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How to Start a Mobile Food Business

Today, a new generation of street-food lovers is lining up at food trucks and food carts like never before. Little do they know that neither food trucks nor food carts are new to the streets of American cities. Like so many other popular trends, they are the latest version of a long-standing part of American and world culture. Yet the street-food industry has never enjoyed so much publicity or notoriety.

According to Los Angeles-based industry-research firm IBISWorld, the street-food business -- including mobile food trucks and nonmechanized carts -- is a $1 billion industry that has seen an 8.4 percent growth rate from 2007 to 2012. It's very entrepreneurial: 78 percent of operators have four or fewer employees. The true number of these businesses is difficult to count, since the mobile food industry is comprised of food trucks, food carts and kiosks, which have appeared in malls as well as at train and bus stations, airports, stadiums, conference centers, resorts, and other locations in recent years.

Food-industry observers claim that the food-truck business is increasing largely in response to the slow-growing economy. People are seeking inexpensive breakfasts and lunches. Also, employees today are often pressed for time, with more work and shorter lunch hours. These factors make the mobile-food concept more appealing than ever.

From an entrepreneurial standpoint, kiosks, carts, trailers, and food trucks have a lower overhead than restaurants and can be moved if one location does not generate enough business. Rather than having to determine where to open a restaurant and worry about the old real-estate adage "location, location, location," the owner can actually drive to a new location, location, location if business is poor.

For customers, you add the convenience of having food favorites right outside a particular location -- or inside with a kiosk -- and meet several needs by serving mobile food. First, you offer food that is cost friendly because you need not pay wait staff or bussers. You also offer the convenience of quick service. In many cases you provide food choices that can save those on a busy schedule from the need to sit down. Typically customers can eat street foods while en route to their next destination. Finally, mobile food is often fun to eat and (if it's good) great to talk about.

Goin' Mobile: Your Options Even before you decide what foods to sell, you'll want to consider how you want to sell them.

Clearly, your decision on how to sell your foods will depend on:

Your startup money, budget and potential for returns Your commitment to the business: part time, full time, etc. Your creative ideas and what it will take to fulfill them Your experience at running a business The size of the business you want to start Your ideal demographic

These are a few of the considerations you will consider as you proceed, but for now, let's take a look at the common mobile-food entities.

Food Kiosks

Food kiosks are essentially booths or food stands that are temporary or mobile facilities used to prepare and sell food. Malls and stadiums are popular locations for food kiosks, which sell anything from pretzels and ice cream to more elaborate fare.

Although kiosks may have wheels, they are not mobile under their own power and in most cases need to be assembled. Most kiosks are rectangular and have room for two people to work within or stand behind, preparing and serving the food. They also have counter space and overhead signs.

The low overhead, flexibility and ease by which a kiosk can be opened and closed are among the reasons they're so popular. They are also an excellent choice in areas where your outdoor selling season would be limited by cold or nasty weather. Of course, the size of the kiosk limits the inventory, so it's important for a kiosk owner to carry as much as possible and price accordingly so that she can make money on what is on hand each day. Because they are usually operating indoors, kiosk owners typically sign licensing agreements at malls, stadiums, movie theaters, or other locations. Many major food businesses such as Ben & Jerry's and Baskin-Robbins franchise express kiosks.

Food Carts and Concession Trailers

The food cart and the concession trailer have been around for decades and combined are a multibillion-dollar industry today. The best known have always been hot-dog and ice-cream carts. They are among the most cost-effective ways to start a mobile food business because the carts are typically pulled by your car, truck or van, or pushed by hand. Food is either prepared in advance or purchased ready to sell -- like ice-cream pops or cups of Italian ices -- and stored, and then either heated up or pulled from the freezer. Carts are also fairly easy to maintain, and in many counties and communities, require less licensing than the full-size food trucks. It is also cost-effective if you choose to own several carts and hire friends, family or other employees to help run them for you.

There are two basic types of food carts. One has room for the vendor to sit or stand inside and serve food through a window. The other uses all the space in the cart for food storage and cooking equipment, which is typically a grill. The precise type of cart you'll want should be determined largely by the food being offered.

Modern-day food-cart owners have cleaned up the somewhat greasy reputation of street-food vendors. They have also expanded their menus. Kebobs and gyros came on the cart scene awhile ago, and vegetarian and Mediterranean salads have also caught on, as well as fish and chips. The Euro Trash food cart in Portland, Ore., for example, offers items like a prawn baguette with Portuguese curry prawns. And then there's Portland's Pie Lab, with slices of pie -- extra for ice cream or whipped cream on top.

Trailers, like carts, do not move under their own power, limiting their potential locations. Food trailers are often found at fairs, carnivals, sporting events, or other places where they can be unhitched and sit for awhile. Unlike most carts, trailers allow for cooking and have room for two or three people inside. Skillet Street Food in Seattle operates from an Airstream trailer with a full kitchen within. In short, a trailer can provide more options than a cart but is still less expensive than a truck.

Food Trucks

The food truck can carry any number of foods, and in some cases, more sophisticated equipment for storing, serving, cooking and preparing foods. Traditional food trucks were known for providing lunches, typically stocking sandwiches, kebobs, tacos, burgers and other standard fare for the lunch crowd. Many have expanded to include healthier vegetarian and vegan offerings, as well as not-so-healthy barbeque ribs. They do big business in corporate parks and places that have limited access to restaurants. Most food trucks are stocked from concessionaires, but there is a growing number that are associated with fast-food and midlevel restaurants. Sizzler and California Pizza Kitchen, for example, are putting together their own food trucks, as are other chains.

Larger than carts, trucks can carry more food and handle more business. However, food trucks need more space to park both when doing business and when off-duty. Essentially, there are two types of food trucks. One is the mobile food preparation vehicle (MFPV) where food is prepared as customers wait, hopefully not very long. The other is the industrial catering vehicle (ICV), which sells only prepackaged foods. An MFPV costs more than an ICV, and both cost more than a food cart. For example, a used hotdog cart may cost under $2,500, while a retrofitted used food truck would typically cost $30,000 or more. A newly designed food truck retrofitted MFPV with new all equipment could cost you upward of $100,000.

Complying with health-department rules and regulations can also drive up food-truck costs. Clearly, a smaller truck, a used truck, or a truck with limited equipment costs less. Therefore, it is up to you to determine whether you'll be cooking in the truck, preparing food somewhere else and serving from the vehicle, or selling prepared and prepackaged foods.

Gourmet Food Trucks

Basically the same as a food truck, the gourmet food truck takes food quality to a higher level. They are run by ambitious young chefs who offer cuisine not typically found in food trucks, such as specialty crepes, kimchi pork-fries, osso bucco, velvet cupcakes, or the chicken marsala meatballs with cilantro chutney found in the Great Balls on Tires gourmet food truck. Like Great Balls on Tires, many gourmet trucks have specialties and themes. In addition, they let their clientele know where they'll be parked through their websites and social media sites like Twitter. While food trucks need not have kitchens, gourmet trucks are more likely to have food prepared on the spot -- and high-end food at that. At the start of the new gourmet food-truck craze, Los Angeles was clearly the place to find such high-end dining. Now, however, New York has gained its share of such fancy food vehicles, such as the Rickshaw Dumpling Bar and The Dessert Truck founded by a former Le Cirque pastry chef. And as the concept of serving fine food rolls along, other cities from Portland, Ore., to St Louis and on down to Miami's South Beach are jumping on the foodie bandwagon with their own regional favorites. Food Network chef Ingrid Hoffmann's black and pink Latin Burger and Taco Truck, for example, has become quite the rage in Miami.

The Mobile-Catering Business

Mobile-catering trucks can be defined in a variety of ways and can overlap with mobile food trucks. Here are three differences: First, a catering truck is hired for a specific event such as a picnic, party or fair. Secondly, the person hiring the catering vehicle can select from a catering menu. Third, a catering vehicle can be used to transport the foods, which are then handed out from inside the truck or set up at the event or gathering, typically on trays or buffet style. This can mean providing the food to be served outdoors or parking and serving from the truck as the food trucks do. The differences are primarily in the manner of doing business. Nonetheless, the need for a reliable vehicle, licensing, permits, sanitary conditions, a business plan, and startup money are quite similar to the requirements of a mobile-food business.

One of the advantages of a mobile-catering business is that you are not risking as much in inventory because you are cooking and bringing food as ordered for the party. Therefore, you are covered for your food costs. You also have a specific destination, so you need not worry whether your favorite destinations will be busy. Typically, you are less dependent on good weather because many catered functions will be indoors. As long as you can get there with the food, you are usually OK. Of course, you do need to line up enough work to support your business. The difference between a mobile-catering business and other catering businesses is that you are using the mobility of the truck to show up rather than having a catering hall or venue.

Can You Handle the Heat?

While it may look easy, the food-truck industry takes a lot of hard work. For Scott Baitinger and partner Steve Mai who run the famous Streetza pizza truck in Milwaukee, Wis., a typical day starts three or four hours before taking the truck out on the road. "First we'll stop at Sam's Club or Restaurant Depot and pick up fresh ingredients. Then we go to our off-site commissary kitchen where we do all the prep work, which includes rolling the dough, making sauces, cutting the vegetables, and all of the things you really can't do in a 10-by-10 truck," explains Baitinger, who still works a day job in advertising but handles the truck on nights and weekends. Mai runs the weekday shifts except at times in the winter when no one in Milwaukee wants to trek outside in three feet of snow -- not even for pizza.

Then the Streetza team, which also includes a small staff on various shifts, parks at well-selected locations and prepare and sell food. At the end of a day, which is typically when they run out of food or the crowds have dissipated, comes the cleanup. "It's a lot like a restaurant cleanup with stainless steel cleaners, scrubbing, mopping, and making sure everything is in perfect shape to start again tomorrow," adds Baitinger.

Most mobile food business owners follow a similar set routine, whether it includes running the kiosk, cart or truck themselves or having employees run it. The routine, as is the case with Streetza, may include very early morning food shopping a few days a week, if not every day. Then there is stocking the kiosk or vehicle and heading to your destination(s). There is also a need to take some time during the day for marketing, usually via Twitter or another social media. Most mobile food vendors work roughly 10 hours a day. There are also days in which a business owner needs to sit down in a quiet office space, preferably at home with his feet up, and do all of the bookkeeping: paying taxes and bills, renewing licenses, and handling other fun paperwork responsibilities. The work is tiring and the day is long.

Can you handle such a day on a regular basis?

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