It's Not Like The Movies
First things first:
1.) Have you seen the movie Chef?
2.) Do you think running a food truck will be at all like the movie Chef?
If you haven’t seen the film, spoiler alert: It’s a montage of Jon Favreau chopping vegetables and screaming at people, then opening a successful food truck and reconnecting with his estranged family. This is how a significant chunk of the public will view your business.
Now, the point here isn’t that some people get carried away and think that movies are real, which may be true, but the point is that before you even file for your mobile food permits, you should start thinking about how you’re going to tell your own story in a way that people can relate to and get excited about.
People want to buy-in. People want to believe that what you’re doing with your life—running your own food truck—is more exciting than what they’re doing with theirs. So, give your customers what they want, and tell your story! Either that, or hold your breath until Sofia Vergara books some large, catered events for you.
When I was getting ready to open our first truck, I naively assumed that stuff would just work out. I thought, “Hey, I’m a hard worker and I’ve generally been good at other things in the past, so, of course I’ll know how to run a food truck when the time comes!” This is a wildly flawed approach to starting any business—let alone one with as many moving parts as a food truck. Running a food truck is a real business, and should be treated as such. Not only did I not know how to run a food truck, I didn’t even know what things I didn’t know. But, the good news is that while you won’t get any super powers, you won’t need any, either.
What you do need is practical, hands-on experience working in a mobile food business. For that, I recommend volunteering to work a few shifts on a well-established truck in your area before you even submit plans to the health department.
You will not, in all likelihood, get hit by a radioactive food truck and instantly have the ability to crank out 100 orders an hour, cover for the employee who no-call/no-showed, and maintain your social media presence all at once. But, if you get smart, get experienced, and forget the idea that things will just somehow, magically work out, you’ve got a good start towards a successful food truck business.
The Value of a Good Generator
The next time you’re stuck at a red light next to a Harley Davidson, roll your window down, get the rider’s attention, and try to explain your food truck concept. That’s basically what we had to do for the first 15 months of our food truck’s life, because our bargain basement generator was as loud as a motorcycle. We didn’t budget for a good, silent power source, and so we were stuck with the only one we could afford that was powerful enough to run our truck. We realized pretty quickly that this was costing us business.
We couldn’t serve cocktail hours at weddings, because nobody wanted to shout “I DO!” over 90 decibels of noise. We couldn’t sell at the farmers market that backed up to a residential subdivision, because our 5:30 AM call time woke the neighborhood. And, if another truck hadn’t let us borrow their silent generator, we would’ve missed out on the opportunity to serve at one of the biggest events of the year in Arizona—Comicon Phoenix.
There’s nothing wrong with keeping an affordable, powerful, reliable generator as a backup option. We’ve still got our old generator, and she never fails us in a pinch—even when it’s 120 degrees in Phoenix. But, our followers, crew members, and fellow food truckers all agreed that the only way to create the best possible experience for our guests was with a high quality, silent source of electricity. Your customers will thank you, and they won’t even have to shout.
So that’s what I wish I’d known: To differentiate our business by telling our story; to reality check myself by getting practical experience; and to put our business in a position to succeed by budgeting for a quieter generator.
The flipside to this is that there are plenty of things I’m glad I didn’t know—for example, the unique feeling of failure you can only get by prepping all day, showing up to an event, and then selling nine dollars’ worth of product—because those things very likely would’ve scared me off of the ride of a lifetime.
The frustrations and risks of running a food truck are real, and they’re not going anywhere. But if you go into business with a willingness to work hard and be honest with yourself, you’ll stick around long enough to find that the drawbacks pale in comparison to the feeling you get when somebody actually smiles as they see you showing up to work, and doing your thing.
Greg Golden left his accounting job in 2014 to start Mustache Pretzels—a Phoenix area food truck business featuring hand-rolled soft pretzels shaped like handlebar mustaches. Follow his food trucks’ adventures on Instagram at @mustachepretzels.