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What Licenses or Permits Does a Catering Business Need?

Do you throw elaborate dinner parties for your friends, complete with multiple rounds of appetizers and perfectly paired after-dinner cheese plates? Do you look forward to minor social events as an opportunity to make little skewers festooned with carefully patterend baby buffalo mozzarella, cherry tomatoes, and fresh basil? Are you constantly being asked to “pitch in” with the cooking at other people’s events or functions? Do you find yourself entering local cooking competitions to try out new recipes and bask in the glory of having the best chili in town, WHILE raising money for muscular dystrophy? If so, you’ve probably considered turning your passion for cooking into a successful business, by launching your own local catering empire.

After all, you’ve probably already got the tools you need: Talent, interest, desire, maybe even a small group of potential customers, and perhaps a well-stocked home kitchen that you just KNOW could be used to mass-produce th

Catering is a major revenue source for many food trucks and concession trailers.

e kinds of food you love for an adoring public. Sooner or later, every serious home cook at least considers diving into the very lucrative and satisfying catering business, by leveraging the tools they already have. Turning these dreams into reality can prove a little more complex, however.

In addition to the cooking (that’s the fun part of running a catering business!) there are also other important considerations, including your plan for marketing your business, the logistics of preparing, delivering, and serving food in larger quantities than you may have done before, the mechanics of managing your accounting effectively, and most importantly, the legal considerations of starting your new business and running it safely and with protections you need.

Should You Incorporate Your Home Catering Business?

While it’s possible to get started in the catering business by legally operating as a sole proprietor, this typically isn’t a good idea, for a few reasons. When you incorporate as a limited liability company or partnership, this legal structure has built-in legal protections to protect you personally from legal liability. The food business can be prone to some legal risk; if you have employees, they may slip and fall, or if someone gets sick after eating food you’ve cooked, you can be held personally responsible for damages as a result of those accidents. Incorporating can protect your personal assets from potentially damaging claims by employees or clients. Talk to a lawyer before you get too far down the road in starting your business, or at the very least, consider an online document filing service for getting your corporate structure in place.

Can You Use Your Existing Home Kitchen for Cooking and Food Prep?

Though regulations vary from state-to-state, you probably won’t be able to use your existing home kitchen for your catering business, while your kids play in the next room and your golden retriever circles hungrily at your feet. While it seems simple enough (cook food in your kitchen, put it in your car, drive it to your event), most state health regulations prohibit this type of operation.

In many states, kitchens used for commercial food production need to conform to the same standards as a restaurant or other commercial kitchen. Where I live in Maine, for example, home caterers can apply with the state to have their home kitchens certified for commercial use, but the set of requirements that must be met is significant: The kitchen must be separated completely from the living space, there must be a separate hand wash sink, and the house’s plumbing and septic must be inspected to ensure they meet health code standards. The kitchen must also have regular health inspections, just like any other commercial kitchen.

Unless you’re planning a drastic remodel, your home kitchen will probably fall short of these standards in a few areas. This doesn’t mean that your dream of a small catering business has to die, however. Many towns and cities offer shared commercial kitchen space, which you can rent by the hour to prepare your food. If you live in a smaller town, check with area restaurants; many of them will be happy to supplement their income by sub-leasing their kitchen space to you and your new business during their off-hours.

What Kind of Catering License or Permit Do You Need?

If it were just as easy as throwing 100 chicken wings in a deep fryer, everyone would have a home catering business. In reality though, there are many more legal hoops that you will need to jump through. Though regulations vary from state-to-state, there are probably several licenses and permits that you will need. You’re probably going to need licensing at the state level, including a business license and tax registration for both employee tax withholding and the payment of sales tax. You’ll probably also need to obtain licensing at the local level for your city or town. You’ll also need certification from your state’s health department, which may also require a separate license or certificate for safe food handling. If you plan to make alcohol available at your catering events, you may need a liquor license. Finally, you may need city or town level permits for specific functions in public spaces, such as parks or at special events.

BBQ Meal

Nothing Beats BBQ catering services.

What Was That Thing You Said About Health Inspections?

Nothing will torpedo your business faster than giving an entire wedding party food poisoning on their big day, which makes food handling and safety a number one priority for any home caterer. Make a phone call to your state’s health department; they will provide you with the full requirements for your state, as well as a schedule of inspections and a list of what the health inspector will be looking for.

Remember that the health inspector works for you. Though they may seem strict and some of their requirements may seem to some to go overboard in their stringency, those regulations are in place to help ensure the safe operation of your business and the safety of your customers. In most locations, the health inspector wants to help you succeed and be safe, and they can help provide a blueprint for doing just that.

What About Insurance?

Remember that the food you are producing will eventually end up inside somebody’s body, and because of that, there are ample opportunities for legal problems. It seems obvious, but it’s worth reminding yourself every once in a while: That Gulf shrimp you painstakingly wrapped in bacon, fire-roasted, and drizzled in chimichurri will eventually be working its way through someone’s digestive system. You need a good general liability insurance policy in place to protect you not just from claims of potential food borne illness, but also from claims ranging from an employee slicing off a finger, to one of your event guests having one too many vodka-cranberries, falling headfirst into the hotel’s water fountain and breaking all of their teeth out of their face. It’s worth the time to find a capable insurance broker who specializes in commercial policies for food businesses, who can help you plan for every potential eventuality and prepare yourself legal for any liabilities.

Launching your own home catering business can be a very lucrative and satisfying way to turn your culinary dreams into a reality, with the ability to control and scale every step of the process. In your excitement to get going, however, don’t skip any of the legal steps required. Establishing a solid legal foundation for your business now will provide the base you need for your business to continue to grow and thrive.

Two Ways Gourmet Food Trucks Can Better Serve Construction Sites

Mobile vendors and construction sites go together like peanut butter and jelly, ketchup and mustard, donuts and coffee… Well you get the idea. The pairing of lunch trucks serving construction sites have been common site for decades. This symbiotic  relationship continues to be strong in 2018 and could be an overlooked opportunity for you as well.

Whether you operate in a densely populated city or a rural area serving construction sites can be a profitable part of your regular operations. If a new structure like a distribution center is being developed off-the grid in a location without nearby water, electricity or other services this could be an opportunity to bring your food to a captive audience of employees where the only alternative comes in a lunch pail. As an added bonus, assuming you’re able to find a safe parking spot and get permission there are no parking restricts or special permits needed in most cases. Of course, you will need to take into consideration the added gas expense that’s needed to drive out to a distant vending spot.

On the other side of the coin, building construction in urban areas can also work. While there will be significantly more access to food options, you can still offer a higher level of convenience than nearby restaurants. After all, workers may be able to walk just a few steps outside the job site to get to you. Add to that the fact that most workers have limited time to eat and not dressed appropriately you still have the advantage. Plus, you’ve got the distinct advantage of having the smell of your food permeate the worksite. This is basically free advertising!

The Flying Pie Guy. Built by M&R Specialty Trailers and Trucks.

How to Serve Construction Sites

If you want to operate on-site of a construction area, you will need to contact the construction company first. You can usually find the name and contact information for the business clearly posted at the job site. From there it’s simply a matter of giving the business a call and inquiring as to whether or not they would be open to having your food truck serve on the property. Depending on the business, you may be welcomed with open arms and seen as offering a fun service the employees. Alternatively, the company may turn you down due to perceived risk or liability. Either way, it’s worth a shot and there’s no harm in asking if there’s interest.

If you are welcomed on-site you’ll want to follow instructions on where to park very closely. With heavy equipment like trucks and forklifts operating nearby and building infrastructure you’ll need to be extremely thoughtful in where you park… Preferably somewhere a good distance and out of the way of the workers.

If you plan to operate inside a city, you can often park on the city street just outside the job site. Of course, you’ll still need to adhere to the cities rules for when and where you can park.

Gourmet Trucks Can Offer a Change of Pace 

When you think of construction sites you probably think of the old-school lunch truck. These units were affordable and served food fast, but it wasn’t anything to write home about. You can only eat a hot dog off of a lunch truck so many days in a row before you can begin to feel like you’re in a rut. Although it’s non-traditional, a gourmet food truck can help provide a change of pace at work sites that is welcome by employees.

Diverse Options: Although often overlooked, a gourmet food truck can help provide a change of pace at work sites that is welcomed by employees. If you’re able to deliver a really high-quality burger or Asian-style tacos to a location like this… Folks really appreciate it. It’s a limited time treat that they can’t typically get.

Better Food: A soggy sandwich out of a bag might feel the gas tank so to speak, but it’s not enjoyable. As a food truck you have the opportunity to deliver much better food than is usually offered to these employees. If you are able to pair convenience with high-quality, you’ve got a winner.

Getting the Most From This Opportunity  

According to U.S. News & World Report, the average construction worker makes $33,430 per year. This wage can often be increased by working overtime and getting time and a half. But even workers that are at the very top end of the pay scale aren’t rich.

Since many of these workers unfortunately live paycheck to paycheck, it can be wise to vend at these locations on paycheck. Most construction workers are paid bi-weekly on Fridays, but you can ask the company when people are typically paid. You’ll have more success vending if you’re serving to a group of workers that are flush with cash and approaching the weekend.

The other opportunity to serve construction sites is through catering. Catering events are paid for by the construction company in advance. This is the ideal for you as a business owner since you know exactly what your profit and expenses will be for the event. There’s also plenty of benefit to the company by selecting your services since employees won’t need to travel from the worksite and can quickly get back to building.

If you own a gourmet food truck, don’t overlook the opportunity to serve construction sites. Doing so can be both lucrative and fulfilling.

How to Start a Profitable Pie Concession Trailer Business

The Flying Pie Guy. Built by M&R Specialty Trailers and Trucks.

Crumbly, flaky, tasty… The business side of selling pies has its benefits. While pies are traditionally thought of as a desert in the United States there are simple ways the food can be adapted as breakfast or lunch options (chicken pot pie anyone?). In today’s post we explore the pie industry in greater detail so you can decide if it’s the right option for your business.

Business Potential

One of the first steps in writing any business plan is determining if there’s market demand for your product. In 2017, a company called Specialty Bakeries Inc. brought in over $20 million in pie sales for the year. Specialty Bakeries Inc. is the third-largest producer of pies in the United States according to the same report to give you a sense of the national appetite. Demand confirmed!

Of course you can’t achieve eye-popping sales numbers in the food industry without major distribution. According to the company website Specialty Bakeries Inc. pies, cake rolls, and lady fingers are distributed across 90% of supermarkets chains in the United States. The company has been in business for over 100 years so this level of success wasn’t baked up overnight. Even if your goal is not to build the next million dollar pie company, its reassuring as an entrepreneur to know there’s a high-ceiling of available demand inside the market you plan to enter.

Aside from overall market demand, the next important element that needs to be considered is whether or not selling pies can actually work on a food truck or concession trailer. Fortunately, pies work extremely well in a mobile environment due these two success characteristics:

Fast Orders: When operating a concession trailer, the faster you’re able to get orders out the window, the more sales you can haul in. Pies are the ideal food to serve quickly. All the product can be pre-made and cut in advance of service so all you need to do is plate the item, send it out the window, and you’re ready to accept the next customer transaction.

Where concession businesses get into trouble is when they have products that take a long time to cook and are made to order. For example, if it takes 5 – 10 minutes to cook and assemble a gourmet hamburger that can really slow down a line. A ten minute wait can feel like a very long time for customers too! This won’t be a problem if you’re selling pies that have already been cooked and prepared prior to vending at an event. You can continue to quickly serve even in the most demanding rush periods.

High-Profit Margin: There are plenty of expenses associated with running a food business. After compensating employees, paying taxes, and covering everything else there isn’t always a lot leftover for the proprietor. The good news is with certain exceptions, pies are low-cost items you can sell at a premium… meaning you can have a lot more of that revenue hitting your bottom line compared to others in the food industry.

If you’re planning to sell popular variations of pies like apple, cherry, custard, or cream you can purchase low-cost ingredients. Pie crust, fruit, and baking ingredients are all affordable, widely available and don’t fluctuate in price. If you are planning to serve a meat pie, however, your costs will typically run higher, but you can also charge more to even out the cost. As a general rule of thumb you don’t want to spend more than 1/3 of your total product cost on ingredients to ensure profitability. Here’s a break down of  the cost of making and selling a fresh pies from Mirror.co.uk:

As a concession vendor you will not incur as many expenses as the pie chart above. You likely won’t be paying any retailers costs since you’ll be selling direct to consumers with a trailer either. Your logistics costs will likely be lower as too since your business is more straight forward. Still, it’s important to note that ingredients and manufacturing (or baking) the product requires a significant amount of cost. Even if you plan to do a lot of this work yourself initially, it’s good to build hiring an employee into your financial projections so you have options as the business grows.

At special events (concerts, football games, festivals), it’s not uncommon for vendors to charge $5 – $6 USD per slice of pie. That means if you can get 6 slices out of a unit you could be generating around $36 per pie. If you want to increase profits further you could make each slice smaller and increase it to 7 slices per unit.

While you want to consider overall customer value when determining your vending prices, in most regions in the United States you can charge this amount at an event leaving you with plenty of profit no matter what style pie you plan to produce. At the very least it’s nice to know there are options to increase profitability if needed.

Popular Styles of Pie

According to Statista.com, the most popular are fruit / lattice that contributed to over 38% of annual pie consumption in the United States. While there’s no empirical data around it, the classic apple pie is assumed to be the most popular flavor within this category. While there’s national demand for the classics within the pie category there’s certainly room for innovation as well.

Statistic: Category share of pie sales in the United States in 2017, by pie type | Statista
Find more statistics at Statista

Vending Strategy 

If your plan is to hit the road to generate sales a a concession truck or trailer, you’ll want to get a clear strategy. First, identify what type of pie’s you plan to focus on. Meat chicken pot pies are served as entrees for lunch or dinner.  A Quiche is a breakfast food. Cream and apple pies are considered to be desert or treat in the United States. By selecting the types of pie you plan to serve you’ll be able to more strategically determine where and when you plan to vend.

Another vending strategy you’ll want to consider is the complimentary products you’ll be offering on the concession trailer. If you plan to serve Quiche or pies, offering coffee options is a simple way to increase the average ticket sale on your truck and increase profitability further. Coffee, of course, is a highly profitable item to sell and can be an easy way to create “value menu” type options for the business. Commercial grade coffee equipment and espresso machines can be installed on a food truck to offer a new high-quality product.

Equipment

As mentioned previously the pie menu concept is ideal in a mobile selling environment. Here’s an example of a build we completed for The Flying Pie Guy that is lovingly referred to as “Matilda.” The Flying Pie Guy serves Aussie style meat pies that are extremely popular for lunch in Australia. The Flying Pie Guy has had great success bringing this concept to the United States and has received significant TV and online press since opening. We wish The Flying Pie Guy and Matilda continued success with their business! Watch the video below for a full tour.

Should You Paint or Wrap a Food Trailer?

If you’ve landed here, you’re no doubt trying to decide whether it’s better to wrap or paint a food truck or trailer. If you’re grappling with this decision, the answer is simple: Get your food truck professionally wrapped. Inside this post we’ll outline our supporting evidence into the paint VS wrap decision, but for the majority of folks out there this should be an obvious choice.  Almost every gourmet truck you see on the road has used a wrap instead paint due to the numerous visual benefits. Learn the many reasons why below!

Sprinter Van built by M&R Specialty Trailers and Trucks with a custom wrap.

What is a Food Truck Wrap? 

Food truck wraps are vinyl graphic coverings usually produced by 3M or Avery. These wraps completely cover the outside of the vehicle from top to bottom. A boring and bland looking white food truck can be transformed in an afternoon by installing a bright vehicle wrap.

Before you get your food truck’s wrap produced, you’ll work with a designer to produce a wrap that’s right for your business. Typically, we recommend using bright colors that stand out from the competition, along with your brand logo and name of business. You can work with your own designer or companies that specialize in custom vehicle wraps will typically have a designer on staff that you will work with. We recommend at the very least consulting with the vehicle wrap companies designer. Due to their experience working with vehicles, these designers will help you avoid some of the common pitfalls.

As a added pro tip, we recommend including contact information  like your telephone number, website or Facebook URL prominently on the vehicle as well. This transforms you mobile business into a rolling billboard that can help you book future events. Some past customers report that by simply including their website and phone number on their vehicle they’ve been able to get catering leads while driving to the grocery store for supplies. The example below is a BBQ trailer for one of our past customers. Note the telephone number, logo, and website clearly displayed on the unit.

Beautiful yellow wrap on this BBQ trailer.

The Cost and Lifespan of Wraps

The cost of a wrap will be in the $3,000 – $5,000 range. The cost depends largely on the company applying the wrap and the design resources needed to execute your vision. The size of your truck or trailer will also determine cost. The larger the truck the more wrap that needs to be applied. Most wraps will have a lifespan between 5 – 7 years until they begin to fade and show their age. Consult your custom wrap company to identify ways to increase the lifespan of these units.

One simple way to identify if a vehicle wrap company will do quality work is to see if they have photos of past wraps. Many companies publish these wraps on their website so you can view past work. Take a close look at these images to confirm there are no visual bubbles or air pockets within the wrap. Another question to ask is whether or not the company is a 3M certified installer. This certification ensures that the employees of the company have received a certain level of training.

After the vinyl wrap is installed the maintenance of these is easy. You should wash regularly with soap and water just like you would any other car to make sure it’s clean. Be careful with waxing the unit, however, as some brands are too harsh for wraps. Other than that the ongoing care is minimal. These wraps also will not affect the underlying paint in anyway even if removed in the future.

Should You Paint a Food Truck?

These days it can be difficult to find a modern food truck that’s been painted. Why? It’s difficult to get bright graphics, fonts, and colors exactly the way you want when you paint. If you’ve ever tried to paint a bedroom in your house a specific shade or gray, you understand how difficult getting the exact color you want can be. The color you selected, can different after being brought home and applied to your walls depending on lighting. One the other hand wraps can be extremely precise with logos and color. The design is produced on a computer and printed out to your exact specifications.

There’s less room for error with paint as well. Even for the most skilled vehicle painter, it’s going to be a challenge to get a phone number or other text on the truck without smudging a few corners. With a wrap, everything is much more precise. In the event that a certain piece of the wrap is applied incorrectly, a new piece can be printed out for use. No harm, no foul.

When does painting make sense?

There are some rare scenarios that may make you elect for paint instead of a wrap. The first is that you can usually paint your unit for slightly less than you would get a wrap produced. You can usually get a basic food truck painted in the $2,000 range. Of course, the more complex your vision for the outside of the unit, the more costly it will be to execute and you might end up paying about the same amount as you would have for a custom vehicle wrap.

At M&R Specialty Trailers and Trucks, we don’t believe in overpaying for equipment or services. With that being said there are folks try to save money at the long-term detriment of their businesses. For example, we’ve seen some do-it-yourself food truck paint jobs on YouTube and they aren’t pretty. Sure, the owner may feel smart that they “saved” $5,000 on a wrap and painted the truck themselves. But the flip side to that is they now own a unit that isn’t appealing to customers. If prospective customers are turned off by the outside of your vehicle, they’ll never have the opportunity to try your food. People eat with their eyes first and having an attractive and welcoming external vehicle is essential for success in this business.

In rare instances you may have a vision to produce a paint job that is artistic and really stands out from other vendors in the area. If you have a unique artistic vision and a master artist this is the only scenario we would give our stamp of approval for paint.

How to Make Food Truck Menu Prices That Ensure Profitability

No matter what the idea and industry, there are certain things that every business owner has to consider among the waves and tides of decisions, strategies, and research that goes into their business. Of these, probably the most important, and easily the first thing noticed, for all customers besides the product itself is Price. What exactly are you going to charge for your object, your service, your council, or in our case today, mobile food and drink.

This particular question, I find, finds quite the interesting pang in the Food Truck industry; for anyone with even the slightest knowledge and experience with them, it’s well known that they’re a source of low-priced edible options. In fact, it’s been the base of many a restaurant’s complaints, along with all the other lower costs they have to deal with. Despite the almost identical spirit in the roles both these businesses try to offer, the distinctive difference offered purely by their base of operations still show itself in these notably disparate fashions; now, whether they choose to use this to garner hate and grudges or as a means to work together and grow in fun and unique ways is up to them, and left for another article.

So what actually needs to be considered when figuring out your own prices? Of course one should always be aware of the other local truck menus, see if there’s a general range, don’t want to risk seeming notably more expensive for similar products. But at the end of the day this is your own food, and the retail still needs to correlate particular profit percentages compared to the costs that went into them.

This can vary depending on owner preference, but actual food costs, the only actual direct and tangible cost in a menu item, can range 22-45%; restaurants can and do often go even lower with this. With such a big profit range, it almost seems why its even an issue to knock prices low, but of course as anyone even slightly familiar with business knows, the ‘profit’ left after food is anything but. Not counting the daily costs of employee wages, permit + parking fees, gas, electricity, and every other thing needed to run restaurants and food trucks, one of course is still in possession of large loans and leases that need to be paid back every single month. Then there’s the occasional maintenance, emergency costs, etc. So what we have is an overall huge cost that needs to be divided among years and months, then applied to individual days in estimation and goals of how much profit after food costs you need to make of profit overall to break even. And the know that you will likely not making even close to this when starting out, which will likely drive up the cost goals later on when (well, if) you actually get enough business to start making a livable wage.

kg6So what was originally a somewhat-exciting range of pricing becomes a scary number that starts making us sweat and doubt our choices; do we take the risk at an attractive price and hope we’re skimming right at the point of having a few cents of gross profit over to get us through the year, or do we add an extra dollar or two to make sure, only then to worry about the price image? Menu helps determine these, but overall the final decision may come simply to confidence on whether or not you think the quality speaks for itself, or confidence that you can get enough business to have those quarters add up over time.

Though truthfully, your own final decision can be based off of anything from in-depth, complex area analysis to simply what you feel seems right, but a bit of study and understanding your costs doesn’t hurt (have to do a business plan at some point anyways right?). We looked into one truck’s experience and view on this topic, and sat down in an interview with the owner, Tom Mcnulty, to discuss the idea.

Question: Firstly, why don’t you tell us all about yourself and the truck? How did it all get started?

Tkgom: I’m a culinary graduate, graduated from GCA in San Francisco, I’ve been in the restaurant business for 25 years, essentially a country club restaurant, I opened my own restaurant up in Santa Rosa, the only reason I closed it down was the overhead costs, the overhead costs were tremendous. And that’s when I decided to get into the food truck business with low overhead and stuff like that.

The concept of my truck, Keep on Grubbin’, based off of changing the menu frequently, depending on the season, shopping at the local produce market. So that’s how I keep up with the concept of the truck. And that’s kind of where I got to today, it’s been a tough movement, you’ve got to really get your name out there, be consistant with good food to build up your truck, branding your truck.

Q: So, what was it like seeing all the costs that had to go into Keep on Grubbin’?

Tom: Well, after opening up a restaurant it was very minimal in comparison. I looked at it and, the leases were kind of high, I was leasing a truck when I first started. But basically you had to put up the first lineup and if you wanted to get your truck wrapped then you get your truck wrapped. So for under $10,000 you could get a particular food truck business up and running. And the insurance is a lot different in a food truck than in a restaurant.

kg5Q: How did you go about figuring out the profit needed every week/month in order to pay these costs, and what was the actual range?

Tom: I don’t use programs, I have my own program and spreadsheet that we used at the restaurant. So my food cost is 23%, and my overall cost is 33%.

The first couple months, when you get into the food truck, it’s very hard, you’re not making the kind of money you think you’re going to be making. So you do have to have cash, you have to have reserves to help cover that, it’s the business part. But how I determined that, I just used my original business plan with my percentages, and that was how I came up with the costs to run the business.

Q: What decisions went into deciding how much the menu items should sell for? What profit percentage compared to FOOD cost did you generally end up at?

Tom: I did comparisons with other trucks to see if I was in line with pricing, and looks like percentages, with my percentages, I was right in line with others. So my thing was based all on percentages, and that was 23% cost was where I set it.

Q: Have you ever found had to change the prices for particular reasons? If so, why was it; and if not, were you ever really tempted to raise them for more profit?

Tom: I’ve never raised our prices, not even for certain events. I’ve lowered them for school events, with the kids who don’t have a lot of cash, so I have to lower my prices for High School and Elementary events. But I’ve never raised my prices for an event just to make more profit.

Q: Many a restaurant has lauded against trucks for their lower and ‘easier’ costs to deal with, along with their ability to sell food for cheaper and thus steal away customers. What’s your take on this idea vs why prices are comparatively so low?

Tom: It’s basically your overhead costs, the overhead costs are much more minimal than your free-standing restaurant; labor, rent, insurance, just that alone is why these food trucks can run the prices that they can.

Q: From what you’ve seen, what Opportunities and Challenges do the generally lower-priced Food Truck menus offer?

Tom: The opportunities are to have more people to enjoy the food off your truck, gives them the opportunity to come for lunch or dinner. A lot of events we do, there’s a lot of food trucks there, and a lot of people that come like to eat off of not just one truck, but a handful of trucks that are there. So the lower prices than a restaurant gives people the opportunity to sample the different foods than a food truck.

As for challenges, sometimes you’re not making your profit margin that you need to make. That’s some of the challenges when you do have to lower your price for some of those events. But I could take stuff off the menu, my higher percentage items I took off the menu and I basically ran my car, but I still needed to run at a lower price. You’re still making your profit margins even if you’re at the lower price.

Q: What’s your take on trucks, perhaps coming from a restaurant or some other viewpoint, that start selling their items for notably higher, restaurant-level pricing on the streets in order to make a higher return on their goods?

Tom: I haven’t really run into that, I think prices are really comparable. I really haven’t seen any truck which were… except for some of the lobster trucks that can charge a little more than regular/cheaper food trucks. But they’re trying to run they’re cost and percentages, cuz it’s higher buying seafood than buying these other things. That’s the only time I’ve seen prices not comparable.

Q: Is there any last points of interest you’d like to make on the topic?

Tom: Basically just take the business plan that you have, a good business plan, try to keep costs as low as you can to be successful.

We do thank Tom for taking the time to sit with us and go over these questions with us and appreciate all the assistance he could muster. Though of course we realize that this combination of self-important opening ramblings and brief interviews can never truly cover all that you may want or need to know when deciding menu prices for yourself, so we’ve gone and found some Articles and Resources that we hope prove helpful. Good luck in your decision-making and problem solving, save something for my thin wallet!

Food Truck Income Survey – This is a survey of 300 full-time food truck owners that share their annual revenue estimates. This is a great resources for understanding the typical revenue numbers of a mobile food unit.

Pricing Methods – the ‘For Dummies’ approach to the two basic cost-to-retail pricing calculations

Mobile Cuisine Menu Pricing Article – a look at changing factors to consider, along with questions you should ask yourself.

Dealing with Food Costs and Quantities – tips to help curb those nasty figures to make sure you can scale down those scary retail prices.

Menu Display Options – Find out some of the different creative ways you can display your menu after the prices have been determined.

The Best Places to Find Blank or Unwrapped Food Trucks

Tony's Clam Chowder

Trying to find a blank food truck? A blank truck is simply a food truck that hasn’t been wrapped with graphics or painted yet. A professional wrap makes an night-and-day difference in how a food truck will look to the public. This single update can transform a tired looking 20-year old truck and make the unit look brand new.

If you’re in the market for an unwrapped food truck there are a few places you can begin your search. First, keep in mind that any food truck can be “unwrapped” so to speak. If you acquire a food truck that was preowned or used for another purpose (such as a FedEx delivery or bread truck), you can get the previous branding removed and start with a clean slate.

Don’t let a truck with that’s already wrapped or been painted discourage you from buying. Most trucks being up-fitted to a mobile kitchen require brand refresh anyway. As a result, it’s not a whole lot more work to invest in a pre-owned mobile unit with graphics you plan to update after purchase.

All the being said if you’re looking for a blank food truck some of the best places to look are for used vehicles that were at one time part of a fleet. The most common examples of this would be delivery trucks from FedEx or bread delivery trucks.

One of the best models to familiarize yourself with is the Chevrolet P30 truck. This is the most popular make / model of vehicle converted into a food truck due to it’s reliability and cab area. You can occasionally find these units for sale in your area on websites like Craigslist or eBay. Of course, at M&R Specialty Trailers and Trucks, we can also help you on your search to find the perfect unit to fit your needs. We have relationships with dealers across the United States and can likely help connect you with the right product.

The Cost of Getting a New Food Truck Wrap

The cost to wrap a food truck ranges from $3,000 – $6,000.  The final price will be determined by who designs your wrap and the complexity of the design. The size of your unit will also play a role in determining the price as more vinyl will be needed to cover the vehicle.

We always recommend getting quotes from 2 – 3 graphic design companies to price compare. It’s worth comparing prices because some companies include design into their wrap fees or will provide a discount if you work with them on the design and wrap aspect of the unit.

You should always get samples of a graphic designers prior work before you work with them. A good design has a lot to do with personal taste. A design that you love someone else may dislike. Viewing the designers portfolio of past work will give you an idea of whether or not you like their style. You can often view a companies past work by browsing their website. For example, GatorWraps.com features many of their past wraps online so you can get hundreds of vehicle wrap examples from the comfort of your home.

As an added layer of protection, if the company is a 3M Certified Graphics Installation Company this can also provide an added level of comfort because you know they’ve been trained to apply the wrap correctly. We also recommend checking online reviews of the company to see what past customers are saying about the company.

A clear cab highlights the mobile kitchen interior of Triple J’s Pizzeria.

Should You Paint a Food Truck?

A food truck can be painted, but most vendors choose a vinyl wrap instead. Vinyl wraps maintain their glossy look and standup against the elements better than paint. Additionally, the details of a vinyl wrap is superior to paint.

When you receive a proposed design on a wrap, you can be confident the final product is going to closely match that design in terms of color and detail. With paint, it can be more difficult to get the detailed shades and coloring just right… even if you have an experienced and highly skilled painter.

You will be able to save some money on the exterior of your vehicle as many paint jobs cost between $1,000 – $3,000. Still, when it comes to something as important as the outside of your mobile food unit, it will pay future dividends to get a wrap that will promote your food truck professionally for years to come.

How to Create Smart Objectives for an Early-Stage Mobile Food Business

Two slices of delicious New York style pizza.

As your business grows and matures, where you invest time and energy needs to change. Too many first time vendors get overwhelmed when they find out just how many steps it takes to operate a food business.  Others get paralyzed just trying to figure out what to work to prioritize first. Don’t let this happen to you! 

The goal of this post is to help you set specific business objectives to throw your time and energy into when the time is right. You don’t need to complete the steps of starting and growing a business all at once. In fact, it’s impossible to accomplish. Instead break this task into bite sizes pieces and complete them one at a time until you’ve hit your goal.

By following the advise outlined in this post, you’ll understand where your focus needs to be when when starting a food business. All that being said, let’s begin to establish some smart objectives for your early stage mobile food business.

All aboard The Vegetable Express Food Trailer. Built by M&R Specialty Trailers and Trucks.

Stage One: Planning for Business

At first your focus should be will be on planning for the future. What menu will you offer? How will you serve food (restaurant, food truck, catering)? How do I get startup capital to actually get going? Typically, you’ll compile all of this information into your business plan document

The planning stage is an important first step in the startup process whether you’re planning to launch a restaurant, food truck, or an on the side catering business.

But after the planning is done and your business has been released into the world… You’ll need to quickly turn the focus from making plans to sales and revenue.

If you’re like me when I started the food truck, you don’t have much savings in the bank. This means you need to make money immediately after you open..

Although I started with a food truck and expanded into restaurant locations later, my advice is similar for new catering businesses or restaurants need to build immediate cash flow and market themselves on a budget in the early days.

One important caveat that needs to be mentioned. If this is your first business you probably won’t have all the time in the world to complete the planning for your business. You will need to make time for it. For many entrepreneurs that means researching and planning your business on evenings and weekends. 

Stage 2: Finding Locations

Finding profitable locations was were I spent the early days of my business. I would drive to corporate office parks in greater Austin without nearby food options and get the contact information of the property manager that was usually listed on a sign somewhere.

Then I would call or email the property manager to see if I could bring the truck at a future date. The sell wasn’t very tough since the property manager didn’t need to pay me. It was a no risk proposal on their end and something that the tenants and employees inside the buildings enjoyed too.

This is how many food carts got their start… Traveling to different office parks.

Some locations, I would generate no more than $200 for lunch service. These were tough days, but I continued to look for new more profitable locations.

My strategy was to continue vending at locations that were profitable and quickly drop the spots that weren’t.

I continue to maintain list of locations that are profitable, not profitable, and prospective locations that I can “test out” in the future if a profitable spot turns unprofitable.

Good vending spots can dry up more frequently than you might expect as different businesses enter and leave a certain business park. You always want to have your next prospect ready when this does happen.   

If you own a catering business you can take a similar approach something by offering to conduct pop-up events at office parks using a tent. If you own a restaurant, you can try something similar and offer a limited menu at office locations from a tent.

This is a proven way to generate sales when you have zero connections and you’re just starting out.

Booking catering and events is an important revenue stream for most mobile food business.

Stage 3: Private Catering – The End Goal

In the early days of your business, booking catering gigs, weddings, corporate events, or private parties is a game changer. One or two events per month can take you from losing money to robust profitability!  

Keep this point top of mind when you’re serving at any event or location. These smaller routine services and events are the ones that lead to highly profitable catering events or festivals.

Many small business owners only take single-day profitability into when determining whether or not to attend an event, but you also need to think about who you might meet at an event or service that could help move your business forward.  

The Final Word

This is a simple 3-step process to implement, but that doesn’t mean it will be fast and easy to accomplish. You could spend months in stage one planning to create right business plan and develop recipes for your business. This is totally normal and you shouldn’t be discouraged if it takes some time to organize this. After you get your food business up and running, it will be more difficult to find time for planning and strategy.

After you’ve built your plan, go all in on business development. Try new vending locations, apply to be in local festivals and events. In those critical first months of business it will be frustrating to see that some days you won’t bring in much money.

If you are able to accept this as part of the learning process, move forward, and continue to follow the objectives outlined in this post you can be successful in this industry. Work hard and stick to the plan.

How to Select the Best Name For Your Concession Trailer

Sprinter Van built by M&R Specialty Trailers and Trucks.

What’s in a name? It’s an age-old question posed by William Shakespeare in arguably his most popular work, Romeo and Juliette. As famously quoted from the book, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

While this question posed by Shakespeare is fascinating on a philosophical level, when it comes to selecting a business name for your concession trailer there’s not much to think about. The name you choose matters!

When you’re at any event, customers may only take a split second to understand what you serve and if it’s something they want. If you selected a name that doesn’t clearly represent what type of food you serve, you could be missing out on a lot of sales.

Bottom line, your goal as a business owner is to identify a name that peaks their interest, makes it clear the type of food you serve, and is ideally short. Sounds easy right? But the process can be easier said than done! Especially when you consider you’ll be operating and building a brand under this same name for years to come.

In this post, we offer guidance on how to pick the best name possible for your concession trailer if you’ve been struggling to find the right one. Our goal is to make this important business decision at least a little bit easier.

Tip #1: Choose a Name That Clearly Articulates What You Sell

You don’t need to be all that clever or 100% to come up with a business name that works. Examples such as Jimmy’s Gourmet Pizza Pies, Dave’s WonderBurgers, or Timmy’s Taco Truck can be simply ways to let prospective customers know exactly what you serve.

Choosing a name, can be more difficult than choosing what to eat.

Tip #2: Be Careful if You Want to Be Clever.

Being clever or funny in your business name can be tough to pull off. When it works, it’s wonderful. But more often than not you can leave people scratching their heads as to the point you’re trying to get across.

If you want to be clever with your name, try at the very least to select a name that you can in some way relate back to your food items. The examples below all do a superb job of tying in what food items they actually serve into their names…

The Dairy Godmother – The name of an ice cream shop in Alexandria, Virginia. This is a clever name that totally works!

Lord of the Fries – This name is a pun of the book / movie Lord of the Flies that explores the dark side of humanity. We wouldn’t have thought this name would work, but there are six locations across Australia so they must be doing something right!

Thai Tanic Restaurant –  This one of course is in reference to the movie Titanic starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

Finally, if your going to come up with a clever name like the one above make sure it isn’t objectionable in any way. We live in a sensitive world and you want to select a name that invites all types of people to dine at your trailer.

Tip #3: Keep it Concise

Whether you plan to open a concession trailer or restaurant, keep the name short is an important best practice. For one the shorter the name, the easier it will be to remember by guests. But there’s another important reason too, you’ve only got so much available space to publish your brand message on a concession wrap.

If you end up with a name too long, you will need to reduce the size of your font to ensure the message fits on a concession trailer. The smaller your font size the less likely you’ll be able to draw in customers from long distances like the other side of a street fair. Try to find something short to draw prospective diners closer to your vehicle so they can read the menu and get the details about your food.

Two slices of delicious New York style pizza.

Tip #4: Help Brain-Storming Food Trailer Names

As we’ve pointed out earlier in the post, choosing the right name for your concession unit is extremely important for long-term business success. But that doesn’t mean the process of discovering what to name your vehicle can’t be fun!

One approach is to get yourself a note pad, chalk board, or an word document and just starting writing down a variety of flow of consciousness vending names. You can get family members involved, spouses, and business partners involved in the process too. At this point the more ideas the better.

The whole point of the brain-storming sessions is to get a bunch of ideas out there for the name of the unit. Even if you don’t like the name that someone else suggests, feel free to write it down on the word document and include it in the list of options. The whole point of using this approach is because the names are written in stone or put under the microscope to scrutinize (yet). Just have fun and see what names you come up with and see if inspiration strikes.

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Two Ways Hiring a Consultant Can Help Grow Your Food Truck Business

Should you hire a consultant to help grow your food truck or restaurant?

Today’s blog post features one food truck / restaurant owners experience deciding whether or not to hire a restaurant consultant for his business and the lessons learned. We hope you enjoy this special post!

I expected hard work when I started a food truck business. What I didn’t see coming were the mental challenges I would need to conquer to be successful.

I think of these as my “mental blocks.” These blocks are the things preventing me from reaching the next level in my business.

My first mental block was overcome when I decided the approach my business not as a hobby, but with certainty.

After I went all-in to build my business and I got a mentor… I began making major progress in my business within months. 

Within the next 6 months, I expanded to a second food truck…

Encouraged by the continued success of my second food truck, I felt it was the right time to open the doors to our first restaurant location and hire two key managers to help run the day-to-day business.

There was just one problem…  

I knew how to run a food truck, but didn’t have a clue how to run a full-scale restaurant with bar.

While the restaurant location was exciting, I stressed about how to execute making a larger menu. How was I going to manage staff and hire? What processes did we need in place to pull this off? How could I manage everything?

I had officially hit the second mental block in my business.

There are challenges when growing any food truck or restaurant.

With the food truck, I was always involved in the operations. It was a lot of work, but I could handle it with a single truck. But after expanding to a second food truck and soon a restaurant location, I realized I couldn’t be everywhere at once any longer.

I would need a support system if I was going to be able to pull this thing off. But how exactly that was actually going to happen was the million dollar question.

I was already strapped for cash trying open a restaurant when my mentor Josh recommended hiring a restaurant consultant… A major expense that I did not have budgeted at the time.   

The restaurant consultant would be able to organize the daily work process, hiring processes, train managers, and get the new restaurant ready for opening day.

It’s not easy to invest thousands of dollars in training on top of necessary items like refrigerators, prep tables, ovens, chairs and other equipment for the restaurant. I wrestled with the decision internally for days.

I figured that even though it would be a lot of work, I had been able to “figure out” the food truck business largely on my own. Maybe I could do the same and save some money with te restaurant as well?

I had nearly convinced myself to open the restaurant on my own to cut costs until I remembered the promise I made to myself only months prior…

I promised to do whatever it took to make the restaurant a success….

At that point, the decision was simple… I bit the bullet and wrote out the check…

As it turned out… hiring a consultant would be one of the best investments I’ve ever made. It’s a decision continues to yield returns for my business to this day.

Working with the consultant, we were able to develop a process for accepting orders and delivering food before the doors opened. My key managers were also trained on how to run the restaurant so we were all on the same page operationally.

I understood my role too! My managers understood their positions. All we had to do was stick to the plan and follow process.

I finally had a team in place! It was officially game on for my restaurant!  

Looking back, it’s hard to believe how close I came to giving up on the food business. I’m so thankful that I decided to overcome that first mental block by recommitting to my business, hiring a mentor, and forging ahead… even when I didn’t know what the future had in store for me.

Having a mentor can improve your odds of success in any business.

It’s unfortunate, but over the past 5-years, I’ve seen dozens of restaurants and food trucks come and go in Austin.

It hurts when I see fellow restaurant owners give up on their dreams due to the exact same challenges I faced early on… Many were probably closer to success than they knew, but like me couldn’t see the path forward.

Of the restaurant or food truck owners that don’t make it are two similarities I’ve observed…

  1. Owners that fail don’t get mentorship or consulting help to solve their problems. They think that by “working harder” they can fix the situation. This never works and leads to burnout and even depression.

I can relate to this one. I used to fall into this category and it nearly cost me my dream.

I didn’t understand that other people may already have a solutions to the exact business problems I was trying to solve. I thought I could do it all!

I’m thankful that after two years, I would eventually see the light. Today, I continue to get on-going guidance and mentorship with my business as I grow my brand even further.

For me, learning has become a joy and my business has continued to grow. It’s also become a competitive advantage.

2.) Owners that fail don’t put any effort toward marketing. People must know you exist before they can try your food. Marketing creates customers… And customers are the fuel for your business!

In my humble opinion, there is literally no better activity you could be spending time on as a business owner than by helping others discover your business and try your food.

Interestingly, the very two things cutout by would-be restaurateurs is mentorship and marketing.

I encourage you… Do not to let your business become a statistic by making the same mistakes of so many would-be restaurant owners that have come before you!

Stay open to learning and gaining knowledge through mentors, coaches, or friends that you trust in the food business.  

Continue to find ways to promote your business by attending events, generating press or social media exposure. Become passionate about marketing your business and sharing your food with others!

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Restaurant VS Food Truck: Which is Right For You?

All aboard The Vegetable Express Food Trailer.

Trying to decide between starting a restaurant or food truck? You’re not the first culinary entrepreneur that’s faced this difficult decision. In fact, many current food truck owners originally planned to start restaurants, but after realizing they would need $500,000 (at least) to get their concept open decided to explore a more affordable mobile food unit instead.

Bottom line, when it comes to deciding whether or open a restaurant versus a food truck there’s no one sized fits correct choice. There are distinct advantages and disadvantages to each business model that we will explore in today’s post. You’ll need to take your unique financial and personal situation into account before choosing the path that’s right for you.

Finally, it’s important to remember that longterm in your business it’s not an either or decision between starting a food truck or restaurant. There are many examples of businesses that have started as food trucks and after seeing success expanded into a restaurant location. The Peached Tortilla in Austin, Texas, did exactly that. For the first 3 years the business operated as a food truck only. Later a restaurant location was added after the business revenues grew.

On the other hand plenty of restaurants have decided to invest in a food truck to add an additional stream of income from events and catering in addition to additional marketing for the food concept. One example of this path is our friend and customer, M Shack that sells burgers, shakes, and more. M Shack has four restaurant locations in Florida, but decided to invest in a food trailer to capitalize on event sales and grow awareness for their brand.

As M Shack’s managing partner Steve Schaefer stated, their business was able to generate an additional $300,000 in sales within their first 12 months by acquiring a food trailer. You can view a tour of M Shack’s food trailer by watching the video below.

Restaurant VS Food Truck: Which is right for you?

As you can see from the examples above, you don’t need to choose between a food truck and restaurant longterm. If you have a food concept that’s growing, by all means take advantage of both business models. In the short-term, we hope the information below helps you make the right decision for starting or expanding your business as a next step.

The Case for Food Trucks

Cost: The low-cost of entering the food truck business is why so many entrepreneurs decide to go mobile when starting their business. It’s simply not realistic to expect that everyone that has a good restaurant idea will be able to come up with the $500,000 – $1,000,000 required to go brick and mortar.

By choosing to go mobile, you can immediately bring your total startup costs down to well under $100,000. While it’s still a considerable investment, it’s more attainable to first time business owners and independent startups.

The other major cost consideration is that you won’t need to sign a longterm monthly lease like a restaurant will need to do. Restaurant locations, even in lower cost strip malls will typically set you back at least $1,500 – $2,000 monthly in the most affordable locations. In a high-traffic area, the monthly rental cost will be much higher. One example of a higher rent cost would be in San Francisco where monthly rent could be $8,333.00 per month or $100,000 per year. That’s a lot of risk for someone just getting started!

Location:  One of the biggest risks associated with starting a restaurant is finding the right location. An average restaurant in a prime location with plenty of foot traffic will often succeed. Alternatively, a great restaurant can flounder in the wrong location.

With a food truck or trailer, the fate of your entire business isn’t determined by a single location. If you discover that your vending location isn’t working, you simply pick up and vend somewhere more profitable.

The Case for Restaurants

Larger Menu: On a food truck, you need to pair down your menu. Due to size limitations, a menu that serves 3 – 5 food items is generally recommended. With a restaurant, you have a lot more space and can install a wider range of kitchen equipment. Deserts, appetizers, main courses, and a wider variety of beverages can all be served meaning you’ll have the opportunity to get a larger average ticket per table.

Fixed Location: There’s something to be said about having a single location where people know they can find you. There’s no need to visit a website or Twitter as is often needed to figure out where your favorite food truck will be located for the day. People know exactly where to go when they’re craving your food with a restaurant. Not having a fixed location with consistent hours can make developing those important regular customers more of a challenge for mobile food vendors too.

Permits: Getting the appropriate permits and licenses for a food truck can be complex. Often the inspectors and government officials in charge of explaining what permits and licenses you need will not be clear. With a restaurant, getting direction of what you’ll need to get started is more straight forward. The restaurant industry is a mature business model in any part of the United States and around the world. As a result, the process for establishing such a business is more straight forward too.

We hope this post has given you some food for thought when determining whether or not a food truck or restaurant is the right next step for your situation. We wish you success no matter what choice is right for you!

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