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May 20, 2015 Staff

How to Start a BBQ Concession Business

So you’ve got some awesome recipes for BBQ sauce, can make a mean set of ribs, and have family and friends falling over to get scoops of your pulled pork and brisket, leading you to the conclusion that yes, indeed, you should start actually selling this stuff for profit!? Why stick to your boring dayjob when you can develop a long and enjoyable career doing something fun that you love? Plenty of others have gone out and done it to success, we don’t see much reason why you can’t.

The road to accomplishing this will be long and intense as you figure out and get all the details done, but the end result can lead to a career and BBQ legacy. A successful BBQ concession business can easily provide one with solid yearly earnings, not to mention a strong following if the food’s good enough. All you have to do is get there, following steps like these.

Oh, and one last thing before we get into it. Make sure to actually give yourself enough time to actually plan and set up your business before getting into play; it should take at LEAST half a year to figure out all the little details before actually being ready to hit the streets and start spending money. Rushing into with only a few months though will only get a haphazard catering company that’ll run itself into the ground within the first year.

bbq4Get That Menu!

What exactly is it you want to cook and serve? This is a monumental question, since this cause the domino effect that determines so many things coming up. What kind of equipment do you need to cook and serve all of this, what needs to get bought and purchased (when looking for producers), how MUCH are you looking to, what kind of concession business and selling strategies/points are best used for this style, how many extra hands may or may not be needed to get it all prepared,  and how much MONEY will it cost to be able to start up with all of this stuff? Focusing on a BBQ joint that’s heavy on ribs and whole-hog smoking is going to have much different considerations for one that highlights smoked chicken and brisket sandwiches.

Before going through this, one needs to make sure they take into consideration things like what are popular for customers, is it served out of a food truck for those on-the-go or from a table at events? One may need to even add on or take off certain menu items that they didn’t want to at a later date to ensure better sales, rounding out the selection to something that sings well with the crowds. At the end of the day, find your philosophy and mission statement in your heart, mold the food around that, and use it as the foundational bricks in which every supporting detail is then built and adjusted around.

Hoofin’ It

bbq3The next consideration, tying in with the previous, is what KIND of concession business are you looking for? Will this be a typical BBQ Catering Group, where one gets hired for different events and festivals of such, setting up multiple big smokers on the street and hot boxes on the long serving tables so that one can keep cooking and serving their BBQ and other items all day? In which case they’ll likely need to work on something more high-volume for each gig, can invest in and have room for bigger, more heavy duty smokers, will often need more hands on deck, and can dole out just about whatever kind of bbq they desire. But will need to make sure they have the right trailer, truck, or other vehicle to transport all that equipment and food to each source.

bbq2Or, will you go the new and popular route of the Food Truck? It involves a lot more startup cost and annoyance in figuring out local regulations, but done right one can more easily get their name and food out to the local populace. One can basically get out and set up food for sale whichever days they want, so long as it’s busy enough and regulations are obeyed, is already outfitted with storage for easy transport to-and-fro, and many can be operated with fewer employees at a time. Though for best success these foods need to be adjusted to fit the ‘street culture,’ getting in more sandwiches and other hand-held or easily portable things. When done well, setting up one’s business in a mobile truck or trailer creates an attractive and compelling face that customers can more easily want to return to, and can find; like a restaurant, but mobile (note though, just because it’s true that the startup costs are LOWER than restaurants doesn’t mean it’s any easier than them).

Up in Smoke

Figuring out HOW you want to serve the food, and thus represent the business, as well as what you want served will thus help you to figure out what sort of equipment you need. Now, things like commercial ovens, stovetop ranges, friars, etc can all be bought easily new or used from various sights and companies (if going the truck route, which we talk below, builders usually handle getting those in themselves so you don’t have to), so that’s the easy part. As we all know though, it’s the SMOKER that fuels the lifeblood of the operation, and where much of your attention should lie.

By now you have at least one smoker at home that you’ve been cooking off of for who knows how many years. This may still be used for the business, but unless it’s gigantic or you already have your own collection, chances are that you’ll need to look into something (or somethings) to be able to cook up the massive amount of animals for a food service job. This will mean getting something big, long, ideally easily transportable, and CUSTOM.

bbq5Oh yes. There are plenty of smokers out on the market one can buy, things made by blueprint on-the-line in some factory. But if you REALLY want a successful business, you’ll want to go the route of a proper competition smoker and get it made custom. These pieces of shaped metal end up coming out at superior quality, ensuring a smoker that’s going to work RIGHT and keep working right for as long as one can imagine, a great cooker to start aging and developing flavor and personality in. And the best part, one can actually get EXACTLY what they want out of it. One can qualify the exact size and dimensions they need to fit certain spaces and amount of meat, have made on a trailer hitch for easy transport, set it up for big-log smoking or chip-based, and any other requirements which your resulting business might need.

If you’ve decided to go the food truck route, there are plenty of other equipment concerns to look into. Firstly, do you buy a used truck, something new off the block, or fully custom made? Good chance you’ll need at least SOME custom work on the interior to ensure it fits what you need to get done; installing smokers into a truck is a unique thing, it’s doubtful you’ll find many used trucks with them in, and fit to the right kind of specifications that YOU need for the menu. Even if you find something pre-made that does the job, one has to take into consider what kind of wear-and-tear one will have to deal with for repairs in the near future, so look into background carefully. At the end of the day, you’ll want to contact a good local Builder to help run you through options, details, and figuring out what’s best for YOU.

As you get more into this, it’s likely that the costs of the equipment, vehicles, etc may estimate out to something much higher than you wanted for startup. One may need to buy a used smoker/truck that changes the specifications for what one can actually cook and serve. At this point, it may be best to go back a couple steps and re-think food and exact recipes so that one can adjust the needs to a more minimal and affordable option. In fact this might not be the only time you’ll feel the need to do it; don’t feel bad, a big part of starting a business is making sure that all points mesh up into a final, successful idea that you can actually startup.

Where to Put the Pig?

Location always comes into play, and sooner or later you’ll need to plan and figure out where, or what kind of events, you need to target to ensure the highest chances at customer turnout and profit. If operating a truck, this means figuring out the streets and areas that get a lot of foot traffic during lunch, dinner, late-night, and breakfast periods (the only time one parks at someplace a whole day is during festivals and events, most often you’ll be at a location for only a few hours before moving on) and where you’re allowed to park in them. This can easily be figured out by other trucks, usually the busy downtown-type areas. If there’s anything that one wants to connect with, though, it’s Events; Rallies, Festivals, and other big Gatherings that last for half a day are what’s going to make you your profits, and you’ll want to attend as many as possible.

For the Concession Caterer, this mainly involves getting your name out to as many people as possible. Advertise, market, contact businesses and city faire/festival organizers to let them know about you and let them know about your services. You’ll likely have to work up from small neighborhood block and jazz parties towards the big city events, but as your name gets out there and more and more people know your product, the more frequent catering days you’ll have.

Also, try looking into that have yet to be fully tapped into; are there farmer’s markets that other trucks don’t frequent, new breweries, hospitals, VA or other armed force headquarters, local small block parties and other not-so-known festivals that have yet to see much catering power behind them? Are you near a beach, if so look into the possibility of parking there during the summer. Get creative with it, and park/cater at these locations regularly to build a following and expectation of where you’ll be.

Getting the Name Out

If there’s anything that determines success in business, besides offering a good product, it’s advertising; letting people know that you’re actually out there and how they can experience the product. No restaurant or catering business, no matter how delicious, will survive if nobody shows up at the door. So you’ll want to figure out how to get your name out there; what Social Media to use (we have an article about that Here), do you try to get ads in local papers, simply try flyers/word-of-mouth, contact potential employees (offices that may cater you) via direct phone, potentially even going for local tv spots?

It’s imperative that you allocate a certain amount of time and part of your budget every month towards getting these advertising opportunities, at LEAST 10% of your costs is ideal. After which you can best figure out, from available resources and how exactly one wants to get their name out, what strategies you want to put into place (a variety of ways is always best).

Getting Workers

bbq1IF you figure out that your business needs some extra hands than yourself and whatever team you may have already put together, then it’s time to look for employees. It may not be something that you’ll need at FIRST, so no problem on waiting to do this, but when you start getting to busy you’ll want at least one other person so as to have one person mainly handling food for service while another takes orders/cash and also helps with ‘plating.’

Craigslist, Monster, and other job sites work rather easily and well for getting your ads for employees out there. So long as you clearly list all requirements, job duties, and whether it’s full or part time, you should be good and able to rake in some proper candidates; you’ll want someone with at least a little experience or discipline to do things exactly how you want them done. When interviewing, make sure that it is CLEARLY communicated what kind of hours they can actually expect, along with pay; nothing makes for a more disgruntled future employee than given notably higher expectations than reality. And if anything you’ll want someone who will stay for a long time and knows every part of your food and business for when you start needing full-time, super busy help.

On this same line, you’ll also want to determine and write down your official ‘training strategies’ for the job, less so for making a smooth transition from the new employee into learning their tasks (which IS important, especially in later years when you’ll start having employee turnover and have a more work and a set schedule week to week) and more to put into the business plan when asking for money.

All the Etc

Plates/Serving Baskets, utensils, napkins, business cards/pamphlets, pos machine or credit card phone attachment (or just cash-only), getting accounts set up, menu boards/printings, setting up facebook/websites, and all that other random crap that needs to get done before opening. It’s vital to check and double-check the list of what needs getting done multiple times, we all know there’s always at least ONE thing that gets forgotten when they leave the house!

Funding the Smoke

Let’s face it, unless you or a (preferably dead) relative are absolutely loaded, you’re going to need a loan. Almost no true business can be started from scratch for cheap, they all need a few tens of thousands of dollars at the very least; food trucks can add $100,000 if custom-made from the ground up (completely worth it in quality btw, though one can sometimes get used trucks renovated with new interiors at great prices from quality Builders like M&R Trailers).

So you’ll need to go to a bank or other loan officer and present your business, and if you want any chance of getting a loan, let alone a big one with good interest rates for pay-back, then that means setting up a proper presentation. Which means two things: a thick, detailed business plan that lists all your costs, plans, and calculated future business and profits (we talk about how to put one together for Food Trucks Here), and thus what they can expect back; and knowing all these details off the top of your head so you can present and talk about it in a smooth, professional manner. I won’t lie, these meetings can be rough; some of these loaners will only make deals if you know how to speak their ‘language’ (I know a food truck owner who got laughed in his face in early meetings), so it may take a few tries simply to get a feel for it. But don’t give up, you’ll get a proper offer sooner or later; it’s a good business idea, you know it’ll do well, and that alone will prove itself to yourself and them at some point.

bbq6Also take note, one can also look into crowd-funding sites to help get a good bump of money to help start-up costs, which I’ve also written about Here.

The Selling Point

Costs calculated, monthly dues figured out, and the amount of sales per week/month/quarter averaged out, one can begin figuring out what prices they need to sell their food at in order to break even and make a profit over the long run. Note, of course, that one should not expect TRUE profits for at least a couple years, but being able to hold out and pay things off until then in a reasonable fashion. Generally speaking, food costs come in at 30% of the final price, with other costs (including monthly allocations) taking up the other 50-65%. But there are a few pricing strategies out there, and at the end of the day it’s all about how YOU want to do it, and also affected by local competitors (which can let you charge higher or force you to scrape the edge to survive, depending).

Now all that’s left is to put everything in action! Buy, get yourself online and social media, cook, get out and start selling your meat! You are now on your way to starting the rest of your life as a BBQ Concession Business Owner.

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