Culinary reality shows such as The Great Food Truck Race, Food Truck Face Off and Eat St. have consumers falling in love with—and seeking out—food trucks across the country. The increase in popularity has also led to a rising number of entrepreneurs being interested in opening their own food trucks, many of whom seek out the advice of Brett Lindenberg, founder of the popular food truck information site FoodTruckEmpire.com.
We sat down with Lindenberg to learn about some of the most important questions new food truck operators are faced with, along with some new and upcoming trends.
What are some of the most common questions food truckers have?
Lindenberg: Most of the common questions or pain points revolve around:
1. How do I get money for a food truck?
2. How do I navigate the rules and regulations to start a food truck in my area?
3. What do I do next to start a business?
4. How do I get a food truck built? Should I invest in a food truck or a food trailer?
How do you answer the question about how a person can get money to start a food truck?
Lindenberg: It really depends on each situation. Some people dip into savings or their 401k while others get a loan from friends or family. Crowdfunding has been a very successful method of raising capital for food trucks. The challenge becomes, how serious are you? If you’re willing to put in the effort to raise capital, you have a better chance at being successful.
How many active subscribers does FoodTruckEmpire.com have?
Lindenberg: We have more than 7,000 active subscribers and more than 40,000 visitors to the website monthly. These numbers continue to grow each month, demonstrating that interest is continuing for both eating at food trucks and starting a mobile food business.
What trends have you been noticing in food trucks?
Lindenberg: Over the past two years, more corporations and chain restaurants have gotten into the mobile food game realizing that there’s an opportunity for massive PR opportunities here. Chains such as Olive Garden and Chipotle have entered the mix due to the trucks’ ability to attract interest. These mobile food units operated by large brands have a bit of an advantage over self-funded food trucks because they don't need to provide an ROI.
The other major trend that's developed over the past two years is how food trucks generate income. Food trucks have become a launching pad of sorts for other types of food businesses. I know food trucks that have gone on to start successful restaurants like the Peached Tortilla in Austin, expand into multiple food trucks, start catering businesses, and even begin selling food products online like Motley Crew's Heavy Metal Grille in Minnesota.
Is a food truck usually easier than a restaurant?
Lindenberg: There are advantages to owning a food truck, but sometimes a restaurant is easier when it comes to shipping supplies, having a location where customers can find you, and more. Plus, for the truck owners who have the goal of creating a big business that makes a lot of money, they’ll need to add catering or start a restaurant.
The future of food trucks
What percentage of food trucks fail?
Lindenberg: The failure rate is about the same as a brick and mortar restaurant, but the key with a food truck is approaching it seriously. With a restaurant, you have a set number of hours you have to be there; with a food truck it’s on your own time.
Do you have an idea of how many total food trucks are currently operating and how much revenue they’re generating?
Lindenberg: IBIS World estimates there are over 4,000 food trucks in operation. This number is no doubt an estimate, however. If you include things like hot dog vendors and shaved ice vendors into the mix that number would be much larger.
Revenue totals can vary greatly from truck to truck. Much of it depends on the product you serve, your ability to market the product, and plain old hustle. The more you're able to get out and serve the public, the more money you'll make. A food truck has the potential to make an enormous income for the owner or ultimately fail just like brick and mortar restaurants.
Some examples of really successful food trucks include Cousin's Maine Lobster that secured funding on ABC's Hit TV Show Shark Tank and now has expanded into multiple locations across the country. Another success story is MShack, a small burger chain located in Florida that transitioned into mobile. The business paid $60,000 for the vehicle and within the first 12 months earned $300,000 in revenue.
What do you foresee for the future of food trucks?
Lindenberg: Overall, the food truck industry will attempt to be less fragmented. Currently there are different laws and expectations depending on where you operate in the country. Organizations such as the National Food Truck Association will try to make things more consistent across the country, band more food truck owners together, and advocate for the industry. I believe they will make progress in this area. However, it might still be tough to bring trucks together under one umbrella since the appeal of food trucks is that they are niche and unique.
On the frontlines of the food truck business is Richard Willis, owner of M&R Specialty Trailers and Trucks. Willis watches trends and regulations closely in order to build them into future trucks. In addition to growing regulations and an increase in trucks requesting LED lighting to stand out more, one of the biggest trends Willis has noticed lately is a rise in coffee trucks.
“Coffee trucks have become extremely popular and successful recently,” says Willis. “There are a couple of reasons for this--coffee is a product that's consumed by many people on a daily basis so there's less ‘burnout’ as there might be with eating at the same truck every day, and some coffee trucks have begun to find their niche in serving unique locations such as movie sets or corporate events. Serving these customers regularly can be very lucrative.”