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May 20, 2019 Staff

The 8 Steps to Starting Your Full-Time Ice Cream Truck Business

A swelteringly hot August day, on a quiet street anywhere in suburban America. The kids are too hot to even muster the energy to turn on the sprinklers, and the adults are losing patience with the incessant whines of “I’m bored,” as Summer vacation enters what feels like it’s 1000thday. The familiar tinkle of an ice cream truck horn is heard in the distance, and just like that, all of the bickering and activity stops; as the jingle gets closer, the kids start begging for a few dollars to buy a Rocket Pop, or a King Cone, or a soft serve twist with extra sprinkles. And for just a few moments, peace descends on the neighborhood.

If you’ve ever dreamt of being squarely in the middle of this classic American scene, of making your own hours, driving your own route, planning your own menu, and answering to no one but your hungry, happy customers, then you may have wondered if the ice cream truck business is right for you. But how do you begin the journey from idle dreamer, to successful ice cream entrepreneur?

For anyone interested in joining the ranks of the mobile ice cream vendors, knowing where to begin your research can be difficult. While there’s a wealth of information online about this particular segment of the mobile food business, it can be tough to figure out what to believe; there’s a lot of conflicting, outdated, or just plain bad information out there, and we felt like it was time to set the record straight.

The fact is, getting into the ice cream truck business can be an excellent choice for anyone interested in getting into mobile vending. The financial barrier to entry is relatively low, compared to other similar businesses, and you can get started without spending an arm and a leg on equipment. The hours are flexible, and as your business grows, it’s easy to expand by adding additional trucks to expand your route. Let’s take a look the eight steps required to start a profitable ice cream truck business whether you want to go part-time or full-time.

Step 1: Decide what kind of ice cream truck you want to own.

The sprinter van featured above was built by M&R Specialty Trailers and Trucks and can distribute ice cream and shaved ice treats.

When planning your new ice cream truck business, perhaps the most important consideration is what kind of ice cream you plan to serve. This one decision will cascade down through the rest of your business plan, since the type of ice cream you choose will determine the size and type of truck you need, as well as your equipment list.

When planning your new ice cream truck business, perhaps the most important consideration is what kind of ice cream you plan to serve. This one decision will cascade down through the rest of your business plan, since the type of ice cream you choose will determine the size and type of truck you need, as well as your equipment list.

There are three main options to choose from: An ice cream truck that sells prepackaged ice cream novelties, one that sells soft serve creations, or one that sells hard-packed ice cream. Depending on your vision, your equipment costs, branding, and licensing requirements will vary dramatically.

The prepackaged novelty business can be a great way for new entrepreneurs to get started; you won’t need much in the way of equipment, since freezer space is your primary consideration. In many locations, reselling prepackaged food might even mean that you won’t need a food handling license, or any of the specialized equipment unique to those trucks that prepare food, such as three-bay sinks, an on-board water supply, or access to bathroom facilities. Managing inventory is also much easier in the ice cream novelty business; you purchase product, mark it up, and sell it. It’s easy to see what your profit per product is, and when you need to reorder more of a certain item.

While running an ice cream truck that sells packaged novelties may be the easiest and lowest-cost option, the margins for a truck that sells soft serve or hard-packed ice creams can be significantly higher. Because you’re working with a set of base ingredients, there is a nearly limitless potential for dreaming up new combinations and assigning prices to match. You can plan menu creations with different numbers of scoops and sizes, or with different flavors and toppings, which are not only appealing to customers, but offer an opportunity to introduce additional high-margin items. (Seriously, do you know how little “sprinkles” cost?)

Of course, choosing to serve soft serve or hard-packed ice cream will require a significantly higher investment, both in terms of the equipment needed, and the truck itself. Consider carefully the limits of your budget, and be realistic about what you’ll need to best achieve your vision for your ice cream truck. According to a survey conducted from 35 ice cream truck vendors, you can expect to generate $5,000 on average per month operating this type of business. Your results could be better or worse depending on your location, weather, and how many hours you put into operating the business.

Step 2: Figure Out Your Startup Costs

The startup costs you’ll need for your new ice cream truck will vary wildly, depending on what type of ice cream you plan to sell. If you plan to purchase a used ice cream truck, that already has freezers, equipment, electrical, and plumbing installed, you can expect to spend between 6k and 20k on the truck itself, including equipment.

If you can’t find a used ice cream truck that suits your needs, you can scour eBay and Craigslist for a used step van or box truck (which we’ve seen with high mileage and a barebones interior for as low as $1,500), but be aware that the financial savings for converting a truck yourself may not be as high as you think. By the time you get your mobile kitchen built, the amount of money you’ve spent will often be comparable to buying a turnkey truck.

Remember that as with any used vehicle, particularly one that’s probably been on the road for a while and may weigh several tons, there will be maintenance and operating costs, including mechanical issues, gasoline or diesel, and oil changes. Be sure to set aside room in your budget to handle any emergencies that arise, because if your truck is out of commission, so is your business.

After you get your truck up and rolling, you’ll need to plan for an initial inventory spend, so that you have product to sell. This may include frozen novelties, or ice cream, cones, and toppings, as well as service items like cups, napkins, and spoons. Plan to spend around $1,000 on this initial inventory, but remember: With most mobile food vending operations, the money you spend on inventory gets turned into sales almost immediately, ensuring an instant cashflow.

You’ll need permits and licenses specific to your region; this may include a food handler’s license, a food safety course and certification, and any necessary local vendor’s permits. Costs will vary, depending on your region, but most people can safely budget $1,000 for these licenses. You’ll also need insurance for the truck, as well as general liability insurance; plan on another $1,000 per year for those.

In summary, your exact costs will vary depending on your equipment needs, and the licensing requirements in your area. At the low end of our estimates, getting an ice cream truck up and running could cost as little as $35,000 – $50,000, ranging all the way up to $75,000 (or more) at the high end.

Step 3: Select Ice Cream Equipment

Dark Chocolate Ice Cream Cone with Sprinkles.

When it comes to outfitting your ice cream truck, you’ve got a few different options for equipment. Your needs will depend largely on the kind of ice cream truck you are running, and the types of ice cream you plan to sell. A truck that deal strictly in prepackaged novelties should focus on as much square footage of freezer space as possible; calculate the size of your truck in square feet (leaving yourself some space to move around), then look for either commercial chest freezers or the smaller freezers meant for consumer use that you can buy at any home improvement store.

If you plan to sell soft serve or hard-packed ice cream, you’ll need the equipment to prepare and dispense ice cream, and a generator to make sure that everything keeps running and your product stays frozen. You’re also going to need adequate shelving, to store all of the cups, cones, spoons, napkins, and assorted toppings for your creations. If you’re flush with cash, you can buy this equipment new, from a website like WebstaurantStore.com, or keep your eye on your local classified ad marketplace for used equipment, which should cut your costs in approximately half, with some potential tradeoff in terms of reliability.

Because your business will be targeting primarily children, it’s probably a good idea to invest in a few kid-friendly accessories and pieces of safety equipment. You’ll definitely want a music and amplification system (after all, isn’t that the most fun part of running an ice cream truck?), as well as appealing signage and branding for your new truck. A few flashing lights are a good idea, to alert other motorists to the presence of kids, as well as an audible backup indicator that fires any time your truck is put into reverse.

Step 4: Plan Your Ideal Vending Route

Building an Plan for a Ice Cream Truck Route.

When planning the route you will drive each day, focus on areas where kids tend to congregate; schools, parks, playgrounds, campsites, and sports fields are all obvious choices, but you’ll need to check with the city to make sure that this type of vending is allowed in these locations. Some municipalities prevent operating near schools or public parts, while some neighborhoods may have noise ordinances preventing your from playing music in residential neighborhoods.

When planning your route, take care not to overlap with other ice cream trucks in your area; this is a business that depends a lot of cooperation, and while some rivalries may pop up, it’s best to try and avoid making enemies on your first day. Customers that are loyal to a particular ice cream truck may also not be particularly welcoming to your new venture, so when determining your route, try and focus on areas not already served by another truck.

Consider the potential for sales at any local festivals, where you can pay a vendor’s fee to the festival organizers, park your truck in one spot, and watch your hot and parched customers come to you. Music festivals, food truck events, outdoor concerts, farmer’s markets, and state fairs are all proven money-makers for ice cream trucks.

Click Here for a Detailed Guide on Planning Your Ice Cream Vending Route

Step 5: Determine Your Licensing Requirements

The types of licensing required for an ice cream truck can vary wildly from state-to-state, so it’s best to contact your local county clerk’s or code enforcement office to determine the types of credentials you’ll need. In general, you’ll probably need a food vendor’s license from both the state you live in, and the city you plan to operate in. In some areas, you may also need a permit from the local police department.

You’ll also want to contact the IRS, to obtain an Employer Identification Number. You’ll use this number with your local state tax authority as well, to establish a resale license and enable you to buy products at wholesale prices. For your first year of business, a consultation with a local accountant or CPA is a wise investment; they can make sure that you are staying in compliance with tax law and filing everything appropriately.

Step 6: Schedule a Phone Call With Your Local Health Department

For many new vendors, the thought of dealing with the health department can be intimidating or even scary. Remember, though, that the department of health works for you; in most cases, they want to help you succeed and keep your product safe for your customers. Schedule a call with your local health inspector early in your planning process, and tell them exactly what you plan to do with your ice cream truck.

If you plan to sell exclusively pre-packaged novelties, you may not need any special training or certification for handling food. But as soon as you scoop ice cream into a cone, you’re probably going to need some extra credentials, including certification from an approved food handling safety course such as ServSafe. You’ll want to sort out all of these requirements before you start investing money in equipment or marketing, since getting compliant with the health department may delay your potential opening date.

The health department will conduct regular inspections of your ice cream truck, to ensure your freezers are operating at the correct temperature, and that water lines and other equipment are clean and functioning properly. Ask your health inspector for a checklist for mobile food units, to help you identify and eliminate any potential problems before the health inspector does.

Step 7: Figure Out What Insurance You Need

Most mobile food business need to maintain general liability insurance, to protect their business in case a customer is injured or becomes sick, as well as insurance to cover the equipment itself, in case of accident or fire. Companies like Insure My Food  help small business people find one-stop-shopping policies that cover the wide range of needs unique to ice cream truck operators, at great rates.

Step 8: Hit the Road!

As your target opening day approaches, it’s time to start marketing your new ice cream truck like crazy. Luckily, the ice cream business is a great fit for social media; an Instagram account that features droolworthy photos of your latest ice cream creations is the perfect first step. A Facebook page for your new business can help customers find you, ask questions, see the types of items you have available, and leave reviews for your new business to encourage other customers. You’ll probably also want to consider a simple web page, offering a map of your route and your estimated times of arrival at various locations, along with a few glamor shots of your truck and your product.

Creating marketing buzz around your new venture early will pay off, on the day you take your new ice cream truck out for its first spin around the neighborhood. Start spreading the word about your new business well before opening day, and then get out there and hit the road!

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