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How to Start a Food Truck Business: Your Ultimate Guide

17-minute read

A food truck owner serves food to a customer.
Ed Grasso

Ed Grasso

8 September 2021

You see them at concerts and festivals. They often line the streets in busy sections of cities and towns. They’re at the entrances to many parks and the exits of many sporting events. You may even see them as part of a wedding reception.

If you haven’t guessed by now, they’re food trucks. And these culinary cruisers are growing in popularity and numbers. According to the research organization, IBISworld, there are 32,287 food trucks on U.S. streets as of 2021. That’s up more than 12% from 2020.

With offerings as exotic as Venezuelan cornmeal cakes and roti parathas to welcomed favorites like mac and cheese, pizza, and sandwiches, food trucks are a popular choice for people looking for good and interesting cuisine at a decent price.

And if you’ve ever thought you could draw crowds with, say, your version of khao man gai, read on and we’ll tell you how to start a food truck business of your own.

How Much Is a Food Truck?

While that house-cured bacon and Gouda special from a gourmet grilled cheese sandwich truck may have come at a reasonable price, the truck you likely bought it from cost a good deal more.

The cost of a food truck is much like the cost of a car. A lot depends on what it comes with. A good estimate is anywhere between $50,000 and $175,000 to get a truck and outfit it with equipment.

While it is possible to find a lower-priced truck, it’s a good idea to remember that your food truck needs to function both as a kitchen and a vehicle. Top-notch cooking gear is of little use if your truck is spending too much time in the repair shop. Plus, it may be easier to replace a cooling unit or stove than the truck itself, so vehicle reliability should be at the top of your checklist.

Once you secure your truck, you’ll need to keep your checkbook open for a few other expenses.

1. Gas it up.

Some vehicles are built for speed. Some are built for fuel economy. A food truck is built for neither of those. On average, expect to get 10 miles to the gallon and for your truck to have about a 20-gallon tank.

Keep in mind that your fuel consumption may not only be for transportation. If your truck uses a generator to power some or all of the food equipment, you could be burning another 0.5 to 1.5 gallons each hour when you’re parked and serving food.

Some food trucks run on diesel fuel, which is more efficient to use than gasoline, but it’s often more expensive. Diesel engines also tend to be noisier, and the exhaust can have a more noticeably unpleasant odor.

2. Wrap it up.

The food you create may be what makes you famous, but the look of your truck is what people will notice first. Painting or a vinyl wrap helps make your truck not only a food vehicle, but a marketing vehicle as well.

We’ll cover naming and marketing later in this article, but know that your truck is where most of that will come to life. Estimates for a full food truck wrap can fall into the $2,500 to $5,000 range.

3. Get it outfitted.

Whether your truck is new, used, or leased, it will need to have the right cooking equipment. The right equipment will often depend on what type of food you’re offering.

If your menu features a lot of salads, vegetables, and fruits, having a good amount of cold storage could be more important than other equipment. If you’re doing a lot of food preparation in your truck, think about how much counter space and sink access you might need.

Once you have a good sense of what you need, you’ll know what to look for if you’re shopping for a used truck or if you’re leasing one. If you’re looking to buy a new truck, you’ll have the added benefit of being able to choose the type and model of each piece of equipment and where to install it for the best use of the workspace.

To bring your delicious creations to your adoring public, you and your food truck need to be able to travel. That means a valid driver’s license for you and proof of vehicle registration. Depending on your location and the weight of your truck, you may need a commercial driver’s license (CDL) and commercial license plates.

You should check with your DMV and local city/county for the requirements in your area.

5. Keep it on the road.

Keeping your truck running is literally keeping your business running. Make sure you budget for routine maintenance, such as oil changes and tires. It’s also a good idea to plan for unexpected repairs, like you would do with your own car.

A good maintenance budget is about $1,000 per year. If you’re handy and can do some of the upkeep yourself, you can likely save some cash here.

6. Buy vs. lease.

Getting and equipping your food truck will likely be your biggest cost when it comes to how to start a food truck business. The good news is that you have some options for acquiring one.

Buy new — This is likely the most expensive option, at least up front. However, with a new truck, there’s less worry about it breaking down and your being surprised with costly repairs and downtime. A new truck should also come with a warranty, so if something breaks, you may not have to pay to repair it during the time period of the warranty.

This increased reliability also can extend to the equipment if it’s new. And if you choose to go the custom food truck route, you can get exactly what you need and set up everything just the way you want it.

Depending on your budget, and if you’re new to the food truck business, you may want to wait on buying new and starting with a less costly option.

Buy used — Much like buying a car, choosing a used vehicle can save you money. Plus, it will likely come with all the equipment installed, so you can see how the layout will work for you.

At the same time, you need to be aware that you could also be buying someone else’s problems. It’s a good idea to check the truck’s maintenance record and have it looked at by a mechanic before you buy.

Lease or rent — If you’re just starting out in the food truck business, you may want to consider leasing or renting. Not only is it a smaller cash outlay when you start, it’s a good way to see if your concept and cuisine will be a hit before you invest a lot of money.

It’s a good idea to have a plan for what to do when your lease ends. If your business is booming, you don’t want to suddenly find yourself without a truck when your lease expires. You may want to set up a lease extension or a lease-to-buy arrangement if you choose this option.

Would you like a side order of cash with that?

There are ways to buy or lease a food truck even if you don’t have deep pockets. We can help. As supporters of small businesses, we created Simply U, an online resource center filled with helpful articles, like these:

How to Start a Food Truck Business: Your Step-by-Step Guide

You know those vegan barbecue recipes you want to use for your food truck? There’s a good chance they took some insight, creativity, and planning to create. And just like with a recipe, there are some key steps to follow in how to start a food truck business.

1. Start with a business plan.

If you’re running a food truck business, chances are you’re not just going to throw ingredients together and hope for the best. You need a good recipe. That’s a good way to look at a business plan. It’s a recipe for the success of your business.

A good business plan covers all the items you’ll need to consider (the ingredients), such as funding, licenses and permits, insurance, food and supplies, marketing, and more. It also outlines when and how they’ll come into play as you launch and build your business.

Some of the basics to cover with your food truck business plan are:

  • What type of food you’ll be selling
  • Where you plan to sell it
  • Why you think your food will be successful
  • What you expect your revenue and expenses to be
  • Your vision for your food truck business

Creating a business plan doesn’t have to be intimidating. If you’ve been thinking seriously about how to start a food truck business, you probably have some idea about these topics already. Plus, we have a short article and a free business plan template that can help get you started.

2. What’s on the menu?

OK, now we’re getting to the good stuff, but when deciding what kind of food to serve, there are a number of considerations to keep in mind.

What makes it special? It could be that you’ll be offering something that other trucks in the area aren’t. Or it could be that what you’re offering is simply better than the same food that other trucks are serving up.

If you’re not familiar with the local food truck scene, it’s a good idea (and a fun one if you like to eat) to check out what other trucks are cooking up and how popular they are. That can help you decide whether to try to do it better than your competition, or to introduce something completely different, which brings us to…

Will people want it? One of the main reasons people love food trucks is that they give them an easy way to try new and different cuisine. A popular way to do that is with fusion cuisine. That’s combining flavors, ingredients, and cooking styles of one cuisine with another.

For example, Korean-American chef Roy Choi combined Korean and Mexican cooking at his Kogi food truck in Los Angeles.

How easy is it to make? This is a very important consideration. There’s limited space in most food trucks, so food with a lot of ingredients and steps can be difficult to prepare in large enough quantities.

You’ll need to figure out if it’s best to prepare some or all of it ahead of time at home, or in a commercial kitchen space. If you do make it ahead of time, you’ll also want to make sure it travels well.

Finally, think about how easy it is to serve and eat. Plates, cups, utensils, and condiments add to your operating costs and take up valuable space in your truck.

3. Find a good location.

Another reason for the popularity of food trucks is that they can bring food to people in locations where there aren’t many restaurants or other options for getting a meal. So finding those “food deserts” should be high on your list of locations.

The location should be one where it’s easy for people to wait in line for food, and you should pay attention to when most people are there. For instance, mornings and evenings might be better near a commuter rail station than lunchtime.

However, even if you locate the best spot in town, you’ll have to make sure you can actually park your food truck there. In addition to where you can park, many localities may have requirements around trash disposal, tables and chairs, and availability of restrooms.

Cities and towns have specific regulations, and some are more food-truck friendly than others. You should check with the local authorities to be sure you’re clear on the regulations for your location.

4. Get licenses, inspections & certifications.

Much like with parking regulations, food truck licensing and certification requirements can vary by state and locality, so you should make sure you get the specifics for your location.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) can be a good place to start if you want to find regulations in your state.

Along with a driver’s license and vehicle registration and inspection mentioned earlier, there is a good bit of documentation you’ll likely need to start a food truck business.

Business license — This is often required to operate your business in a particular state and municipality. It enables the local government to recognize your food truck as a legitimate business and to track your business for tax purposes.

Prices for a business license can typically range from $50 to $500 (varying by city), and you may need to renew it after a certain time. Some localities limit the number of food truck licenses, so it’s important to put this step high on your to-do list.

Not to worry — we’ve got you covered with this article on how to get a business license.

Employer identification number (EIN) — This is a federal tax number issued by the IRS. You’ll need this to open a business bank account, apply for credit, and hire employees.

It’s free to get an EIN from the IRS, but it can take about 4 weeks, so you should factor that into your plans.

Food handler’s permit — This certifies that you’ve completed a required food handler training and safety course. Some states require all employees to have a permit, while others require only the manager-on-shift to have one.

The cost is often less than $50, and the permit is good for 5 years. You can find more information on how to obtain a food handler’s permit here.

Health department permit — This is also known as a “food service license” and certifies that your truck has passed an inspection from the local board of health.

Unlike a vehicle inspection that focuses on the road-worthiness of your truck, a health department inspection ensures there are no health code violations. Among the items typically on their checklist are proper food storage, overall cleanliness, and that HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points) plans are in place.

Depending on the city, you can expect to shell out $50 to $1,000 for your permit.

Fire certificate — Along with the Health Department, the local fire department may want to take a look in and around your food truck, especially if you're cooking onboard.

Seller’s permit — Some states require this permit so that you can purchase food and other supplies without paying sales tax.

5. Check out a point-of-sale system.

The breakfast crush. The lunch rush. The dinner swarm. When you get busy, you get real busy. Having an automated system to handle sales can offer you some valuable benefits.

For one, it saves you time making change and stopping at the bank to make sure you have adequate change on hand. You also can use it to track sales, manage inventory, offer frequent buyer rewards, and more.

Many POS systems can be run from a phone or other mobile device, so you don’t have to worry about finding room for a clunky cash register or cash drawer.

It’s also a benefit for your customers. They can pay quickly with a credit card instead of fumbling for cash. That can help keep the line moving and help keep other customers well-fed and happy.

6. Find a good commissary.

Health requirements in some states and municipalities may require that food truck operators belong to a commissary. A commissary is where many food trucks go when they’re not out selling food.

Commissaries provide a location where you can park, access electricity, and refill propane and water. They’re also where you can dispose of trash, garbage, and used water.

Some commissaries also provide kitchen, cold storage, and food preparation space. Again, depending on local regulations and your food prep and supply, a commissary could be something to factor into your food truck business plan.

7. Give your food truck a name.

There’s a pretty good chance you’ll start thinking about names around the same time you’re putting together your menu or deciding on what type of food to offer. That’s a good thing.

Your name should reflect the kind of food and gastronomic experience you’re cooking up. It should also be easy to remember and pronounce, as a good deal of your business will likely come from word-of-mouth advertising.

Don’t be afraid to make it fun as well. Personally, I’m a big fan of puns like The Streatery or Grillenium Falcon, both of which I found here. If you’re looking for some inspiration and help coming up with a name, check out this guide we put together.

8. Get online before you get on the road.

Once you’ve got the right name for your food truck, it’s time to get that name out there. While your painted or wrapped truck is a key part of your advertising and marketing, it's limited to the people who may see it when it’s parked or on the road.

Research shows that 43% of monthly food truck spending each month is made by 25- to 44-year-olds, with an additional 20% coming from those under age 25. And for that group of customers to find you, it makes sense to be online.

Create a website.

Before customers can find you out and about, they’ll likely look for you online. Here’s how your website can help send customers to you.

It shows your location schedule — Customers can find where you’ll be and when you’ll be there. This is even more important if you have more than one location where you park. Plus, it makes it easy to get the word out about any new or changing locations.

Customers will also be able to know if you’re a choice for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, and if you’re out during the week or just on weekends.

You can post your menu — Let them know exactly what you’re cooking up for them.

You can share your “why” — Many people eat at food trucks to support local businesses and their community. Including a story of why you started your business can often give people a reason to pay you a visit beyond just getting something good to eat.

Let them feast with their eyes — Including photos of your food and people enjoying it are two ways to show people what you have to offer.

There are a number of sites where you can create and host your website. Many are designed to make it easy for business owners to get a professional-looking website, even if they don’t have a ton of technical expertise.

We’ve also put together an article that can help you get started.

Build your social media presence.

Your customers are not only looking for you online — they’re likely talking about you there as well. You can use that to your advantage by staying connected and involved on social channels.

Monitor & respond to reviews and comments — How many people do you know who share their opinions, especially about food, on social media? Look for comments and questions on your social media pages. And respond to them as promptly and politely as you can.

It also can be a good idea to actively encourage people to engage with you on social media when you’re out working. An easy way to do that is by including your social media handles as part of your truck’s painting or wrap.

Find out what customers like and want — Posting a question or quick poll can be a good way to find out what people like about your food truck and what they might also want you to add.

Create contests & promote events — Social media can be a great way to offer incentives, such as giveaways and discounts, to encourage your customers to share with their friends why they like your food truck.

You also can use social media to let your customers know about concerts, fairs, and other special events you may be attending.

Make your truck a social media star — As we mentioned earlier, your truck is a great marketing tool. Think about designing part of the exterior as a selfie background. It can be a fun way for your customers to share where they are and what they’re eating.

Be sure to include your website and any other social media URLs so that they’re easily captured in the photos.

Don’t forget to get permission — All the activity on social media can be a great source of marketing that you can reuse and repost. Just make sure that you get consent from your customers and make sure to tag them or give them credit for a photo.

Looking for more ideas? Check out this article and others on our blog site for advice and tips on using social media to boost your business.

Why You'll Need Food Truck Insurance

All right. So now you’ve got a truck, you’ve secured your permits and licenses, you’ve refined your menu, perfected your preparation, and settled on a cool name.

Time to bring some culinary happiness to the hungry masses, right?

Well, you might need to pump the brakes on that a bit (sorry, but I did mention that I love puns). You’ve got a lot of time, money, and possibly secret herbs and spices invested in your business. You may want to consider protecting that.

That’s a big reason why you shouldn’t head out on the road without the right food truck insurance, which is actually a bundle of different business insurance policies. A good place to start is with general liability coverage.

Including general liability coverage in your food truck insurance.

General liability insurance can protect your business from a variety of risks and unpleasant surprises.

Here’s a brief rundown of what general liability (GL) typically covers:

  • Bodily injury
  • Third-party property damage
  • Personal and advertising injury
  • Claims arising from product defects
  • Medical expenses

And here’s an example of why having GL coverage can be so important.

On a local Facebook page, the owner of Brandon’s Burritos mentions that Tammy’s Taco Truck down the street probably served expired food to cut down on costs. As this news spread, Tammy’s Taco Truck began to lose 50% of their business.

It got back to Tammy that many customers were avoiding her truck because of the post on social media. Tammy knew this was a false statement since she gets fresh food delivered weekly.

A very upset Tammy of Tammy’s Taco Truck then sues Brandon of Brandon’s Burritos for his slander that resulted in her losing 50% of her business, as well as new local customers.

Brandon now has a lot more on his plate than his famous asparagus and mushroom burrito. Not only could he be liable for damages, he also may have to pay legal expenses to defend himself in court.

And the average claim for reputational harm, much like what Brandon could be facing, is $50,000. Without GL coverage, that could cost Brandon a lot of burritos.

Adding workers compensation to your food truck insurance.

Hot oil in a deep fryer. A propane gas stove. Sharp knives. A small spill of water on the floor. There can be a lot of potential hazards when you’re working in a food truck. And there’s a good chance that you may not be the only person moving briskly through the often-cramped 100- to 120-square-feet of space in your food truck.

If you have a full-time or part-time worker in your food truck, your state may require you to have workers compensation insurance. Even in some states where it’s not required by law, workers compensation insurance can make good business sense.

If an employee gets injured on the job, this insurance can cover medical costs and lost wages.

More specifically, workers comp can help cover:

  • Medical payments
  • Lost wages
  • Rehabilitation expenses
  • Death benefits

Without workers compensation coverage, you could be liable for some or all of the above payments, as well as fees and expenses involved in any legal proceedings.

How Much Does Food Truck Insurance Cost?

The list of fees, expenses, and cash outlays is pretty lengthy when you're looking at how to start a food truck business. Adding food truck insurance to that list may not be something you’re looking forward to.

On top of that, you might have to go out and find the right coverage, compare prices, and enter the same information on a bunch of different websites. Now we’re talking about time and money.

We totally get it. That’s why we’ve made finding and buying business insurance a lot easier. You can get started right now online, or on the phone with one of our small business insurance pros.

We’ll gather a little information about your food truck business. Then we look at quotes from leading insurers and come back to you with quotes and coverages customized for your food truck business. All you have to do is choose the policy that works best for you. We take it from there.

In many instances, we can find general liability policies for as low as $25.95*/month. So for a little more than you might charge for your special pulled-pork taquito, two sides, and a beverage, you could cover your food truck insurance each month.

Just call 855-869-5183. We’re here for you Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. (ET).

Get Insured in Under 10 Minutes

Get an affordable & customized policy in just minutes. So you can get back to what matters: Your business.

Start Here >

OK, Let’s Get Cooking

Much like the food you’ll be serving, a lot goes into starting a food truck business. You’ll need to come up with some funding. You’ll need to come up with some winning recipes. And you’ll need to put in a good deal of work both inside and outside the truck.

But that’s true of almost any small business. And chances are, if you’ve read this far down the page, there may be a dream and desire inside of you that’s big enough to overcome any of the challenges you may face.

Plus, there’s also this.

A food truck can offer you a lot of freedom. You get to choose the food you want to create. You get to control the quality of the ingredients you use. You get to select where to set up and when.

Owning a food truck also can put you front and center at many great events happening in your community. It can be a chance to introduce all kinds of new people to your special culinary vision and even invent a new style of food.

When you think about it, if you do it right, you can get a lot more out of a food truck than just a good-tasting meal.

* Monthly payment calculations (i) do not include initial premium down payment and (ii) may vary by state, insurance provider, and nature of your business. Averages based on January - December 2020 data of 10% of our total policies sold.

Ed Grasso

Written by

Ed Grasso

As a 9-year-old at summer camp, I hated it — especially after being pulled screaming from the pool during the swimming competition. While this left me without an aquatic achievement patch, it also inspired the letter to my parents that got me an early release from Camp Willard. That showed me the power of writing. I’ve done my best to use it only for good ever since, such as writing for small business owners.

This content is for general, informational purposes only and is not intended to provide legal, tax, accounting, or financial advice. Please obtain expert advice from industry specific professionals who may better understand your business’s needs. Read our full disclaimer

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