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Opening a Food Cart instead of a Restaurant


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#1 rlped

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Posted 29 September 2010 - 12:00 AM

I'm moving on from my current cooking job and thinking of what to do next. I've been running a B&B -(10-25 covers every morning for 6 months a year) and a farm-fresh food stand at our local farmers market for several years. So I'm thinking about the food cart idea, low overhead, good margin, perhaps? Also of trailering one around to festivals, parks, fairs, etc.

There are some cities (like Portland, OR) where food carts are getting a lot of play.


Any thoughts - experiences to share? ideas> suggestions? I have a couple of ideas for menus that are not done to death just yet that might lend themselves to this approach.

I know the business side of things pretty well -- licensing, insurance, business plans, personnel, website stuff, accounting, etc.

What I am always afraid of in a new business are the things I don't know. How do you find a location? City codes are one part, but traffic and 'turf' are probably part of it as well. How do you find about about the turf part?

How to you get into fairs and festivals? If you go to a strange town, how do you find some local help to help with the booth? I've never had to deal with $ under the table -- does that happen (guess I am pretty naive about some of that stuff).

Thanks for any random advice.
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#2 IndyRob

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Posted 29 September 2010 - 05:38 AM

I did some cursory research into this. Not seriously considering it, but wondering what it would take.

The easiest question to answer is getting into festivals. If you find a festival's web site, you'll typically find a Vendors section usually with an application form. It will lay out the requirements and fees. Sometimes there are special requirements. A Renaissance Fair, for instance, may require period appropriate food (which I think would be kind of a cool challenge). You also need to tell them what your power requirements are.

The tricky bit for me is that (at least in my area) you still need access to a commercial kitchen. You can't do any cooking on the cart beyond assembling a sandwich or cooking a pizza. I'm sure there's a lot of gray area here.

Another thing I found that I hadn't thought about is that you need an approved water supply. This can be as simple as a large water dispenser with a catch bucket, but there are specific requirements.

There are specific ordinances for vendors in cities and locations are usually granted through the permit process. In Indianapolis there is a specific area of downtown where food carts are permitted. Between this defined area and regulations regarding where they can be located, there's pretty much a fixed number of spots.

But it also occurred to me that there are also large suburban office complexes with large unused parking areas where, in theory, you'd just have to work with the property owner. But surely the health department would need to know where you are, so I'm sure it's not that simple.

#3 Doodad

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Posted 29 September 2010 - 06:30 AM

Here in Atlanta, the street food scene is slowly growing, but facing a myriad of legal obstacles. What I don't understand is how the roach coaches operate (and have since I was in college on construction sites) that is any different. Maybe they were running unregulated, I don't know.

#4 Chris Amirault

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Posted 29 September 2010 - 09:56 AM

I wish I had a lot of encouraging information to share. There are some great cities for food trucks, and there are some great individual food trucks in certain cities. But I think it's a tough row to hoe.

From information I've gathered from friends and acquaintances who have gone or tried to go this route, it's all about dealing with location, location, location, both for production in a certified food prep facility and for sales. It's also about the most picayune local matters involving who "owns" what side of which street, which councilman's pocket got lined by whom, and more. Months spent returning to some licensing office only to be told to go to another and then back again seemsto be the norm.

Margins are a lot tighter with most carts: outside of Portland, Austin, and a few other places customers are unlikely to venture through the rain, snow, sleet, and/or hail to stand in a line (not sit in the front of your house) and wait for some felafel that will be cold in two minutes. That means you have to be very canny about what you can carry over from week to week, what can and can't be made a la minute, all that stuff.

Staffing has been a big issue for some people I know, particularly if the owner isn't driving out the truck, cooking the food, and collecting the cash. Ditto the truck itself, which isn't just a rolling cramped kitchen with sketchy generators and propane tanks. When you have a restaurant, everyone knows where it is, and the restaurant doesn't have to move to get there. Not a food truck: if it ain't moving, you ain't selling.

Finally, because the truck business is so cut-throat, I've been told that there's not a lot of inter-business cooperation to help out the newbies.

While I'm no expert, I wrote a bit about Providence food trucks last year in Edible Rhody magazine. The most successful "truck," Johnny's , is not a truck at all but a trailer that's edged diagonally into a slot between two buildings. On the other hand, over half of the other trucks -- the genuinely mobile ones -- are now gone.

I would only start a food truck if that very first bite, the one you take as you step away from the truck, is a mindblowing bite of food that you can't get anywhere else. If you can't deliver that, you're begging the customer to ask themselves why they stood in line outside to eat with their bare hands in the first place.
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#5 pyrguy

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Posted 29 September 2010 - 02:03 PM

In Georgia the roach coaches were serving packaged food, no cooking. So they operated under a diferent set of rules.
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#6 Doodad

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Posted 29 September 2010 - 03:59 PM

Not my experience pyrguy. The lady that served one site had steam tables of home cooked food and I have seen similar on other sites. I guess they just ran under the radar. And her food was good compared to the prepped sandwiches and such on so many carts.

#7 dougal

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Posted 30 September 2010 - 02:08 AM

Interestingly, *this* appeared in the UK press (The Guardian) last week.
(The author used to post on eGullet.)

From the article, I note that there is a "SoCal Mobile Food Vendors Association".
Any such local group would surely be well worth approaching ... and potentially joining.
"If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch ... you must first invent the universe." - Carl Sagan

#8 Holly Moore

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Posted 30 September 2010 - 09:52 AM

Chris - wouldn't Haven Brothers be the most successful food cart (truck)? <G>

One consideration for a food cart, in Philadelphia at least, is that it must have a home base approved by the health department. Otherwise it will not be licensed.
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#9 Chris Amirault

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Posted 30 September 2010 - 10:34 AM

Chris - wouldn't Haven Brothers be the most successful food cart (truck)? <G>


Certainly wins the award for the truck with the longest life!

Most successful by most accounts in RI is Chef Matt Gennuso's truck operated in concert with his restaurant, Chez Pascal. Article here.
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#10 rlped

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Posted 09 February 2013 - 08:10 PM

Funny, I had completely forgotten about this post. It is about 2 1/2 years since my OP. We ended up buying a used crêpe cart on craigslist. We decided to go the farmers market route because the costs were much less than fairs and events. A Saturday cost $30, while our county fair cost 24% of our gross! We've done a few events but not many. Our first year we did 5 markets a week. Year 2 we did 4 market a week, tightened up our food costs, and made almost as much as year one. Now we have leased our own wholesale kitchen and are launching our second cart to sell sweet and savoury pies. We have two local pubs as wholesale customers, and are working on additional products.

Your thoughts and ideas were appreciated. We are happy with our cart, even though it might be nice to be inside a big warm truck, the market brings the customers.

I'll be happy to answer any questions anyone might have.
FWIW, there is a lot of conversation on this topic at the roadfood site as well.
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#11 marlaine

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Posted 13 May 2013 - 04:04 PM

Great news!! I too would like to start my own food truck and i am of course scared of the unknown...but not that much!  Now I am wondering about the farmers market and a little surprised because so many have their own food stands and absolutely don't want any part of any competition, so i am a little curious on how you got in..do you mind sharing how, thanks! 



#12 rlped

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Posted 13 May 2013 - 09:49 PM

We have a pushcart, not a truck, so that makes it easier, although some markets permit trucks.  The main thing is -- does your food match their philosophy.  We get our cheese from a market vendor, our meats from 2 vendors, greens, etc...

 

Some markets do allow food trucks.  It depends on the area.


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have crêpe will travel
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#13 marlaine

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Posted 21 May 2013 - 11:47 AM

makes total sense!!



#14 marlaine

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Posted 22 May 2013 - 05:20 PM

so now I am thinking a push cart just to see how it goes, but now if you do cooking dont you have to have the 3 sinks running water, hot dogs just sit in the water, but crepes??



#15 sachieauckland

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Posted 29 May 2013 - 04:49 AM

very good decision, you can earn better than before. Gud LUck



#16 IndyRob

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Posted 29 May 2013 - 05:00 PM

so now I am thinking a push cart just to see how it goes, but now if you do cooking dont you have to have the 3 sinks running water, hot dogs just sit in the water, but crepes??

 

It'll probably depend on your local health department.  You might see if you can locate their website and find the regulations.  IIRC, mine actually had some suggestions for minimally acceptable sanitation setups that consisted of an insulated water cooler and a cooler to use as a basin.  But that was for something simple where you're only doing sandwich assembly or something.

 

Here's a site with what looks to be the Cadillac of options...

 

http://www.apollocarts.com/crepe.php

 

They do appear to have three basins (and a lot more).  There's even a California specific version.  I suspect there's some sticker shock involved, but surely it's a lot less than a food truck.  And they're probably a lot more flexible than a truck in terms of where you can put them (even inside if you get the electric model).

 

Regarding getting into a farmer's market, here's a page describing the requirements for one particular market....

 

http://www.broadripp...ecome-a-vendor/



#17 rlped

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Posted 30 May 2013 - 08:14 AM

Thinking about this?

Step one:  Learn the health dept licensing and code inside and out.

Step two.  Learn the city/county/state permitting process inside and out.

Step three:  figure your budget

Step four:  Refine your concept in light of the above.  

Step five: business plan, funding...and lots of patience.

 

4 suggestions:

   Like going to Vegas,   Don't risk anything (time, money, marriage) you can't afford to lose.

   Craigslist is your friend

   You will find yourself drowing in opportunities  - do your homework, pick and  choose events, don't be afraid to say sorry, not this year.

   A gimmick (name, truck graphics...)  will get you a first customer, good food, reasonable price and service will get you a follower.  Followers will keep you in business.

 

The rules rules rules are a crazy quilt.  

 

In Oregon where I currently operate there are 4 classes of mobile licenses.   Class 4 must have a triple sink and can cook raw proteins.  I have a class 3 cart and can cook, but not raw proteins.  Ham, smoked salmon, a precooked chicken (we cook it in our kitchen and reheat),, hot hold RTE pasties... those are OK and I do not need a triple sink on the cart.  Yes I have a licensed kitchen - yet another licen$e.  That also allows me to cater.

 

If I cook and egg, need a triple sink.

 

In Washington State the situation is entirely different.

 

In Portland (where I am not) food trucks can be permanent.

In Salem, (where I am) food trucks must move every 6 months.

 

In Silverton near Salem you have to have a $200 city license every 90 days.

 

Buying your car/cart/truck/ should be way down the list.

Spend a couple of days/nights watching the lines at other trucks -- how much business do they seem to do?

Prepare for bad weather -- even at a busy the farmers markets,   rain can drop my sales  30-50%.  But you can't disappoint your followers.


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#18 sachieauckland

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Posted 09 June 2013 - 11:37 PM

i suggest you go for it, you have a lot of ideas on your mind, u said that. so implement the ideas, you are gonna rock.Gud luck.