16 Lessons I Learned After My First Year Owning a Food Truck (Part 2)

Welcome to part two of a three-part post, outlining the lessons I learned in my first year operating ‘Wich, Please, a food truck in Rockland, Maine. Did you miss part one of this series? Click here to get caught up. Now, without further ado…

6. It’s easy to spend ridiculous amounts of money on the best product, but that’s not the point

I’ve spent years, on the very pages of this blog, lambasting businesses for not using better product. “Why aren’t they buying better bread,” I breathlessly opined, or “Don’t they know that if they make their own tortillas, they’ll have a product superior to everything else that’s out there?”

What I learned this year is: Of course they do. Almost every business in the world knows better. They understand that if they spend top dollar buying the best product, they’ll have a better result. But that’s a ridiculous oversimplification that doesn’t take into account any other aspect of how difficult it is to run this business.

Ideally, every business should be buying exclusively small-batch produce from the farmer’s market. Locally-raised chicken and pork from the farm down the street. Artisan cheeses. Bread lovingly kneaded by hand, produced from the spent grains of a brewing process whispered over by celibate monks.

Unfortunately, this will result in a sandwich that costs $30 and that no one can reasonably afford to buy. The best ingredients may often equal the best product, sure, but you have to be selective about where you spend money, in order to keep the cost at a level that’s attractive to consumers. And THAT’S the point I missed, when I wrote those snarky reviews about ham italians back in 2010.

I am not, by any means, advocating for going full-Sysco. Or even partial-Sysco. Heavens no. But you have to learn to spend money were it makes sense to spend money, and find an acceptable substitute where it doesn’t. Identify the ingredients on your menu that will suffer the most greatly, by buying what may not be your first choice in product, from a national distributor or chain.

For example, I will spend any amount of money on bread. It’s that important. I will also buy bacon from Curtis Custom Meats, a local butcher, because it features prominently in several of our sandwiches and is better than any bacon I have ever tasted. Our seafood will come from Jess’s, a local fishmonger, even though it may be cheaper to buy from some sketchball off the back of a truck.

But can I buy things like swiss cheese, mayonnaise, fryer oil, and some produce from a big wholesaler? You betcha, and doing so will help keep my food affordable and approachable, while sacrificing very, very little in terms of quality. Finding this balance, figuring out where to spend money and where not to spend money, is key to the success of any food business. The sooner you can figure it out, the better.

Disposables

7. There are tons and tons of hidden costs, that may not have been a part of your business plan

You know that outfitting a truck or trailer is going to be expensive. And you know you’ll have to pay for food, electricity, propane, and probably rent. But have you factored in the cost for a victualer’s license from the state? Did you know that you’ll probably need one at the city level, as well? Did you know that you’ll need to pay for a food safety certification course, as well as a permit from the health inspector? How about insurance? You’ll need both insurance on your actual equipment, plus liability insurance in case (god forbid) somebody gets sick after eating at your restaurant. Planning to bring your truck to special events or festivals? Each of them will charge a fee. What about water? Trash? Wastewater disposal (and hauling)? Fryer oil recycling?

How about disposables? Every paper tray, napkin, straw, fork, spoon, knife, portion cup, or tray liner you pass out your window costs money, and it adds up quickly. Packets of ketchup for fries? Sugar for coffee (not to mention creamer, lids, cups, and those little stirrer straws) all add to your cost. And what about cleaning up? Paper towels, laundry service, dish soap, hand soap, sterilizing solution, test strips all add to your bottom line, and are all things that many people (including us!) overlook when first trying to figure out feasibility for a mobile food business.

Tired

8. Time passes in a very weird way, and you need to be very comfortable with whoever you’re working with.

Here in Maine, we take our summers very seriously. We usually average about four months, where not only is it warm enough to enjoy being outside, but the days are long enough that we don’t feel like stringing up every time the sun goes down at three in the afternoon and our lives plunge again into total darkness.

I didn’t consider, really, how strange it would be to spend these few precious months in an 8×10 metal box with a 21 year old kid that I only kind of knew. We averaged 55 hour weeks (more during festivals, but I’ll get to that later), watching the world go by from our tiny service window, taking time to step outside into the bright sunshine, warm air, and blue skies only when the 125 degree -plus temperatures inside the truck became too hard to bear.

Long hours + cramped conditions + hard work + stress led to Nick, my helper, and I becoming pretty close. We listened to a LOT of DMX. We experimented with battering and frying almost anything you can think of. We had high-level discussions about music, love, life, and loss, all while maintaining a tone of mutual respect and desire to Get the Job Done. But we were lucky.

Consider very carefully who you employ to work the truck with you, because chances are, you’re going to have to become very friendly, very quickly. And consider, also, that you’re going to effectively miss the season that a lot of people live for.

Deep Fried Fluffernutters

9. The large festivals are not the answers to your financial future

Here in Maine, we have a few big festivals each summer, which I considered a vital part of my business plan. The North Atlantic Blues Festival, the Maine Lobster Festival, and the Maine Boats, Homes, and Harbors show bring a combined tens of thousands of visitors to our small town each summer, and I was certain that a presence at these shows would be my ticket to a week or two of virtually printing money.

That’s not exactly how it worked out. We are lucky to have developed a loyal following among locals. But unfortunately, most of the locals have a tendency to stay away during the big festivals, citing “traffic” and “tourists” as a reason to avoid coming downtown. What’s more, some festivals are ticketed, which means that your local regulars won’t even be able to get to you, without buying a ticket to the show.

But that shouldn’t matter, with your thousands of new, fresh, hungry faces, right?

Pictured: Not one of our customers.
Pictured: Not one of our customers.

Not so much. The North Atlantic Blues Festival, for example, was an event that attracted thousands and thousands of visitors for a day of scorching sunshine, day drinking, and endless, repetitive, noodling blues guitar riffs. We had, perhaps, our worst week of the season. We did simply no business. What’s worse, we had WAY over prepped, spending entirely too much money on way too much product, to feed the hungry masses that never came. It was a waste of time, money, and effort. We lost money, that weekend.

We didn’t fare much better at the Lobster Festival, a week-long nationally-recognized event that we paid $500 in vendor fees to attend. My logic was simple: 10,000 hungry people equals crazy profit, right? Again, things didn’t really work out that way. Most of the crowd was there to eat either lobster, or horrible, standard-issue fair food, like italian sausages of questionable origin, or fried wads of dough covered in powdered sugar. Our little fussy sandwich wagon just didn’t make sense to people. The festival also required us to be open for all of the hours that the festival was open, which meant a 90 hour week, more or less.* When all was said and done, we broke even. If, that is, you consider not being able to pay yourself anything, “breaking even.”

*I had attended the Lobster Festival several times, in past years. I had never, however, attended the ENTIRE Lobster Festival. That changes a man, man.

The takeaway? Festivals aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, and may even make you lose money, when all is said and done. Beware of vendor fees, and consider your product and how it relates to a fair-going crowd. Finally, think about what losing your most local customers for a week will mean for your business. For us? Participation in the big festivals and fairs probably isn’t going to make much sense again this year.*

*Except for the Maine Boats, Homes, and Harbors show. That thing is a monster money-maker, with a really friendly staff, a great atmosphere for food-lovers, reasonable hours, and a wonderful crowd of new customers.

10. Towing a food trailer is a pain, and will make you reluctant to take lucrative catering jobs. Consider a step van for your food truck.

Do you know how to tow things? I don’t. I’m 100% terrible at it. Even though I understand, intellectually, the way I am supposed to spin the steering wheel to make the trailer hypothetically go where I need it to go, backing a trailer up always results in the trailer being jackknifed just outside my driver’s-side window. It’s baffling, and practice doesn’t seem to be improving my skills in this area, even a little.

Also, did you know how heavy these things are? My trailer, fully loaded, weighs somewhere around 7,000 pounds, which puts it well outside of the towing capacity for my Jeep.

Because of my total lack of both towing skill and suitable equipment for towing, that means I almost always have to either ask a friend to tow for me, or worse, hire someone to do it. This isn’t a big deal for most of the summer, since we tend to park in one place, and don’t have to break the trailer down and move it each night. But it does mean that the hundreds of inquiries I receive about doing catering jobs for weddings, job fairs, or joining food truck festivals mostly have to be declined, since moving the trailer is, for me, an enormous pain.

Can you imagine how great it must be to have a bonafied kitchen built into an old step van, where you can just jump behind the wheel and move your whole operation, any time you’d like, without jacking up, hooking up to a trailer, connecting tow lights, etc.? Man. Those guys have it made.

11. Storage is always an issue, and is costly, since you can’t store full cases of product.

Space. Space, space, space, SPACE. A total lack of space is something that you’ll constantly be doing battle with. In our 8×10 trailer, we have four wall-mounted shelves, a three-door reach-in refrigerator, and two under-counter display fridges, PLUS a free-standing mini-fridge with freezer to contain the overflow. Seems like a ton of space, right? It’s not. The two display fridges, for example, contain only beverages. The three-door fridge does the bulk of our heavy lifting, storage-wise, with the mini combo fridge/freezer accepting anything that’s left. But we still have bread, condiments, all of our disposables, and more, all needing space that we simply don’t have. Last year, we bought a giant Rubbermaid deck box and freestanding cabinet, to handle some of the overflow. It’s still not enough.

Most frustrating, not to mention costly? Unlike a restaurant, who usually has a large walk-in refrigerator, maybe a walk-in freezer, and ample room for dry storage, we can never buy full cases of product. This is not only inconvenient, but it’s hell on our food costs, since buying product in partial cases is always more expensive.

It also creates a pretty significant inventory problem, since you never know what is going to sell the most on a given day. That means we usually carry pretty small quantities of everything, making it so if there’s a run on a particular item, we will almost certainly run out and have to make an emergency trip to the store to get more. It’s expensive, and it contributes to the sense of urgent, anxious chaos that can make running a food truck so mentally and physically exhausting.

 


 

That’s it for this week! Don’t worry, the food truck business isn’t all doom and gloom. In our conclusion, we’ll cover the reasons why running a food truck can be the best decision you’ve ever made. See you soon, and remember, if you missed last week’s entry in this series, you can get caught up here.

Malcolm Bedell is co-author of the critically acclaimed “Eating in Maine: At Home, On the Town, and On the Road,” as well as the taco-centric blog “Eat More Tacos,” and the junk food-centric “Spork & Barrel.” His contributions include Serious Eats, Down East, L.A. Weekly, The Guardian, and The Huffington Post and his food truck, “‘Wich, Please,” was named “Hottest Restaurant in Maine” for 2015 by Eater. Finally, he finds it very silly to be trying to write this in the third person.

2 Comments

  1. Have you thought of writing a book on this subject? I’m not dreaming of a food truck ownership and still find this so interesting. Your climate certainly adds to the challenges.

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