The food truck industry has been growing in recent years, driven by demand from customers who enjoy eating a variety of fresh food from local sources, and at a conveniently-located venue. Food trucks' typically brisk service also appeals to workers taking a quick lunch break. Since the Great Recession, more and more people have wanted to get into the food truck business, seeing it as a relatively low-cost alternative way to make a living.
What these people may not realize, however, is that it's not particularly easy to make a living by running a food truck. Although a study from the National League of Cities estimates that revenues in the food truck industry are about $650 million a year, there are many challenges that potential food truck vendors will have to master before they can earn any substantial revenues from their businesses.
Buying a Truck
First, there's the truck itself. You'll have to decide whether to buy a new or a used truck, or if you want to lease one. All of these options have multiple costs. For example, if you buy a used truck, you might have to remodel it and equip it, the costs of which could run into several thousand dollars (for more, read: The Costs of Starting a Food Truck.)
Licensing and Permitting Rules
Once you've bought or leased a truck, you can't just starting selling food one day. You will first have to get the requisite government approvals to be in business. There are certain licenses and permits that vendors are required to have, and regulations will differ from one city to the next. The cost of getting these permits could range anywhere from a couple hundred dollars to a couple of thousand dollars, depending on the city (see: The Four Best Cities to Open a Food Truck in the U.S.).
Proximity and Time Restrictions
And even after you’ve obtained the necessary permits and licenses, you will still face other obstacles. For instance, you can’t set up shop anywhere you'd like. You will have to keep a certain prescribed distance from schools, depending on each locality's regulations. There are also limits on how much time you can spend vending in a particular location. These sorts of limits are meant to serve the overall public interest, given that the areas food trucks typically favor for locations, such as parks and downtown streets, are usually considered to be public spaces.
In order to address any health and safety concerns about the food provided by food trucks, various government bodies have begun issuing regulations that address everything from how to clean utensils to how to properly dispose of garbage and water used for cooking purposes. Other requirements include the need to have someone onboard the truck who is familiar with proper food handling techniques. This person will typically have to be licensed by the government or have obtained some kind of permit.
Another potentially costly aspect of the food truck business is that operators typically attach themselves to a commissary. This is a stationary kitchen location where food truck operators prepare their food before loading it on to their trucks for cooking and selling. These commissaries also serve as a storage site for food trucks. While this system helps allay food safety concerns, there are also additional fees involved here for food truck vendors.
Everything Adds Up
So given these onerous restrictions, it turns out to be not that easy to make a living as a food truck vendor. After taking into account the costs of buying or leasing a truck, obtaining licenses and permits and paying commissary fees, and given the limited hours and various restrictions on operation, food truck economics don't seem very favorable to the beginner. Indeed, some food truck vendors mainly see their job as being a short-term stop on their way to owning their own restaurant (another business that's notoriously difficult to succeed in). It may turn out that passion and necessity, more than any potential economic allure, is what keeps drawing people to the food truck industry. (For more, read: How To Start a Successful Food Truck.)
The Bottom Line
If you're thinking of becoming a food truck vendor, you should know that there's a tough road ahead of you. If you're only focused on the economics of the business, this may not be the right move. On the other hand, if you're passionate about cooking and like the idea of being self-employed, running a food truck could be a good fit.