Before You Start A Food Truck, Slow Your Roll

Food trucks offering everything from cupcakes to waffles have sprouted in cities all over, and it sure sounds fun. Driving around, selling unique food, tweeting about it, who wouldn’t want that? But before you jump in, you should know it’s a darn hard grind. $100,000 in startup costs is not unheard of, and you better make sure you know the regulations. For instance, how are you going to sell food from your truck if you’re not allowed to park it anywhere?

Serious Eats writes:

There’s more to planning a lucrative mobile food business than just parking somewhere and crossing your fingers. Even if your idea is great, you must first be aware of local regulations. In the summer of 2009, Chef Charles Kelsey had a plan to start a sandwich truck in Cambridge, MA. But unlike cities such as Portland, OR, where the process of opening a curbside business is coherently laid out by the city and permits are pretty easy to snatch, Cambridge didn’t have such a clear-cut process.

“It was a freaking nightmare,” Kelsey said about trying to get a parking space in the Kendall Square neighborhood. After getting over 20 recommendation letters from local business owners and influential residents, still with no city support, he gave up the mobile concept and went on to open Cutty’s, a successful brick-and-mortar sandwich shop in Brookline.

This is not to say that you shouldn’t start a food truck if it’s your dream, just know that it will take more than a clever name, a paint job and a bucket of chutzpah.

So You Want to Start a Food Truck? [American Express Open Forum]

Can’t Find Work In Your Field? Move To NYC And Open A Food Cart


Edit Your Comment

  1. shepd says:

    And in some places they’re just plain illegal (Montreal, PQ). Wonder if that’s the intent in Cambridge, MA?

    • jesusofcool says:

      In my experience Boston-area local government is tends to be very resistant of anything too representative of new fangled change, so I’m not surprised.

    • B says:

      They’re definitely not illegal. There’s a lot near Kendall Square in Cambridge that has several food trucks parked there daily.

  2. Cheap Sniveler: Sponsored by JustAnswer.comâ„¢ says:

    Some places don’t ban “Roach Coaches” outright, they just put up so many barriers that it’s near impossible.

  3. TorontoConsumer says:

    Don’t forget health regulations! Never forget health regulations. It’s not even mentioned in the link – trust me, you’re going to want to talk to your local public health agency before opening, as there are lots of rules that are hard to adapt to AFTER a place (or truck, or whatever) is already built.
    These issues also tend to develop in to HUGE headaches (eg, construction/installation of a handwashing sink), ones that could have been avoided if the conversation had just happened before opening/construction.

  4. JulesNoctambule says:

    Business owners in my city’s downtown region are campaigning to keep food trucks out of downtown, citing ‘competition’. I personally don’t think that a pizza truck is in direct competition with a trendy, pricey, white-tablecloth sort of restaurant, but I guess they think it’s enough of a threat. The unforeseen side effect of their efforts, though, has been that many of us who support the allowing of food trucks downtown have decided not to patronize the businesses trying to limit them.

    • JohnnyP says:

      Like where I live. Its was illegal to have a food cart in the city. They changed it but because they didn’t want competition downtown they can operate a food cart anywhere but downtown. You also have to lease the spot that you want to operate in. 2 years later we have 1 cart.

    • ParingKnife ("That's a kniwfe.") says:

      Are you kidding? Have you seen the line into those trendy places.

      “Man, we’ve been waiting for an hour and a- Hey! They’re selling sandwiches! Want one?”

      Hell, the B&M’s don’t even have to be that trendy. During the lunch rush, they’re bursting at the seams, and they do a roaring trade. I can imagine that food trucks might threaten that, taking away more impatient customers. Not that this is a good reason to disallow the trucks, but I can see why certain businesses would be threatened.

      • Im Just Saying says:

        In Seattle, some of those lines are at the food trucks themselves and it’s easier to go to the trendy sit down joint.

        • pecan 3.14159265 says:

          The Red Hook Lobster Truck in DC (mmm lobster roll) always has a line that wraps around the block. I went for some coffee one day and the line was about 40 people deep.

    • Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:

      Of course a restaurant will complain about competition. At least they’re being honest about it.

      As a regulator, I would laugh at them and then stamp my big APPROVED stamp on the permit in front of them.

      When it comes to local competition, it only hurts those who have an inferior product.

      • mac-phisto says:

        except that in most small towns, the people who approve the permits often have a direct interest in commerce.

        in the town i work in, the zoning committee to zone a street vendor out of the historic village in town that’s been there longer than any restaurant in town. they finally gave up when a significant portion of the townspeople showed up at meetings in his defense.

        i’m sure the fact that 2 of the zoning members own the two most prestigious restaurants in the village & 3 more own other businesses in the village has nothing whatsoever to do with their decision to restrict commerce to b&m locations.


    • catastrophegirl chooses not to fly says:

      if i recall from NPR the other day, they aren’t illegal here, just can’t park on public property. but there are some private parking lots where the owners permit them, like beer places that see a jump in their business when there’s food to be had on the way ou/in

      and there’s a taco trailer [not even a full truck] that parks in a trailer park near my house. i see it on my way home on friday nights but the line is always so long.

      • Egat says:

        If the lines are long that’s a damn good reason to try waiting in it at least once!

        People don’t keep those lines long without good reason.

      • JulesNoctambule says:

        Big Boss frequently has Klausie’s Pizza in their lot, and that’s walking distance for me. Sadly for my waistline and wallet!
        The guy who owns Solas and that stupid hipster diner place on Glenwood is actively encouraging the city to ban them outright in the downtown area based on the fact that B&M places pay rent, which I think is crap.

        • catastrophegirl chooses not to fly says:

          i’d boycott them, but this would involve having ever actually been to one of those trendy places at least once to be able to actively avoid them. i had a really bad date at one of the south glenwood coffee spots once.
          my office tends to get one of the burger places with a catering truck to come out a couple times a year [in better weather] to cater a lunch for us. maybe i can get HR to start supporting food trucks this way. hehe

          • JulesNoctambule says:

            Was it Helios? Or, as we call it, the Glenwood branch of the Apple store showroom — good coffee, diluted by the presence of the hipster-than-thou clientele.

            You should totally try to get HR to have Klausie’s cater the next event! They’d sold out of the cheese last time we were at Big Boss, but it smelled so go I just wanted to lick the damn truck for a taste.

            • catastrophegirl chooses not to fly says:

              yeah, helios. it’d been so long that i forgot the name. if i have to go for coffee on glenwood now i prefer third place.
              there’s a couple hundred + of us in the office and it would be nice to have a change from from the burger on a firetruck people. i can’t even remember their name, it’s so boring.
              and when we get pizza it’s the oily cardboard from randy’s pizza.
              i was drooling just listening to the klausie’s guy describing the pizza on NPR. i’d much rather have well crafted food from a local business instead of a chain

    • RvLeshrac says:

      I’m curious, since when was “competition” a valid reason to *BAN* something in a capitalist society?

  5. KingPsyz says:

    they rule, and he helps newcomers get started

  6. Consumeristing says:

    I work in planning. My city doesn’t have regulations directly for food trucks. If we go by our existing rules, it’s gonna be a PITA for them. Fees start at 4 figures just from one department. And we’re just one department. The rest of the departments are also in our position. People tend to think “City Hall” is one entity. LOL! It’s dealing with like 7 cities at one time just to sell food. That doesn’t cover the various state and other localities regulations. Yes, more government please.

    • Kate says:

      Don’t be silly – try just asking for ‘better government’. It’s not a less or more black and white question and believe it or not, if you work there, you can make suggestions to streamlines things and get some kudos for doing so.

      • Consumeristing says:

        When Obama admitted that there’s no such thing as “shovel-ready” projects, he was basically coming around to the fact that government is not “efficient” not because it hates you, it’s because it requires redundancy to do at least a couple of things: protect your rights, and cover the city’s ass just in case.

        Government permits can not just be waived, or steps bypassed. “Streamlining” any of those require entering an expensive lawmaking process that applicants pay upfront to do. Most businesses don’t bother because it’s time consuming, expensive, with no guarantee of passage. Not doing so opens the city for expensive lawsuits because let’s say if we grant a permit to a food truck that ended up poisoning people, or running over people? The city’s on the hook for allowing the permit, DOUBLY so if the permits did not go through an established procedure.

      • RvLeshrac says:

        You can make suggestions and then be terminated for “not being a team player,” you mean.

  7. Straspey says:

    As Ben himself can probably tell you, here in NY City food trucks are a thriving and integral part of the rich cultural mixture.

    The city government requires every outdoor food vendor to be licensed and they pay a fee for their assigned spot.

    Lot’s of wonderful and tasty food – if you know where to go.

    • MrEvil says:

      I ever get a chance to visit manhattan, I am definitely checking out the food trucks and carts. The street vendors here in Austin are pretty good too.

      • Awesome McAwesomeness says:

        Austin has amazing street vendors. I went to one that sold nothing but frozen bananas covered in yummy toppings.

    • nbs2 says:

      The carts in DC aren’t bad if you can hit the right ones (Pedros, Little Yellow), but the trucks are better. They park where they can find a spot on the curb, and that means options for folks all over the city. Thanks to the trucks, I can get my pie on Tuesday and Lobster on Thursday. Otherwise, I’d be in in SW DC with only McDonalds and Subway as options.

      • theblackdog says:

        I’m glad that DC is allowing the food trucks, though now there’s almost too many of them to follow!

        • pecan 3.14159265 says:

          Twitter, my friend, Twitter. Fojol Bros. posts their location every morning along with ETA. Sometimes they give free food to the first person who secures them a curbside spot.

    • jesusofcool says:

      It’s disappointing that Boston/Cambridge has been so resistant to food carts. Granted, the layout means there’s less street/sidewalk space around, especially downtown, but I think we’re really missing out on the food cart culture (not to mention more competition for cheap delicious eats!).

  8. mh83 says:

    Cambridge is such a legal mess that I wonder sometimes why the city hasn’t imploded.

    That said, there are a number of food trucks in Kendall Square and they don’t seem to be run by geniuses. I’m not sure why this guy couldn’t figure it out.

  9. Fafaflunkie Plays His World's Smallest Violin For You says:

    Maybe these guys who wrote that article should have done a case study with Toronto. Yes, you can find many hot dog carts downtown (and yes, those vendors pay dearly for those spots, not to mention dealing with all sorts of regulations.) But then City Hall brought along the idea of being able to allow certain vendors to sell other kinds of food. Along came Toronto à la Cart, and the abject failure it became due to bureaucracy gone wild. Still want to sell souvlaki on the street in T-dot? Good luck!

  10. sonneillon says:

    Depends. My mom did this for a while. Startup cost was about 10k and she did 300 dollars a day for a while, but then winter kicked in and construction dried up. Still, wasn’t bad.

  11. Gruppa says:

    These things are all over in L.A. and it’s getting crazy. There are gourmet trucks for just about everything. Chinese food, Pizza, Hotdogs,Dim sum, Coffee, Pasta, BBQ, Grilled cheese, Sushi, and of course the Mexican food staple.

    I was driving through West Hollywood the other day and counted no less than 7 trucks parked within one block on both sides of the street and they were all different.

    • dangermike says:

      For LA, you’d have a hard time convincing me it’s for any other reason than the state and local governments making it downright dangerously expensive to launch a business. There are so many palms to grease, fees to pay, and impact studies to conduct — and don’t even get me started on the ongoing problem of taxes — that it’s simply too frustrating for many potential small business owners and operators to even consider.

  12. B says:

    They’re definitely not illegal. There’s a lot near Kendall Square in Cambridge that has several food trucks parked there daily.

  13. ReaperRob says:

    Southwest Alabama is pretty bare, we have a couple of hot dog carts and a taco truck. Although we have produce stands everywhere.

  14. humphrmi says:

    I worked on a roach coach a long time ago when I was a teenager, and I must say it was a terrible experience. Without worrying about the intricacies of financing and licensing one, as an employee it was cramped quarters 10-15 hours a day and very little respect. Running one is all that plus navigating state & local laws, permits, and other roach coaches trying to beat to each stop you and put you out of business.

    • HeroOfHyla says:

      Reminds me of the King of the Hill episode where they started a food truck for burgers and steaks, and were bribing the police to stay in business (health food nuts had made fatty meat illegal) and put down competition.

  15. Cantras says:

    There’s a food cart – not a truck, though — that sells gyros here in town. couple of them and a hot-dog stand owned by one guy. Original stand’s original parking spot was nearly across the door from a Jimmy Johns. JJ’s sued/tried to get them shut down, alleging that they were unsanitary(no handwashing facilities), contributed to litter, and didn’t meet restaurant reqs since they had no bathroom.

    Gyro stand said “Orly.” and revealed the sink– with hot water– built into the side of the cart, detailed that when the cart closes each night the employees walk the blocks from that intersection to pick up garbage that even remotely looks like theirs, and hooked up with a gas station who said Gyro stand customers could use their bathroom.

    End result:
    Massive outpouring of support for Gyro man (culminating in wildly successful “vote for the Gyro man” city council campaign). Gyro stand is moved 4 feet down from previous parking spot. Old-time loyal gyro stand fans don’t eat at JJs. And everyone has seen aerial photos of Barbara Streisand’s house.

  16. agold says:

    One alternative to a food truck is the “pop-up restaurant” which is becoming popular allover

  17. gman863 says:

    I’ve always been leary of “roach coaches.” A recent story in Houston validates my point:

    City code requires mobile food vendors to drive to a specific site and have their trucks/trailers inspected by the health department on a regular basis. Based on the news reports, there are dozens of such vehicles that haven’t been inspected in months and it doesn’t appear Houston officials consider going after these people a priority.

    Although there is always the possibility of health issues at brick-and-mortar eateries, at least they have running water, restrooms and regular visits from the health department inspectors.

  18. moonunitrappa says:

    If you purchase an ice cream truck and play annoying repetitive brain scrambling music, citizens have the right to shoot your tires out. It’s not currently law, but I’m working on it.

  19. HogwartsProfessor says:

    In other countries as seen on Bizarre Foods, No Reservations, etc. there are TONS AND TONS of street food vendors, selling everything and anything. They throw it on the damn fire and hand it to the customer still kicking. Fresh meat, fresh veggies. If we ate that way our guts would be tougher. Andrew Zimmern says he’s never gotten sick at them either. I’ve eaten at festivals with a ton of food stands and never gotten sick either. I have at B&M places, though.

    As for competition, food trucks and sit-down places have different kinds of customers. I really don’t see how it will hurt them. Even if the B&M customers skip a lunch at the store to try the truck, they’ll probably be back. They like to sit and eat at the table. The ones that eat on the fly will stick with the trucks.

  20. smartmuffin says:

    Onerous regulations designed to “protect us” end up crushing small business? NO WAY!

  21. Yeah Right says:

    Interesting enough our county health department sends out email notifications of restaurant violators. Inevitably taco trucks make the list on a regular basis.

  22. Astrid says:

    Klausie’s has great pizza, and the owner worked really hard to make it great. Who is the owner of several trendy brick and mortar restaurants to say that a small pizza truck can’t operate nearby? I mean who has a tough time choosing between sitting down at an upscale restaurant and grabbing a slice of pizza to go?

    Honestly, I think that the people who get the pizza weren’t planning to go to Solas anyway. I for one really hope they change the rules here in Raleigh so I can get delicious pizza more often.