How to Open a Food Truck
If you, like us, have ever sat around and daydreamed about opening a food truck—waffles, burritos, waffle-burritios—Howard Hsu gets it. After years of perfecting smoked meat recipes at home, he and his sister opened one of the first food trucks in Atlanta, Sweet Auburn Barbecue, and went on to launch the Atlanta Food Truck Park & Market, a three-acre permanent food truck park.
“Being a food truck operator can be lots of fun,” Hsu says. “Rather than serving food in the same place every day, I enjoy getting to serve people in a variety of locations, like concerts, festivals, parties, special celebrations and more. Even serving the corporate lunch crowd is fun because ordering food from a food truck is often a new experience for many customers. It’s fun to see their excitement when they enjoy great BBQ from a small, mobile kitchen.”
But, he continues, “there’s lots of planning that goes into [launching and] operating a food truck.” Often, Hsu—and hundreds of other food truck owners across the country—work 12-hour-long days, in hot conditions. He's running not only a kitchen, after all, but also a moving vehicle.
It can be fun and rewarding work, however, and can leave you more nimble to experiment than if you owned a traditional restaurant. If you’re up for the tough task, here are Hsu’s top tips for getting started:
1. Get experience in a restaurant that doesn’t move.
Before Hsu opened Sweet Auburn Barbecue with his sister, he worked in his parents’ restaurants as a server and cook, Hsu says. (And as adults, the duo spent their spare time in their home kitchens, experimenting with recipes for smoked meats.) “Work in a restaurant kitchen and learn how to cook, run a kitchen, and take care of equipment,” Hsu advises before you think about going mobile.
2. Start budgeting now.
“The sooner you start looking into buying a preexisting food truck or building out your own truck, the more qualified of a decision you will make,” Hsu says. In fact, he says, “food trucks come in all sizes and prices, from $10,000 to $200,000. And your purchase will be based on your business model, menu, and budget.”
3. Research the other food trucks in your market.
No matter the restaurant you plan to build, you should always scope out the competition before launch. “Make sure there aren’t other concepts that are similar to yours,” Hsu advises. Plus, you can use your research time to network. “Food truck events are limited, and you usually see the same trucks at these events,” Hsu says. “This helps you know your peers—food truck owners are a community.”
4. Learn the permitting process.
Every city will have different rules and regulations regarding food trucks. For example, “when we started our food truck [in 2012], Atlanta didn’t have an established permitting process because the food truck idea was so new,” says Hsu. “It was very challenging, but we were able to secure permits and open up shop.”
5. Have an exit strategy.
Of course, you will hope and strive for success. But Hsu warns, “the food truck business is tough and not for everyone. As in any business, have a backup plan or a plan of how to shift directions in your career once you achieve your goals of being a food truck owner.” (Maybe putting down roots, literally, could work for you, instead.)