If you live in a city, you may wonder if it's time to quit your day job and join the legions of food truck owners you see around town. Instead of selling old standbys like Good Humor ice cream and hot dogs, the latest generation sells trendy fare and artisanal offerings.
Among the players in this space are Curbside Cupcakes in Washington, D.C.; Royitos, which sells breakfast tacos in Austin, Texas from an AirStream trailer; and Los Angeles-based Lardon, a truck that specializes in selling bacon dishes, like French toast stuffed with bacon.
You can launch a food truck business at a fraction of the price of starting a restaurant, but can you really make a decent living by jumping on this trend? To get the inside scoop, I spoke with Thomas DeGeest, a native of Belgium who worked at IBM as a management consultant before starting his successful New York City business Wafels and Dinges in a bright yellow truck.
DeGeest started planning the business, which sells Belgian waffles, add-on toppings and beverages, in January 2007 and launched it — using $80,000 in money from his 401(k) and IRA — by October of that year. Today, he employs 16 full-time workers on his truck and four carts. His team drives the truck to a variety of neighborhoods every week, announcing its schedule on the company's website and using Facebook and Twitter.
Here is an edited excerpt from our interview:
Q: What was the most surprising part of getting started?
A: It's probably 10 times as hard as most people imagine it to be. The part that people see is standing in a truck, making food, and having the money come in. There are a lot of background activities most people don't see. I probably spend 95 percent of my time running the business and have people working for me, doing the rest. What is hard is that you need to figure out when you're going to prep, when and where you are going to clean, and where you are going to store your food.
Planning the spots where you are going to park takes meticulous planning. You have to consider parking and food regulations — and other vendors who may be there. It's a tough business with a lot of tough characters. There's a school of people who have been working in this business for 25 years and they own this corner — or that's how they see it.
Q: How many hours a week do you work?
A: I probably spend 80 to 90 hours a week dealing with the business. I work very late to deal with the night shift. The biggest problems I have are on the night shift: making sure the cleaning and loading work the right way. You have to be able to do the gamut of activities, from fixing faucets to changing spark plugs. If you don't maintain your equipment meticulously, you're going to be off the street.
Q: How long did it take you to make a living?
A: Probably a year and a half. I had a hard time in the beginning with a lot of equipment failures. People who sink all their money into a truck are taking a huge risk. The biggest risk is your truck failing. From a risk management perspective, it's a really bad business to be in. If one thing breaks, which is your truck, you're done. Let's say you have a crash. You're out of business for a large number of weeks. It's not like you can build a new truck in a week. It's going to take you three to four months to build a new truck. Your truck is your life.
Q: How much money can someone reasonably expect to bring in from a food truck?
A: A good truck should make $1,000 a day (before expenses are subtracted). There are trucks that make significantly more. But if you don't make $1,000 per day, why are you putting all the time in?
Q: Looking back with 20-20 hindsight, would you do it all over again?
A: I'm very happy with what I'm building. I never looked at this as 'I'm going to run a food truck.' I looked at it as 'I am going to build a brand and a business.' The business can go in many directions, because the brand is very strong. I have a platform that people recognize, not only in New York, but across the country. I'm very happy. It's an outlet for my creativity and energy.
Elaine Pofeldt is an independent journalist specializing in entrepreneurship whose work has appeared in TheAtlantic.com, BNET, Crain's New York Business, CBS Moneywatch, Good Housekeeping, Inc., Working Mother and many other publications. A former senior editor of Fortune Small Business magazine and editor of its website, she does editorial consulting for online and print publications.