How to Start a Mobile Food Truck Business

Thursday, January 14, 2016 - 19:00
How to Start a Mobile Food Truck Business

Anyone who's had a food dream and toyed with setting up in the industry will know the overwhelming cost, risks and hard work involved in making a restaurant a reality.

However The UK's most exciting and fastest-growing food trend – street food – gives passionate people the chance to establish their food business at a fraction of the price and allows them to dream big by starting small. The UK street food industry - now worth £600 million - is growing at an impressive 20% per year and even has its own annual food awards! No longer the domain of the 'greasy burger van', food trucks offer the public fast, inexpensive gourmet food, the opportunity to experience new ethnic cuisines, and support entrepreneurs, small food businesses and local vendors. Unlike many other businesses, you can start a street food truck business for a very modest outlay, scaling up as demand for your product grows. Despite being unpredictable and competitive, the growth of the industry also means a new start-up can quickly generate hype and establish a profitable niche. For anything between £5,000 and £20,000 it's possible to set up a fully-functioning food truck and start selling to the public.

Choosing your cuisine

Street food exploded onto the British cuisine scene a few years ago and since then the concept of the 'moveable feast' has been growing apace. Thousands of street food vendors across the UK serve everything from Mexican, Thai and Korean food to Spanish tapas, American Barbecue and fusion food. You're really only limited by your imagination. Korrito, for example, is the brainchild of brother and sister team Sukho and Joo Lee and serves mouth-watering, authentic Korean BBQ in burritos, rice bowls and salad boxes at Kingston’s Ancient Market. Street food is about using fresh local ingredients to create popular and affordable dishes. Look at what other people are selling at your local food markets and festivals; your pulled pork buns might be top-notch but that won't count for much if you are competing with other food trucks selling the same fare. Don't over-commit either; street food trucks sell a limited selection of fast, gourmet offerings done well and what you can make and sell successfully will depend on the size and facilities of your street food vehicle.

Choosing your food truck

Most street food businesses are truly mobile and operate at established food markets, outdoor festivals and events and sometimes are hired for guests at private events. This also means that there is a wide variety of opportunities, business scales and sizes to suit. Resourceful street food vendors have created clever and interesting food trucks from carts, trailers and vans to camper vans and even fire engines. With a bit of research you can no doubt find a selection of viable mobile food trucks for sale. For under £5,000 you might get a small second hand catering trailer, while for up to £10,000 you might be able to find a second hand van or used food truck for sale or even a small refrigerated vehicle. For between £10,000 and £20,000 a new, larger trailer, van or a better quality second hand vehicle is attainable and for £20,000 to £50,000 you should be able to get a large new vehicle which has been converted for your needs. Caboose in Brick Lanein London, for example, was started by three friends in 2013 and operates out of a handmade custom-built traditional train carriage, serving gourmet burgers, slow-cooked applewood-smoked pork belly and hickory-smoked shredded beef short ribs. There are plenty of highly-convertible vehicles and trailers advertised online on places like eBay and Gumtree or specialised sites like Vintage Food Trucks. The Nationwide Caterers Association (NCASS) also has a section on its site dedicated to the sale of food trucks and equipment. Your finances and skills in out-fitting are going to determine whether you buy a custom-fit vehicle or one that can be easily adapted to become a food truck. In any case, you'll need to consider the layout, storage space and preparation room available before taking the plunge.

Kitting out your food truck

The equipment you will need depends on the style of food you're intending to cook and how much space you have in your food truck, but some important items to keep in mind are food and utensil storage, essential items like a fridge/freezer, a stove, grill or fryer, food preparation area, water heaters and tanks, waste disposal system, extractor fan and grease trap, electrical outlets and gas cylinders, sinks and washing areas. You are also going to need a mobile, flexible point of sale system (mPOS) when you are on the move.  A system like intelligentpos® runs on your iPad and handles everything from ordering and payments to tracking inventory. One of the big benefits of this system is that it works remotely, enabling food trucks operators to continue selling and operating even when the internet connection drops out. Any operations made without an established internet connection are stored locally, ready for upload to the cloud and viewable in real-time as soon as a connection is re-established. intelligentpos® also allows you to add a 3G router to ensure your data stays synced in real time even when you are not in Wi-Fi range and is securely stored on cloud based servers in PCI DSS compliant data centres.

Location, location, location

You might be ready to sell some of the best street food the country has ever seen, but unless you have a great location with lots of foot traffic, you're doomed to failure! Research here is key; food trucks operate at local markets, festivals and other events so look up and visit street food vendors near you. Some areas are better than others and get a lot more passing trade so it's important to check them out for yourself and talk to local vendors about their experiences. A big advantage of food trucks is their mobility so food festivals and events are a great way to reach new customers in areas of high foot-traffic. Events like the Real Food Festival, Urban Food Fest, Street Feast, Kerb, farmer's markets and food and drink festivals are all great places to start. Generally, all you need to do is contact the venue (well in advance) and pay a fee to arrange a spot for your truck. There are lots of websites that publish up-to-date lists on street food locations, events and mobile operators themselves, so consider registering with Street Food UK or Food Hawkers to get yourself on the map. British Street Food even has an app for hungry customers to locate their favourite street foods and vendors and the Nationwide Caterers Association lists locations and job opportunities for its street food-selling members.

Finding help with your business

Street food is a growing industry and there are plenty of places offering advice and support for anyone starting out. The Nationwide Caterers Association (NCASS) has more than 3000 mobile catering members and provides all the information, tools, discounts, training, advice, support and legislation updates needed to trade profitably, safely and legally. There is a membership fee, but NCASS also helps its members secure work and location opportunities. It also has an online street food training course for anyone serious about succeeding in the street food scene and a separate website dedicated to all things street food-related. Before you sell your first Báhn mì or gourmet burger you'll need a business plan, insurance, food hygiene and gas/electrical safety certificates. You'll need to register your business with your local authority, HM Revenue and Customs and undergo certification by an Environmental Health Officer. The UK Food Standards Agency has plenty of good information on its site to guide you through much of the process of starting up a mobile food business and all the legal requirements you need to meet.

Marketing your food truck business

Word-of-mouth and foot traffic are all good and well, but street food in the UK is a dynamic and popular cuisine culture and you'll need more than passing trade to make your mobile food truck a success. Consider joining professional associations and getting yourself listed on street food websites and blogs as a trader. When it comes to street food, social media is your best friend; it has huge reach and it's free, so it's a good idea to create accounts for your food truck business with Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and provide interesting content, pictures and, most importantly, let people know who you are, what you do, what your food ethos is and where you can be found. Popular food bloggers are another excellent source of good marketing; they are a trusted voice 'on the street' and are generally interested in trying and promoting new and interesting food offerings.

Lindsay McPhee