With 1.829 million viewers tuning in to the latest season of Food Network’s, “The Great Food Truck Race,” America’s love affair with curbside cuisine is certainly in no danger of falling asleep at the wheel. Watching these urban gypsies dash from city to city raking in the dough is unquestionably excellent reality television. Or is it? The reality part, I mean.
Like many fans, I find myself intrigued with the idea of grilling and sautéing my way to fame and fortune on the open roads of America. But before jumping into the drivers’ seat, I checked into the nuts and bolts of the food truck business. Here’s what I found out.
For starters, like any business owner, a mobile food service operator must deal with a crockpot full of rules, regulations and potential pitfalls on a daily basis. So many in fact that the romanticized, road warrior version seen on television quickly begins to fade in the rearview mirror of stark business realities. Assuming the initial (up to $80,000) cost of the truck has been overcome, expect to deal with the following as a prerequisite to doing business in any city:
- Health Inspectors
- Licensing and Insurances
- Parking Tickets
Food truck laws vary from state to state, but permitting and compliance with local Health Departments are a given no matter what city you roll in to. To ease the way, savvy operators know to have a full set of plans and vehicle schematics onboard. These should detail the placement and system specifications of such things as potable water and wastewater tanks, water heaters, refrigeration, cooking and hot holding equipment, etc., etc., ad nauseum. In order to literally avoid trouble down the road, if purchasing a used truck, make sure a complete health inspections compliance paperwork package comes with it. Also be aware that in some cities it is illegal to prepare food in a truck, period. Which brings us to the next item on the list.
What the heck is a Commissary? Good question. In the food truck world, a Commissary is a Health Department regulated business where your mobile restaurant is required to be parked when not in use. Ostensibly, this maintains an unbroken chain of Health Department oversight on your vehicle. For a hefty fee, up to $1500 a month in some places, truck owners gain access to Commissary refrigeration, commercial prep kitchens, propane, and other industry-specific supplies. This represents a significant added cost of doing business and is definitely something not seen in the glamorous world of TV trucking.
Licensing and Insurances:
Just like their larger, location-bound brick and mortar cousins, restaurants on wheels are required to purchase and display a city license and buy industry-appropriate business insurance. As a mobile merchant, you should also expect to maintain a $1,000,000 vehicle coverage policy. Don’t forget to include a rider provision allowing attachment of local Commissaries as an additionally insured. You never know when you might get carried away flambéing a recipe in their commercial kitchen facility and burn the joint to the ground.
Say what? TV truckers yak on the phone for 30 seconds and killer high-yield locations fall out of the sky for free. Barring that, they simply pull over at a spot that “looks good” and start slinging hash for cash, right? Wrong. In some cities, a parking ticket can set you back $1,000 dollars or more. That’s a lot of burgers. Smart operators take the time to learn about and comply with the oftentimes creative local ordinances governing where they can and cannot do business. Expect to spend at least a week slow-simmering while wading through this common obstacle to being a “newbie” in town.
Well, there you have it, folks. The food truck business deglamourized, fileted, and laid bare. Like the hardy, free-spirited pioneers that followed the chuck wagons over mountain, desert, and prairie to found a great nation, it’s not a career choice for everyone. But for those willing to roll up their sleeves and dig in with gusto, it might be one of the last truly great mom-and-pop businesses left in America.