We’ve come a long way from the days of the lowly roadside burger van, with the popularity and diversity of food trucks exploding over the past decade. Many aspiring business owners in the food and drinks industry have turned to them as a lower cost, lower risk alternative to opening a traditional restaurant. And the trend doesn’t seem to be slowing.
Many food truck owners dream of one day opening their own brick-and-mortar location. A mobile setup is a smart way to try out different locations, test and tweak dishes and build a loyal following before taking the plunge for real.
Mobile catering often beats its brick-and-mortar equivalent hands down on price. But how much money do you actually need to get off the ground and develop into a growing business?
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Licenses, permits and certificates for a food truck
As with static restaurants, there are a number of licenses and permits that food truck businesses need to secure before they can start selling:
Food business registration.
You’ll need to register with every local authority whose area you want to trade in at least 28 days before you start selling there.
Food premises approval.
If you’ll be handling meat, fish, eggs or dairy products, council officials will need to inspect your food truck for safety and hygiene.
Street trading licence.
Council approval is needed to trade on the street, and this may come at a cost depending on your chosen locations. There’s nothing to pay in Margate, for example. But in Haringey, London, fees start at £53 for a 6 month licence. Larger sums can often be paid in monthly installments.
Commercial gas safety certificate.
If you plan to cook hot food with gas appliances, this certificate is needed to show that all equipment is safe and fit for use. All your gas appliances should come with a CE marking and flame failure device.
Food hygiene certificate.
Food safety regulations require anyone handling food or drink to prove that they can do so responsibly. The best way is to simply get a food hygiene certificate.
The cost of renting vs buying a food truck
The biggest question on your mind is probably how much to spend on the vehicle itself. This is by far the biggest outlay, but with the right choice and ongoing TLC it could last you for years to come.
The Nationwide Caterers Association (NCASS) puts the price of a new food truck, complete with fittings and equipment, at between £5,000 and £50,000. On Gumtree, second hand prices start at about £1,000 for a simple sandwich and coffee van, going right up to the £30,000 mark for a vintage VW camper kitted out with full kitchen.
Although a cheaper motor might get you off the ground for less, you don’t want to be left high and dry when it breaks down in a few months. Press second hand sellers on the vehicle and equipment history, research the lifespan of models you’re considering and always take your potential purchase for a test run.
Finding out the rental cost for a food truck is somewhat harder. Most sites don’t list prices, offering quotes instead. A Google search for “food truck hire” followed by your location will give you some options to choose from.
Think of your long-term plans with regards to buying or renting. If this is a several year venture, do you want to be tied down to someone else’s restrictions? Similarly, if this is a short-term means to an end, is the process of buying and kitting out your own food truck worth it?
Kitchen and serving equipment
If you’re planning to update existing kitchen equipment or kit out your truck from scratch, these costs will need to be factored in. For most, the equipment should include:
- Sinks for hygiene and dishwashing (with draining board)
- Grills, fryers, a stove or electric oven
- Catering urn (for boiling water)
- Extractor fan
- Waste disposal
- Fire safety equipment
- Protective screen at the ordering window
- Utensils and cookware
- Fridge and/or freezer
- Food preparation area
- Disposable napkins, cups, cutlery and plates or serving boxes
- Hygienic clothing, like aprons and plastic gloves
Many food trucks come with the basics, such as plumbed-in sinks — the rest is then up to you. When you’re launching your business and dealing with lots of other startup costs, it might make more sense for you to rent appliances while you figure out what equipment you need.
Startup food inventory
The startup costs for ingredients depend on your menu. You probably have a good idea of the cuisine and menu items you plan to sell already. But gauging demand — and therefore inventory — in your earliest days is going to be part of your overall learning experience as a business owner.
Plan your startup menu with these considerations:
- How much is needed to eventually cover your other startup costs?
- How long do you intend to trade for (each day and long-term)?
- How many people will be cooking and serving food at any one time?
- How much space do you have to store ingredients and prepare food?
- How will your potential locations affect demand and therefore the speed at which you need to serve?
Your answers will hopefully give you an idea of which menu items are suitable and how they should be priced to cover your running costs, reach break even point and eventually make a profit.
As with your kitchen equipment, it’s always best to start small and scale up. Design just a handful of dishes, refine those recipes, research where you can get the cheapest ingredients and practice preparing them without any wastage.
Running costs of a food truck
As well as the set costs of licences, there are other essentials to cover when starting a food truck business. These are the main ones:
- Gas and electricity: the cost of these depends on the size of your setup and the appliances you work with.
- Fuel: if you set up shop locally, it will be easier to keep this cost down.
- Wages: as well as paying staff at least the minimum wage, you’ll also need to work out how much to pay yourself.
- Vehicle insurance: you can check whether or not your food truck is already on the Motor Insurance Database.
- Business insurance: there are many types of business insurance to choose from, from personal liability to stock cover. Some, such as Employer’s Liability Insurance are compulsory (if you employ other people in this case).
- Vehicle tax: (or road tax) must be paid on your food truck annually and can be managed on the gov.uk website.
- Marketing costs: depending on how big you want to go — from a full vehicle wrap to a simple sandwich board — there will most likely be an outlay for some form of marketing.
- Maintenance: equipment in a food truck will age quickly, so the cost of replacements and repairs should be factored into your budget.
- Payment system: with more people paying by card, it’s essential that you have a card reader to ensure you never turn down a sale.
How to cut costs for your food truck business
There are so many benefits to starting a food truck business: no more office work, you’ll make a ton of new connections, you’re out in the open air and you get to cook to your heart’s content.
As with any business, the startup costs can feel restrictive. But before you cast the dream aside, remember that many small businesses receive some kind of funding to get off the ground — it doesn’t have to all come down to you and your savings. Second, there are ways to push those costs down so that in the long run it’s easier to break-even.
1. Use versatile, seasonal ingredients.
Instead of having lots of menu items that require different ingredients, opt for a smaller number of dishes that use similar, long-life and seasonal produce. Many food truck businesses opt for variations of one idea. As well as keeping your costs down, you’ll become a low-waste, greener company.
2. Don’t go overboard.
When you’re starting out, err on the side of caution with bought ingredients — it’s better to sell out than watch your money on go down the drain. Selling out can even build buzz.
3. Keep it in the family.
Ask for help from family and friends. This won’t be a permanent situation but it will help you work out a long-term staffing plan. And there’s free food in it for them.
4. Choose your location wisely.
The cost of a street trading license varies from council to council, so you may find that driving a few miles out of town to somewhere with a cheaper licence makes a huge difference. Research your options before applying.
5. Buy in bulk with other food trucks.
Purchasing certain ingredients or supplies in larger quantities with your fellow mobile restaurateurs pools resources and brings costs down for everyone.
Websites, online advertising, brochures and advertorials aren’t necessarily expensive, but they do come at a cost. Social media on the other hand can be run entirely for free and managed easily during quieter periods.
If you don’t have design skills yourself, you most probably know someone who does. Use their (free) help to embellish your truck, paint signs and design flyers.
8. Take care of your truck.
Though it may sound simple, regular deep cleans and maintenance checks help avoid major, expensive issues down the line.
9. Compare suppliers.
Whether it’s your energy supplier or your go to wholesale food shop, keep your eyes peeled for better deals. By switching or asking providers to match someone else’s prices, you ensure you’re never paying more than you need to.
10. Manage inventory with care.
According to the Waste and Resources Action Programme, the average cost of avoidable food waste to UK business is £0.97 per meal. For a small business, that’s huge. With an inventory management system however, you get a better idea of what’s in stock and when you need to refill so you’re not relying on your gut.
Though it’s not easy to pin down the exact total cost of starting a food truck, this list of necessities is a resource to kick off your research. Few ventures are “cheap”, but there are always hacks to remove some of the cost barriers.
This post is for guidance only and is not intended as legal advice. For financial or legal advice related to your specific business, be sure to consult an independent financial or legal professional.
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