4.5 Lessons from 4.5 Years in the Food Truck Industry

We asked veteran food trucker Greg Golden—of Roaming Hunger’s most “Liked” truck in Arizona, Mustache Pretzels—to share some lessons from his years in the food truck business. Here’s what he came up with.

Hey friends! It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost four and a half years since Mustache Pretzels first opened its window to the unsuspecting public of Phoenix, Arizona. Here’s an incomplete, but sincere, attempt to share some of our hard-earned lessons:

Lesson #1: Work hard on the home front

It’s important to talk about the business; not only what the business will do—the concept, the menu, the plan, etc.—but what it will do to you.  

Aside from the obvious income disruption (which shouldn’t be downplayed, because that’s still really hard to deal with), starting Mustache Pretzels basically turned my schedule on its head.  I used to be home on nights and weekends, same as my wife; now I work almost every night and weekend, and she still works during the day.

I also gave next to no consideration to the emotional impact that starting a food truck would have on the home front.  If you’re being honest with yourself, your motivation for starting a food truck is probably, in some way, emotional.

We make decisions based on emotion—in my case, that I didn’t want to do another 40 years of accounting—and justify them with logic—in my case, that I truly believed I could build a scalable, sustainable business around mustache-shaped pretzels.

So, acknowledge from the outset that emotions are going to play a huge role in your life as a food truck owner, and take a few scenarios out for a test drive.  

Think about what it’ll be like to have to decline an invitation to dinner with friends from out of town because you have to prep for the next day’s shift.  Think about what it’ll be like when your significant other comes home from a crummy day at work, and instead of having dinner and a hug waiting for her, you’re stuck at a mechanic waiting for a replacement part to be installed.

But, you should also think about what it’ll feel like when a kid says, “This is the best pretzel EVER!  Mom, can I have this truck at my birthday?!”

Because the feelings aren’t all bad—it’s just that we’re prone to pretending that feelings don’t matter that much until they grab us by the shoulders and shake us up.

So if you’re thinking about starting a food truck, think about what it’ll mean to those around you—personally, logistically, and emotionally.

Lesson #2: Invest in your crew, then in your truck

Remember that scene in Apollo 13 where the astronauts are trying to figure out how to make a carbon dioxide filter out of a sock, a roll of duct tape, and some spare parts?  Just think about that for a minute.

These guys were in the most advanced vehicle ever built, and they still had to rely on their own ability to solve problems creatively.

Food trucking can feel a bit like that sometimes—except that you don’t get to call on a team of literal, actual rocket scientists every time a problem comes up.  

You get to work with your crew, in real time, to figure out how to keep a truck running, regardless of what comes up.

Invest money towards hiring experienced, flexible, responsible crew members who have been around the block a few times.  

And, make it clear from the outset that solving problems and providing feedback are part of the job description.

These are going to be the people closest to your business, day-in and day-out, and they can be an invaluable source of insight on any number of topics.  

Do everything you can to hire and retain competent staff. Our crew is amazing, and their collective ability to communicate and problem solve has made our business immeasurably better than it ever could’ve been without them.

That being said, it’s (obviously) important to have the right equipment and the right truck layout for your business to succeed.  

But I’ve seen more custom-built, expertly-designed, brand-new food trucks fail than I care to recall, and I’ve seen guys in 10’x10’ pop-tents do $1500 an hour without breaking a sweat.  

For more information about how much building a food truck costs, check out this resource: The Real Cost to Buy a Food Truck [2018 Edition]

Lesson #3: You need to listen to your customers

The idea behind Mustache Pretzels was always a pretty simple one—pretzels shaped like mustaches are fun.  But a good, simple idea is just the start to a successful food truck business. We needed to listen to clients, understand what their needs were, and figure out specifically how our truck could create value in the situations in which we were getting opportunities to serve.

The best customer feedback example from Mustache Pretzels comes from our early experiences with private event—and specifically, wedding—catering opportunities.   When I looked back at the first few dozen wedding inquiries we’d received, three things stood out:

  1. Nobody had any idea how many pretzels they’d need, but, everybody was worried about running out.
  2. Everybody wanted something simple to coordinate.
  3. Everybody wanted something memorable for their guests.

So we asked ourselves: What could we do to make our wedding packages simple for our hosts, fun for their guests, and predictable for our crew?

In the words of the great Rod Farva, “OPEN BAR, DUDE!

We began charging hourly for unlimited service on snack-sized Mustache Pretzels and dips.  

No more tracking individual servings.  No more uncertainty for the crew about what to do when the pre-paid number of servings ran out.  No more pretzels thrown on the ground by drunk wedding guests who said “CIMMINNNSHUGGER!!!” but actually meant “Original with Queso, please!”

To get to this point, though, we had to do a few things:

  1. Listen to the customer – What seemed most important to them?  What were they trying to accomplish by having a food truck at their event?
  2. Think about our service – What are the variables that cause stress and confusion for our clients and our crew?
  3. Look inside – What are the major constraints for our business, internally?  What are we capable of, what is our cost structure like, and how can we create the value customers are looking for?

Admittedly, I probably could’ve just looked across the dance floor at any given wedding, seen guests lining up for drinks at the actual “open bar”, and said “Hey!  Maybe that’d work for us!”

But, that makes for a much less engaging story for a blog post about running a food truck business, so here we are.

Listen to your customers!  Understand what they want, and tailor your service offerings accordingly.

Lesson #4: Accounting and Economics

At a basic level, food trucks requesting a “minimum” for an appearance at a given location is a nod to the Economics concept of opportunity cost—i.e. that by choosing to do one thing with your time and resources, you’re implicitly choosing not to do something else with your time and resources, and the cost of those missed opportunities is real to you (even though it’s not recorded in your books).  

Whether that “something else” is another open sales opportunity for your truck, a maintenance/admin work day, or a good old fashioned day off doesn’t really matter.  All of those things are worth something to you, and it’s up to you to determine how much that is.

So, once you get a bit of operational history to look back on, you’ll start to get a feel for what the opportunity costs are for your truck, sales-wise, at a given time of day / day of week / time of year.  

You’ll also start to get a handle on what your crew and equipment can handle in terms of workload. From there, you can go about establishing what (if any) minimums you’ll require in order to turn the key on your truck.

A quick example: Early on, we did a pretty uneventful event at a small shopping center in Phoenix where we sold nine (9) pretzels.  

One of those nine pretzels, though, went to a youth pastor who has since booked us as her church’s Christmas and Easter treat four years running, for a total of over $15,000 in revenue.

I’m not advising you to go out and try to do nine servings, obviously—that’s not a winning strategy in the long run.  But you need to get out and get a feel for what works for your business. And, even if an event is slow and you only have a handful of customers—knock ‘em dead!  You never know who you’re serving.

Most food truckers don’t start their businesses because they’re excited to apply the principles of Accounting and Economics to their daily lives.  Some (like yours truly), are actively running away from those disciplines.

But once you do decide to start a mobile food business, there’s no avoiding it: If you don’t have a handle on your food truck’s numbers, you don’t have a business bound for success—you have a vanity project bound for Craigslist.

Lesson #4.5: You should know…

1 . That social media is way less important than your website!  

I’m no expert in either field, but the rough logic goes something like this:

People look to social media when they’re about to kill time; people look to Google when they’re about to spend money.  

I know the guy in Chef only needed a few tweets to get rolling—and you absolutely should use social media to tell your story—but for real, you should spend more of your time and talent on your website than on your Instagram.

2. That you should start an email list!  

Even if you invest no money in it, it’s worth your time and attention.  

For example, I just sent an email (using Mail Chimp, for free) to a few dozen property managers for whom we’d done resident events over the years.  

It wasn’t anything fancy—just a quick note letting them know that we had a summer special on open bar pretzel packages with a link to where they could book, or inquire to learn more.  

That email alone generated $3000 in pre-paid sales within ten days.

Not confident in your ability to send effective emails? Hire somebody! Studies show that every $1 spent on email marketing services returns, on average, $44 in sales.  That’s not a typo!

3. That roughly half of the people you know will try to sell you credit card processing services (and that you should ignore them).

4. That you should check your oil every time you fuel up.  It takes two minutes and it can save your engine.

In Closing:

I haven’t learned nearly as much as I could or should have in my four and a half years on the road, but I think it’s important to note that of the four(ish) items I shared, the first three had to do with people:

Your loved ones, your crew, and your customers.  

As a business owner, it’s incumbent upon you to take care of all three, and to communicate with the others whenever circumstances dictate that one or more of those groups is going to need more of your time and attention.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve made a scheduling mistake, which puts the crew in a tight spot with the client, which makes the crew upset with me, which invariably coincides with something important at home, and has the potential to spiral out of control if the situation isn’t addressed directly.  

These things happen, and when they do, communication keeps the train on the tracks.

As for the fourth point, there are a ton of resources out there to help with the numbers side of your business—starting with your local SCORE chapter, Small Business Development Center, and industry organizations (in our case, the Phoenix Street Food Coalition, and of course, Roaming Hunger)—so, use them!

(That way, you’re not stuck reading some pretzel guy’s blog post as a last resort.)

Stay safe and have fun out there, y’all!

Greg Golden left his forensic accounting job to start Mustache Pretzels in 2014.  Since then, The ‘Stache has grown to include two food trucks in the Phoenix area, a kiosk at the Phoenix Convention Center, and a storefront inside PHX Sky Harbor Airport (coming Fall 2018!).  You can reach Greg at info@mustachepretzels.com