With restaurant startup costs so high, more food entrepreneurs are looking to mobile businesses in order to avoid all the overhead costs of a brick-and-mortar. The rent is significantly cheaper, there’s not as much staff to pay or equipment to buy, and the owner doesn’t have to worry about maintaining a large indoor space. Wins all around. But is opening a food truck always the right answer? Serious Eats investigates this question.
For chef Charles Kelsey in Cambridge, Massachusetts, it actually made more sense to invest in a storefront. While he assumed his sandwich truck idea back in 2009 was a golden one, there were too many bureaucratic obstacles in his way. "It was a freaking nightmare," he said about trying to score a parking space and permit in the Kendall Square neighborhood of Boston.
Even after securing more than 20 recommendation letters from local business owners and influential residents, he eventually gave up and opened up a small sandwich shop called Cutty’s in Brookline, Massachusetts. With business booming, this was the right choice for Kelsey. And depending on what city you’re in, and what mobile food laws exist there, it might be the better option for your business, too.
For Doug Quint, on the other hand, the truck made more sense. He and his partner Bryan Petroff launched the Big Gay Ice Cream Truck in New York City during the summer of 2009, adding their own spin to Mister Softee soft-serve with toppings like crushed wasabi peas and sea salt with olive oil. Over the past two years, they’ve attracted a cone-loving cult following. Expansion was the obvious next step. But rather than add on another truck, they decided to sign a lease on a brick-and-mortar space in the East Village.
Why, when the mobile business was clearly working out? And with real estate costs so much higher? Because they were tired of operating out of a sliver of a kitchen. With the brand growing and a cookbook in the works, Petroff and Quint wanted more counter space to experiment with caramel and chocolate sauces, floats, shakes and ice cream sandwiches. While the truck is limited to vanilla and chocolate soft-serve, Quint and Petroff are quite the flavor mad scientists at home, and want to finally share more exciting flavors.
"Ultimately our goal is to have our own homemade product line available for sale," said Petroff, "including hard packed ice creams and sundae toppings.” This just wasn’t possible in the truck, but then again, the truck is what made the storefront a reality in the first place.
Weather is another major concern to consider. Unless you have an extended roof to cover the customers waiting in line or those seated in the surrounding area, rain and snow will hurt, if not kill, business. Even wind will keep most hungry folks inside.
"One of the biggest challenges of a mobile business is the inability to efficiently react to bigger problems," said Josh Henderson of Skillet Street Food based in Seattle. Weather is one thing, but what if you run out of propane? Restaurants can address these issues and usually get back on track. For food trucks, you're done. You just lost a day of revenue. And sometimes it's hard to get the momentum back after.
Three things to consider before jumping into street food business
1. Location, location, location
How easy is it to nail down a street food permit in your city? Is there a limited number of them? Talk to other vendors about how they went about acquiring theirs. What are the street vending laws like in your city?
How many months of the year will you be able to set up outside? How many days will people want to leave their homes and offices to go outside for street food? Is it enough to sustain the business? Will customers want to eat your food year-round? How will shaved ice do in December? And piping hot bowls of ramen in July?
Can you equip the truck (or bus, trailer, van, cart, etc) with the appropriate burners, deep-fryers and other required kitchen tools for the food preparation? Does it make more sense to look for a permanent kitchen space that's already outfitted? How much will repairs, hypothetically, cost?