So You Want to Start a Food Truck

Owners share tricks of the mobile-kitchen trade

So this one is easy: Learn from the pros, and try not to step on toes.

Lesson No. 4: Go Where the Customers Are

Perhaps even more integral to the success of a truck is getting creative about where to connect with customers. This year brought some great opportunities for trucks seeking alternative venues, particularly at the newly opened local brewery taprooms. Both Gastrotruck and Hola Arepa have found success by parking outside Fulton Brewery, especially on Twins game days."We've seen a lot of growth in the food truck business in general," says Hola Arepa's Christina Nguyen. "So there's an increasing number of food trucks, but there's also more awareness and demand for them than there was before."

Neato's Burgers was keen to get the business of the late-night bar crowd. "We have an unofficial agreement with the Turf Club to be their food truck for larger shows. We asked their permission to serve during the Meat Puppets show, which was a great night for us," Lenzmeier says.

Tots Boss's Dan Docken
B FRESH Photography
Tots Boss's Dan Docken
Tots Boss's poutine tots
B FRESH Photography
Tots Boss's poutine tots

Aside from alternative venues, almost every truck owner said they would recommend setting sights on St. Paul, since the permits and laws about gathering as a group are much looser. For now. "The permits are difficult to obtain just like any other restaurant," Lenzmeier explains. "Minneapolis has some of the strictest health codes around, which translate into more expensive buildout for your truck. The zoning is also pretty strict for food trucks, so the area where we can operate is limited."

And again there are costs associated with that. An annual operating permit for a mobile food vendor in Minneapolis will run you $818, and before you can even get that, your food plan will have to be reviewed by the city, which costs another $359. "It was not very hard to get the permits at the city," says Hoa Nguyen of YumMi, a food truck that sells Vietnamese-style banh mi sandwiches. "But the upfront costs were definitely a burden, especially because certain kinds of permits are not prorated for the duration of their validity, which is April to through April. So if we have to get a new special permit in December, we would still have to pay the full fee. Another restriction we've experienced is that although our annual permit allows us to vend at a fixed spot in downtown, if there are events organized around our designated spot, we'd have to get an additional permit in order to operate where we usually are."

So read up, check with the city, read up, and check again, because it's easy to get nailed with fees if you don't have the right permits. It's the "measure twice, cut once" rule of food trucks. And if possible, get in good with all the breweries that are springing up. You know who likes quick, cheap food from a truck? People who are a few beers deep.

The hours are long, the spaces are limited, and the competition can be stiff, but the intense passion with which these businesses are run ensures that Twin Cities food trucks won't soon disappear from our streets. As these first-, second-, and third-year owners start looking at how they'll reinvent themselves to meet the challenges of another season, will you be joining their ranks?

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