The Essential Guide to Getting Started with a Food Truck Business


In recent years, the popularity of food trucks has skyrocketed, driven by a shift in consumer preferences. With over 4,000 food trucks in the United States alone, according to IBISWorld, and a yearly revenue growth rate of 7.9%, there is a strong demand for high-quality, affordable food that food trucks are uniquely positioned to provide. Moreover, starting a food truck business is a more cost-effective option compared to opening a traditional restaurant. If you’ve always dreamed of owning your own food truck, this guide will give you the essential steps to get started on the right track.

how to start a food truck

Getting Started: A Checklist for Starting a Food Truck Business

Researching Your Target Market and Competitors

To understand the preferences and behaviors of your target market, thoroughly research the competition in your area and uncover opportunities for your food truck business. Conduct a SWOT analysis to identify the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats of your food truck.

Creating a Business Plan

Your business plan is the foundation of your food truck business. Clearly outline your goals, objectives, and the strategies you will implement to achieve them. A well-crafted business plan will keep you focused as you launch and grow your venture.

Determining Costs and Securing Financing

Startup costs for a food truck business include purchasing a truck, kitchen equipment, and customizing the interior. Most entrepreneurs seek funding through commercial loans or investors.

Obtaining Licenses and Permits

Operating a food truck requires obtaining the necessary permits and complying with local, state, and federal regulations. These may include permits for food safety, zoning and parking, commercial permits, and other licenses. Familiarize yourself with the common business laws in your area to avoid any legal delays.

Purchasing Your Food Truck and Equipment

Buying a truck and essential cooking equipment is a significant part of your startup costs. To reduce initial expenses, you may consider renting a truck to test the waters or purchasing a trailer as a more affordable alternative.

Creating a Streamlined Menu

With limited space for food preparation, your menu should consist of a few key products that can be easily cooked or prepared in a small space. Make sure your items can be made in advance or quickly cooked, as customers will be waiting outside your truck while you cook.

Investing in the Right Technology

To ensure seamless transactions with customers, invest in a secure payment system that is fast and reliable. Additionally, consider incorporating technology to assist with reporting and operations. Square’s Point of Sale system offers inventory control and reporting capabilities to help you manage and grow your business.

Establishing a Marketing Plan

Make sure you reach your audience wherever and whenever you park your truck. Start with a visually appealing truck design that grabs attention on the streets and communicates your concept. Then, create a marketing plan for your business and allocate a budget.

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coffee and food truck

Identifying and Creating a Food Truck Concept

To ensure an interesting menu, it is crucial to establish a clear concept since food truck menus are limited. Successful food trucks often choose specialized concepts that offer a unique twist on a common cuisine or something completely innovative. Combining different cuisines has also proven to be popular. For example, the food truck revolution began with Roy Choi’s Kogi, which introduced a new type of food—Korean tacos.

To come up with a concept, start brainstorming. Consider the type of food you enjoy, your specialties, and what you can easily produce within the limitations of a food truck. Once you have some concepts in mind, test them in the market.

Analyzing Your Target Market

The primary food truck customers are young adults and parents with children. Gain insights into their eating habits, preferred payment methods, and communication preferences. Conduct surveys to determine which types of food trucks your target customers frequent and identify what they believe is missing from the current food truck scene.

Studying Your Competitors

Understanding your competition is vital in defining your concept. Determine if there is a demand for a donut-specialized food truck in your area or if the mobile Thai food market is already saturated. Research how much other food trucks charge for their items and learn from their marketing strategies, successes, and failures.

Conducting a SWOT Analysis to Assess the Industry

Performing a SWOT analysis will help you evaluate the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and potential threats of your food truck business. Ask yourself specific questions in each category to gain insight into your competitive advantage. These answers will form the foundation of a new strategy to maximize profits and increase sales. Once you have thoroughly researched and decided on your final concept, you will be ready to write a comprehensive business plan. This process will help you better understand how you want to operate and further refine your concept.

How Much Does it Cost to Start a Food Truck?

To begin your food truck journey, you will need to purchase the truck itself and any equipment required for cooking your menu. The cost of the truck alone can range from $50,000 to $60,000 or more, depending on factors such as size, age, and necessary upgrades or modifications to meet requirements. The cost of kitchen equipment will vary based on quality and whether it is new or used.

Building or Buying a Food Truck

The financing options available to you will help determine whether it makes more sense to build a truck from scratch or buy a used one. If you have enough capital, you can fully finance a custom food truck from the start and expect to recoup your profits over time. However, many business owners cannot generate that amount of cash upfront, which is completely normal. Starting by purchasing or even renting a truck may be a more feasible option.

You can apply for a business loan from a bank to cover the initial costs and repay it over time. Another option is seeking investments from friends and family through a capital-raising round.

Licenses and Permits Needed for a Food Truck

Licenses and permits requirements vary based on your location. Generally, you need to be aware of food handling regulations, health permits, parking permits, and any other necessary commercial permits to operate.

Obtaining a health permit for your truck is one of the first steps to ensure your operations are legal. Additionally, be aware that you may need to renew your permits based on local area regulations.

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Since your business is mobile, you also need to consider parking permits. All towns, cities, and counties have zoning restrictions that differentiate commercial and non-commercial zones. As you operate a commercial business, you can’t park just anywhere.

Each city and state have specific requirements for parking permits that must be met. Information on where you can and cannot park should be available from your county clerk’s office. Conducting research in advance will help you avoid penalties. For more information about permits in major cities across the United States, refer to a report by the United States Chamber of Commerce Foundation.

Additionally, you will need general business permits or licenses to operate your business legally. This may include registering your business with the IRS, selecting a business entity, and applying for any necessary patents.

Food Safety Considerations for Food Trucks

Many of the same food safety requirements for restaurants also apply to food trucks. These include staff training, emphasizing employee hygiene, monitoring food temperature control, evaluating expiration dates, being aware of potential contamination, emphasizing sanitation, proper waste storage, and maintaining operational records.

Managing Operations and Supplies for Your Food Truck

To effectively manage the daily operations of your food truck, you need the right technology, personnel, and inventory control capabilities to meet your business requirements.

Accepting Payments

Ensuring your customers can pay you in any way they prefer is crucial to never missing a sale. This means you need a payment system that accepts not only cash but also credit cards and mobile payments.

Look for a payment processor that is easy to set up with transparent pricing. Pay attention to how soon you can expect to receive funds in your account. The faster you receive those deposits, the healthier your cash flow.

Since you will be accepting payments in your food truck, you also need to adhere to the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) and ensure that your payment system is PCI compliant.

Keep in mind that PCI compliance fees and annual maintenance fees can range from $1,000 to over $50,000, which might be costly for a new business owner. Square ensures your business is PCI compliant while providing security against payment disputes, fraud, and account takeover.

Point of Sale (POS) System for Food Trucks

When selecting a POS system for your food truck, consider that complex systems can be stressful to use during peak hours. You need a system that can be set up quickly and operated easily.

Square’s Point of Sale system is specifically designed to efficiently get your business up and running. You can easily customize your item grid and category page to match your food truck’s menu. When customers pay, they can choose receipt options as well as tipping amounts within the mobile POS software. You also have the option to split a bill if customers want to use multiple credit cards for their meal.

After the payment is processed, you can access your Square Dashboard to review sales, gain real-time business insights, and make smarter decisions.

Controlling Food Truck Inventory

Running out of an ingredient midway through a shift is every food truck owner’s nightmare. That is why it’s crucial to know how much food you have, how much you need to take with you when you’re on the road, and when to order more. This process of monitoring and controlling purchased materials is called inventory control.

Square’s robust POS software includes free inventory control software, enabling you to manage your inventory in real-time. This means you can see how much stock you have at any given time and receive customized alerts when a specific ingredient is running low.

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Employee Management in Your Food Truck Business

Unless you’re comfortable working alone, you will need to hire capable staff to help keep everything running smoothly.

Your staffing needs depend on the type of business you want to run and your order volume. Consider your budget and space limitations when determining how much staff you can afford.

When calculating your staff budget, take into account the federal and state minimum wages where you operate. Line staff typically earn around $15 per hour, while a manager may earn between $20 and $22.

After hiring employees and providing them with appropriate training on the cash register and other business operations, consider implementing a technological solution that can help you manage your staff members.

Square offers an employee management software that seamlessly integrates with the POS system. With it, employees can clock in and out within the POS system, allowing you to optimize scheduling and keep track of overtime. You can also view sales breakdowns by employee to monitor your team’s performance.

You can integrate these timecard records with Square Payroll to automate the payroll process and save time.

marketing a food truck

Promoting Your Food Truck

Just like any other business, actively promoting your food truck is crucial in attracting long queues. Here are some tactics you should employ to get started:

Incorporate User-Generated Content (UGC) on Your Menu

One of your best marketing tools is already at the heart of your business: your food. Including visually appealing and appetizing items on your menu promotes online excitement for your business. The goal is to have people share pictures of your food, potentially making their posts go viral and driving customers to your truck.

Prioritize Social Media Usage

Some of the most successful food truck owners leverage social media to create buzz around their businesses.

Utilize various social media platforms to keep your followers informed of your location and engage with them. Twitter, in particular, is highly useful for this purpose. Don’t forget to create an Instagram account to showcase your products, along with any special offers or fun news you want to share with customers.

Create a Website

Having a website that reflects the spirit of your business is essential. You can create one yourself using online tools or outsource it for a more professional look. Be sure to include your phone number so people can call to find out your location.

Set Up Review Pages

Make sure your website is included on popular online review platforms, such as Yelp and Google Reviews. Your business accounts should feature photos, operating hours, typical locations, and price range. Encourage customers to leave reviews on these platforms to build positive brand recognition.

Invest Time in Public Relations

Another way to generate excitement is by reaching out to influential food bloggers. Look for bloggers with a significant following in your area and invite them to visit your truck. While it might be worth offering a complimentary meal, this expense will be much cheaper than the free marketing you’ll receive if they blog about your food.

Don’t Forget About Promotions

Offering coupons or discounts for your grand opening or special events, like “Taco Tuesdays,” based on your cuisine, attracts customers and boosts business.

How Much Do Food Trucks Make?

According to Food Truck Empire, 34% of food trucks generate gross revenues between $100,000 and $149,999. Additionally, 30% earn between $150,000 and $199,000.

To gauge the profitability of your food truck, conduct a break-even analysis and continually analyze your cash flow. Pay close attention to labor costs, food costs, permits, and other operational expenses.

A financial analysis is another valuable tool for assessing the long-term viability, stability, and profitability of your business.

How Much Should You Pay Yourself as a Food Truck Owner?

Whether you pay yourself a salary or take an owner’s draw, it’s crucial to be aware of your business’s financial obligations and ensure you have enough to cover those bills.

When paying yourself a salary, determine a fixed amount to pay yourself on a regular basis. Make sure this amount is sustainable for your business in the long run. When you pay yourself through an owner’s draw, you have more flexibility. You don’t have to adhere to a set amount or schedule.

Please note that this article is for educational purposes only. For financial or legal advice related to your specific business, be sure to consult with a professional.