Last Updated on April 11, 2022
The food truck business has become somewhat of a sensation. These restaurants-on-wheels travel to fairs and other special events to deliver delicious food. They’re often found at locations often where a permanent, brick-and-mortar restaurant doesn’t make sense.
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Although menus are limited compared to traditional restaurants, the success of food trucks is often based on the demand for a few, signature menu items. That and being at the right place at the right time. But all their success starts with a question you may be asking now. How do I start a food truck business?
Are food trucks profitable?
For some, a food truck provides a job with degrees of stability, flexibility, and adventure.
According to smallbizgenius, there are more than 24,000 active food trucks in the US, which employ approximately 30,000 people. In 2020, the food truck market size surpassed 1.2 billion dollars and the average annual growth rate (prior to COVID-19) was 7.5%.
Starting a food truck business costs about between $60,000 and $120,000. Approximately $25,000 to $30,000 of that cost is for permits, licenses, and legal fees. The remainder is for the truck and equipment. Yearly food truck revenue ranges from $250,000 to $500,000 so, as long as you keep overhead low, food trucks can be profitable!
The biggest inputs for operating costs are food and accessories, labor, truck fuel and maintenance, cooking equipment, and entrance/exhibition fees.
Getting a food truck
Gathering all the permits, licenses and other legal documents takes a little more than 30 days on average. That’s the fastest you can expect to get your food truck business up and running.
There are two ways of getting a food truck. You can either buy one or you can convert a truck, trailer, or bus.
Purchasing a truck is the fastest way to get started and it requires little DIY (do it yourself) capability.
Both new and used food trucks are available. Prices range greatly. Here are some price ranges for categories of used food trucks for model years 2010-2020:
- Bakery food trucks: $25,000-$50,000
- Coffee and beverage trucks: $30,000-$100,000
- Catering food trucks: $30,000-$130,000
- All-purpose food trucks: $30,000-$180,000
- Ice cream trucks: $40,000-$90,000
- BBQ food trucks: $80,000-$130,000
- Pizza food trucks: $80,000-$110,000
The size of the truck, the cooking equipment and customizations/decorations are what drive up the price. Some people go all out. One beautifully decorated ice cream truck was listed on UsedFoodTrucks.com at $337,000.
Food truck conversion
If you plan to convert your own food truck, you need to first start with the desired size. The vehicle needs to be large enough for all of your cooking equipment, food storage, and extra supplies. However, keeping the size as small as possible will help lower capital, fuel and maintenance costs, as well as aid in parking.
The most popular items needed for a food truck (depending on what you sell) are:
- Propane tank
You will also need plenty of storage space and a lot of ventilation.
Another way to think about storage, and space in general, for larger food trucks is how seating works inside. Some food trucks, like ones that were formerly buses, can seat patrons on the interior. That’s the case with the food truck picture above. This feature is advantageous when dealing with unpleasant weather.
Cold and rainy days don’t have to prevent you from serving customers.
A shuttle bus makes for a great food truck conversion. There is plenty of interior space and little to remove, except for seats. Those are relatively easy to take out. Plenty of glass makes it easy to create an order window and a pick-up window without needing to cut metal. This also creates ventilation opportunities. And because shuttle buses are generally part of a commercial fleet, they’re often well-maintained.
If you do need to perform any metal cutting, use a Sharpie marker to outline cuts. Mark where all the equipment will be placed, as well as the location of any outlets and fixtures. Get exact dimensions of equipment. Carefully consider where everything will go, because there isn’t a lot of space and, once you start cutting, it costs much more to undo mistakes.
One of the toughest jobs is running the electrical wires from the generator—you can’t run cooking equipment off the truck’s power. Due to safety concerns, working with an electrician on this is wise.
Also be careful to read, understand, and adhere to fire codes. For example, some municipalities don’t allow propane tanks on food trucks. If you plan on using a propane tank, install a gas manifold and then connect it to the propane tank. The wall behind cooking equipment must be composed of “non-flammable” construction. Be careful with the placement of wood inside the cooking area.
If your food truck uses cooking equipment, you will need an oven hood, which exhausts smoke and heat through the roof of the truck. Check the codes and, again, professional assistance is advised.
When thinking about cooking equipment, weight is also a factor. Make sure the equipment weight doesn’t surpass the weight limit of the vehicle. Food trucks are made to be mobile! Some kitchen equipment can be very heavy, like a generator over propane tank. So make sure your food truck can handle what you put in.
Then install wall and ceiling panels. Insulate using Styrofoam. Complete both the sub-walls and exterior walls. Next, separate the driver’s area from the kitchen with another wall. Many food truckers recommend 100 percent stainless steel sheets for the exterior walls. Afterwards, place the floors.
Install the cooking equipment and cold food storage equipment per your design. Don’t forget about shelving and other storage spaces as well.
Customize the exterior to advertise and brand your business, attract customers, and distinguish yourself from the competition.
Finally, place all the cooking appliances, tools, and utensils in their appropriate spots.
Connecting with customers
Now that you have a functional and up-to-code food truck, you’ll need to sell food to make profit. And, to do that, you need to connect with customers.
Food trucks work differently from brick-and-mortar restaurants. Restaurants have a fixed location and try to attract a lot of people to it. Food trucks search for places with a lot of people and find a way to be there.
The most common venue for food trucks are fairs and festivals. Depending on the size and demand for space, there will be a fee for being able to set up at the event. For that reason you will need to price menu items accordingly.
Sometimes, an event isn’t needed to draw in a crowd. Other times, people flock to food truck fairs. These have gained popularity in recent years.
More great options include connecting with school boards to provide food on days the students have special events. You can also cater at larger corporate socials and private celebrations.
The goal is to sell enough meals to cover all expenses and pay yourself. Everything you make after that is gravy. If you’re thinking about getting started in the food trucking business, then what are you waiting for? Not sure where to start? Consider converting an ambulance, bus, or fire truck and get started now!