So You Want to Start a Food Truck

Owners share tricks of the mobile-kitchen trade

Lenzmeier recommends you buy a new hood for your range. "Just so that you know it's new and will meet the NSF [National Sanitation Foundation] standards. We got ours online from a company in Georgia that builds them to order, but after you have your food license, you can open an account at Restaurant Depot, and they have equipment there." Restaurant Depot is also where many of the truck owners buy the packaging for serving their food.

So there are a number of ways to raise the money for your project, but each method carries risks. And just like with a home improvement project, you can keep your costs down by buying a fixer-upper and doing the work yourself. But be honest: Do you know how to install plumbing and water tanks in a truck or trailer kitchen? It might be worth seeking a little professional assistance.

Lesson No. 2: Find Your Niche

Capital is obviously important, but without the right product to sling you won't have much luck finding an audience. This tenet of the business was obvious to Brown, who is a trained nutritionist, when she came up with the concept of the Sassy Spoon. She noticed that with all the doughnuts, sandwiches, and piles of mac and cheese, foodies with celiac disease or gluten intolerance didn't have a lot of options in food-truck fare. "I'm sensitive to gluten myself, and even for people without a gluten allergy, reducing the amount of gluten consumed on a daily basis has health benefits. I want to provide options for people looking for gluten-free food," says Brown. "It's about more than just leaving off the bread." Whether you're eating her buttery cauliflower mash and rich braised beef or her fiber-rich wild rice salad with spinach, dried cherries, and black beans, I doubt you'll be missing a piece of squishy white sandwich loaf.

The chimichurri chicken arepa from Holy Arepa
B FRESH Photography
The chimichurri chicken arepa from Holy Arepa

Gastrotruck owners Stephen Trojahn and Catherine Eckert wanted to operate their "gastropub on wheels" with a zero-waste philosophy, which includes a commitment to using the whole animal. "Absolutely everything on the animal gets used," says Eckert. Gastrotruck also uses environmentally sound serving cups and eating utensils. "It is more expensive," Eckert admits, "like close to five times more expensive to use this specific spork that can be recycled on site. But it's very important to us, and I hope it's important to our customers."

Their service is quick, but the prep and planning for their dishes is decidedly slow. Rolls from New French Bakery are made daily. Pork belly is sous vide for more than a day before getting crisped on the flattop and made into deliciously decadent sliders. Pickled onions, mustards, and cornichons are all homemade and jarred by hand.

When Lenzmeier and Gutierrez were developing the Neato's Burgers menu, the two St. Paul natives decided to carry the legacy of a local institution. "We had a loose idea of what we wanted to do," says Lenzmeier, "but when Porky's closed, we decided to pick up where they left off and do drive-in style burgers and shakes. We came up with our own recipes, and after trying different alternatives to boring old vegetable oil, duck fat was the best. It's actually healthier in a lot of ways than vegetable frying oil. Anyway, we just wanted to do burgers, fries, and shakes without preservatives and fillers. We have a slew of special burgers ready to roll out for the foodie crowd, too: elotes, green chile, Thai, Korean barbecue, stuff like that."

In sum, find a gap in the market and bring something new to the scene.

Lesson No. 3: Make Lots of Friends

Truck owners were reluctant to pinpoint any one factor as the "thing that can make or break your business," but each one underlined the importance of building relationships with other trucks as well as brick-and-mortar restaurants.

"In our first year, there was a huge learning curve," says Trojahn of Gastrotruck. "The 'original trucks' really helped to promote our business in St. Paul, so we found the competition to be not fierce, just mostly really supportive and trusting." Trojahn credits special gatherings like Food Truck Court in downtown St. Paul with maintaining that well-organized sense of community. "In Minneapolis it really is more competitive, due to stricter regulations. People end up circling the block to take other people's parking spots, which is perfectly legal, but yeah, it's more cutthroat on Nicollet Mall." Trojahn also spoke about the rumored backlash from brick-and-mortar restaurants. "We were sure to go and speak with restaurants in the area and make sure they knew we weren't a threat. I think with customers, you either want to go and have a sit-down meal or get something quick from a truck window. We're just sure to not park right in front of their place," Trojahn laughs.

Lenzmeier also noted the importance of communication and having good relationships with other trucks. "We heard horror stories from the trucks that did the parade route on St. Patrick's Day that were lined up together at Rice Park," he says. Lenzmeier explains that with so many options in such a small area, customers tended to spread out and thus none of the truck owners pulled in much cash. "We, on the other hand, parked farther away and ended up selling 130 pounds of meat and potatoes in five hours and were totally sold out," says Lenzmeier. "It really depends on if the 'target market' is out, and I think we're all trying to figure out what that is."

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