I opened the doors on ‘Wich, Please for service on May 19, 2015, without a clue about how the business would work, whether any customers would be able to find us, whether anyone would like my food, and only a passing hope that we would earn enough money to survive our first week.
While we’re still learning more and more about the mobile food business each and every day, I thought it would be worth laying out the 16 lessons about this business I have learned so far. Anyone with experience in foodservice, and particularly the mobile food truck business, will probably laugh at the degree of naiveté shown here. Hell, I’ll probably laugh at this post myself, after I get another year under my belt. My hope, though, is that the things I’ve learned so far will be useful to anyone that’s considering indulging in their food truck fantasies, and making the leap. Here we go:
1. Navigating city ordinances can be tricky, particularly if there aren’t already food trucks in your area.
In many areas of the country, food trucks are not only incredibly popular, well established, and making money hand over fist; they may even have already reached peak trendiness and begun their decline. That’s not the case everywhere, though, as I found out in the months leading up to opening ‘Wich, Please. For example, in my town, some hastily thrown-together mobile food ordinances had been compiled to address a request from an entrepreneur hoping to convert a cargo shipping container into a restaurant, and plunk it in the middle of town. The city council had to quickly draft a response to this, which unfortunately made things more difficult for regular food vendors operating out of a truck or a concession trailer.
In the months leading to our opening day, I learned that our modest 8×10 trailer couldn’t operate anywhere within the “downtown zone,” even if I made arrangements with a private property owner. In order to access this prime piece of our city, the trailer would have to comply with local “appearance ordinances,” which would require my trailer to have carved wooden embellishments around the windows, a brick facade, and other details that would clearly make no sense for a mobile food unit. Anyplace I put the trailer outside of the so-called “downtown zone” would have to have at least 10 parking spaces. And in the one city-owned park where our food truck WOULD be allowed, local ordinance allowed for only two food vendors to occupy the space, meaning I had to petition the city to change the law to allow for a third vendor. (Which I successfully did, by the way.)
Does this all sound time consuming? It is. Do you want to be attending city council meetings and speaking to local government about changing the laws of an entire town, while your future hangs in the balance? You do not. Is all of this the last thing you want to be thinking about, when you’re designing menus, getting graphics made for the truck, and scrubbing mildew out of the seals of your refrigeration unit (y’know, the fun stuff)? It is.
The town where I live was, to be fair, super cooperative and helpful in helping me get my particular mobile food business off the ground, once they saw that my intentions were good, and that I could potentially bring more attention to the city as a place for people who want to come and do business.
But the takeaway is this: Do the research. Talk with someone in your town’s Code Enforcement office, long, long before you get rolling outfitting your truck. Make sure that what you want to do is even possible, within the construct of the (sometimes arcane) framework of your city’s laws. A little forethought at the beginning will save you lots of time down the road.
2. The support of your community is vital to your success.
One hundred percent of the success I achieved in my first year on the food truck was due to the support of my community. One. hundred. percent. It was community support that allowed me to change the city ordinances needed to open my truck, where I wanted to open it. It was community support that ensured we had a line on opening day, and had customers even when it rained. It was the enthusiasm of the community, that saw fit to take to social media in droves, to write positive reviews on business directory websites, to share photos of their meals, and help spread the word of what we were trying to accomplish. It was community support that gave our customers seemingly infinite patience, even when we messed up, ran out of food or propane, took a half an hour to get an order out, opened late, closed early, or put garlic aioli on something that had no business being covered in garlic aioli.
Every single day, we felt like people were happy to see us, eager to wait in line for their lunch, and that they shared in our successes. I can’t imagine trying to get a business like this off the ground without this kind of support, and I am grateful for it every day. Engender goodwill in your community. Let them know what you’re doing, and WHY you’re doing it. Invest in them, and they will invest back in you.
3. Food safety is serious and terrifying.
Under Maine law, any restaurant needs to have what’s called a “Certified Food Protection Manager” on staff, which is a designation handed down by a company called “ServSafe.” Because I own ‘Wich, Please, it made sense to me to be the one to get certified.
I thought I had a pretty good handle on food safety: Keep cold food cold, hot food hot, and wash your hands often. There are a few more things that I learned, though, on that lonely day in that banquet room of a Hilton in Bangor. Like how one sick employee with the sniffles can cause an epidemic of sickness that will get you investigated by the CDC and will destroy your reputation instantly. Or how it’s not just about how you keep food cool, but about how QUICKLY you transition cooked food into a chilled, refrigerated state. Or how, once raw chicken has touched any surface, the safest measure is to burn the entire building to the ground.
Through a day’s classroom instruction, I came to view stock footage of diners happily munching away in a restaurant not as happy scenes of friendship, romance, and camaraderie, but as dark, moody prologues to invisible crimes against the public health, like an “America’s Most Wanted” reenactment with a sashimi course.
And you know what? That’s good. Because food safety is a big deal. Playing fast and loose with food handling is the quickest and most surefire way to put your business out of business.
4. A rather large portion of the work is disgusting, and the hours can be tremendously long, with tons of running around like a crazy person.
That moment when you pass a taco out your service window, and your customer beams, an ear-to-ear grin of anticipation flickering across his hungry face? It’s awesome. But it’s also a very small part of your day.
A lot of the work is, well, pretty gross. Ever see the sludge that gets collected in the bottom of a forty pound deep fryer after you run it for two days without a crumb-catcher? Ever wonder how you’re going to get that sludge out of there? Or what happens to all of your wastewater from dishes, after you pump it out of the holding tank on your truck? Or the room-filling odors that can be created by losing a single raw slice of potato behind a refrigerator? What about handling dozens of lipstick-and-grease smeared napkins that have been used by strangers, are you into that? The fact is, a lot of the work in restaurants is pretty disgusting (and that’s without even considering some of the unique problems that food truck owners can face).
And that’s when everything is running smoothly! The actual hours that you are in service make up just a small portion of your workday. Because many vendors won’t deliver to you without a physical address, or because your order quantities are so small, you’re driving around to a lot of your suppliers to pick things up.
PLUS, there’s no predicting what is going to sell the most successfully from day to day, and you don’t have room to store a lot of product, so you’re constantly running out of things and having to restock at the supermarket, which is hellish on your food costs. Factor in prep time, cleanup time, and shopping time, not to mention last minute runs for things like propane, or unforeseen problems like your hood exhaust fan breaking down, and a four hour lunch service pretty quickly turns into an 8-10 hour day. It can produce an incredible adrenaline rush, or it can just make you want to lie down. Or sometimes both.
5. Fewer vendors = happier food trucker
This is kind of a continuation of my last point above, and it’s probably a no-brainer for anyone with any experience in this business. But if you can narrow the number of suppliers you use, you can drastically simplify your life (not to mention your bookkeeping). For example, at one point, we had a sandwich menu that used six different types of bread. The rye and the sourdough were easy; they came from a commercial bakery and could be picked up with 48 hours notice. One of the sandwiches used a special roll that I had custom baked at a nearby specialty bakery. One of the other rolls I used could only be found at the supermarket, and they wouldn’t give me the name of their supplier, so I had to buy off-the-shelf at retail, and with scarce and unreliable availability. The same was true with a third type of roll, which I purchased from a different chain retailer. And finally, I found a special pita that was only available through one of my wholesalers.
Do you see the problem here? I was buying bread (BREAD!) from five (FIVE!) different suppliers. That’s five trips across town, on different days, on different bakery schedules. Five invoices to file. Five checks to write. And that was before I had assembled ANY OF THE OTHER INGREDIENTS THAT GO ON A SANDWICH.
This is entirely my own fault, and is partly because I am nothing short of obsessed with finding the right vehicle for the right ingredients. Bread is a very big deal, you guys. But if I had thought it through, planned ahead more, MIGHT I have been able to design a menu that had ingredients that overlapped a little more? Made some concessions on which bread got used on which sandwich? Been a little flexible? Narrowed that list of vendors down to one or two? Probably. Could I have saved myself from having a six month long, ambulatory heart attack? Definitely.
When designing your menu, ask yourself: Am I maximizing the way that a small amount of ingredients can be used in a wide range of dishes?