need a way to set yourself apart from the other street vendors who are trying to attract customers from the same field of potential fans. If another food truck has a menu similar to the one you’re busy planning, start thinking about what you can do to make yours different.

However, don’t think that your truck has to be totally unique and one-of-a-kind. Even in an industry as new as the food truck industry, it’s not easy to come up with a truck concept that no one else has ever thought of before. Fortunately, you don’t have to. There’s a popular saying often attributed to Pablo Picasso: “Good artists copy; great artists steal.” That doesn’t mean you should rip off someone else’s idea—but it does mean that you should look at what others are doing and find ways to innovate on what they’ve already figured out. See what brick-and-mortar restaurants and other food trucks are doing and think about how you can make it better. That differentiator can become your USP.

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4. Consider the Logistics Involved

Once you’ve started to narrow down your idea list, it’s time to start thinking about the logistics involved with each serious contender. To determine whether or not a concept is viable, consider the following questions:

  • Can you prepare this type of food easily on a truck?
  • What kind of storage space will you need for the ingredients and necessary equipment?
  • Will you need additional room for cold storage?
  • How long will it take to prepare an average dish?
  • How many dishes can you reasonably expect to prepare at the same time?
  • What will the average meal cost to prepare—and how many meals will you need to sell to recoup your ingredient costs for a batch?
  • How long will most ingredients keep?

Keep in mind that simpler menus are easier to plan, execute, and promote. Fewer dishes on the menu means fewer ingredients to buy, fewer recipes to prepare, and fewer opportunities for something to go wrong. When your menu is focused around a few key items, you can focus all of your time and energy on making those signature dishes as magnificent and mouthwatering as possible.

Get Your Menu Rolling

Congratulations! Now that you’ve come up with a concept for your food truck and you have some ideas for the menu, you’re ready to move on to planning the food in a little more detail. Though your USP is what will attract customers to your truck in the first place, it’s ultimately the smaller details and your commitment to quality that will turn people into true fans who return for more again and again.

Visit us next week for Chapter 3 of the “How to Start a Food Truck” series. We’ll be talking about ingredients—where and when to buy them and how to choose high-quality goods. In the meantime, leave us a message on Facebook to let us know what food truck concepts you’re considering and to connect with other aspiring food truck owners!

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image by Sebastiaan ter Burg


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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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