So You Want to Start a Food Truck

Owners share tricks of the mobile-kitchen trade

So You Want to Start a Food Truck
B FRESH Photography
Sassy Spoon's Tamara Brown and and her chicken salad. Take the tours: Tot Boss and Sassy Spoon: New Food Tuck PreviewTwin City Food Trucks: The Tour

While the phrase "So you want to start a food truck?" may sound like the title of the latest half-cocked Food Network reality show, it's also a legitimate question being mulled over by every kind of food enthusiast, from the professional chef looking to expand his business to the skilled home cook with some start-up money and the ability to make a mean sausage/meatball/hot pocket. As a business plan, the concept seems simple: Have a great product, put it on wheels, and deliver it to droves of hungry customers. But owning and operating a mobile kitchen is a complicated undertaking that presents a unique set of challenges. There are permits to obtain and space issues to consider (both inside the truck and in the increasingly crowded marketplace), and you're always one hailstorm or engine malfunction away from losing an entire day's business.

Despite the obvious drawbacks, more than a dozen new trucks will join the Twin Cities' mobile food fleet this spring and summer. Popular Kingfield Farmers Market vendor Foxy Falafel recently added a truck, as did the fantastic Northeast hangout the Anchor Fish and Chips. Brand-new trucks like Tot Boss (finally, an entirely tater-tot-centric eatery); Bloomy's Classic, serving tender roast beef sandwiches; and Asian dumpling vendor Golden Tummy are among those throwing their hairnets into the ring this season, and new trucks seem to be announcing themselves on Twitter every day. So what is it that's driving them? And how have the successful ones managed to get and stay that way? We talked with both new and well-established food truck owners about the meteoric development of this food trend and how they navigate this sometimes cutthroat business. So, if you've been dreaming about running your own food truck, here's a little advice from the pros about the lessons they've learned and the pitfalls to avoid before you take the leap.

Lesson No. 1: It All Starts with the Money

Before you can even think about shopping around for exactly the right bun for your sliders, you'll face the daunting tasks of securing funding and finding a vehicle that will fit your needs. For many new food trucks, the first step before hitting the streets is campaigning on Kickstarter, an online community-based platform for funding creative projects. Even with the help of a sizable loan (close to $36,000) from the local nonprofit Women Venture, Aussie's Kebabs owner Chris Millner still needed about $3,000 for a down payment on a truck. The Kickstarter community proved very supportive, and backers actually exceeded Millner's goal by about $130.

Pledges for Millner's project started at a mere $5, though most chipped in at the $100 level, for which Millner offered a free kebab, T-shirt, personalized magnet, and the name of the backer and his or her city printed right on the trailer. Millner is hoping for a roll-out close to May.

Another new kid on the block, Neal Lenzmeier, owner of Neato's Burgers, a truck specializing in duck-fat fries, drive-in-style burgers, and small-batch craft ice cream, took a more traditional approach to fundraising. "We went about getting funding from a number of private investors so that we wouldn't have to take out loans just to pay back other bank loans," Lenzmeier says. "Even after six months of research and writing, we went about $6,000 over budget." Soon after, Lenzmeier and his business partner, Tony Gutierrez, found a truck in Ely that would fit their needs, but it was bare-bones. "We had to install the flooring, water tanks, and plumbing ourselves," Lenzmeier says. "We purchased and installed a griddle, fryer, stainless walls, and the sink, and then hired a company to install the exhaust hood. So that was a lot of work we did ourselves, but we managed to do the entire truck for under $40,000, and from what we understand, that's really inexpensive."

Budget is, of course, relative to the scale of your project, but of the truck owners I interviewed about start-up costs, 40 grand was indeed at the low end of the spectrum. Owners' initial costs averaged about $60,000, and all did some renovation work themselves. Several truck owners, including Tamara Brown, owner of Sassy Spoon, sought out the services of Chameleon Concessions, a Plymouth-based company offering hands-on services for food carts, concession trailers, and food trucks. "I started my whole project with a lot of online research and searching of 'food trucks for sale.' Since every state has different kitchen regulations for food trucks, I was wary of purchasing one that was already built out in another state, so I decided to search Craigslist for an empty truck," says Brown. "After a few months of looking, I found an empty, cheap, 2000 Aramark truck in Wisconsin. The body was in fine shape, but the mechanics needed some work. Mark Palm of Chameleon Concessions did the building out of the truck and since it was empty, we were able to customize the space."

But how do you know what you need in a truck? And where do you get equipment if you do decide to install it yourself? Lenzmeier and Gutierrez say you can do a lot with very little square footage. "We have maybe 50 and have a full-size sandwich cooler, freezer, 36-inch grill, and plenty of prep space. Our truck is on the larger side, and I've seen much smaller," says Lenzmeier. "We found and purchased most of the additional equipment we needed at Northern Restaurant Equipment, which is in West St. Paul. They have a huge inventory of used equipment and can order new equipment easily."

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My Voice Nation Help

If these folks can figure out how to tap into the market in the suburbs in a cooridinated way, there is definately demand that will support the additional trucks beyond what Mpls/StP can support... we love food truck food in the burbs too!!

Jason Dorweiler
Jason Dorweiler

This truck biz is getting out of hand. What is the count at now? 50 or so? Considering our winters and rainy days, its hard to imagine many of these trucks will survive and turn a profit. I do however, see how they will do good and take business from fast food chains, and benefit restaurants that also have a food truck to advertise and spread their name

David Weber
David Weber

Great article! I am excited to see all the amazing new food that is available on the streets of Minneapolis. If you need some help getting started with a food truck business, check out my book: