How to Start a Food Truck
Interested in starting a food truck? We spoke with Duncan Trout, co-owner of Mexican-American food truck Captain Muchacho’s, about his experiences with owning and running a food truck in Knoxville, Tenn., and he served up some advice for aspiring food truckers.
Have a memorable name. “One of my friends from Cuba just kept calling me Captain Muchacho for some reason, and it just seemed like a fun name that we could put on the style of food we both liked. It was silly enough to be captivating but not too silly to not be taken seriously. So that’s the perfect food truck name. Especially when you’re at a new place, and you have a lot of other competition, you want a catchy name.” He adds that they, “were torn between calling it Captain Muchacho’s Tacos,” but ultimately decided an item-specific name would limit their menu flexibility.
Don’t limit your menu. “My two favorite foods in the world are tacos and pizza, and I just felt like I could have a bigger variety [in the] menu doing Mexican-American food, versus having a pizza truck. I think that one of the cool things about creating the menu is you can show some personality and see which items are your staples, and then you can expand on that. We just put a new item on our menu. It’s a smoked black bean and corn salad with sundried tomatoes, and I’m using it as a purely vegan side, but you can also make kind of a burrito bowl out of it, and put steak or chicken on it.”
Know whether you need a commissary. “The health department actually licensed us as a fully mobile kitchen, so we’re allowed to do all of our prep on the actual unit. We don’t have to be affiliated with a commissary. It’s nice and it’s not nice because a lot of food distributors won’t deliver to you unless it’s at a commissary. We have a big yard, we’ve got a barn with a shop in it, so you gotta think about that, too. It’d be pretty difficult to clean everything, build everything if you lived in an apartment or something.”
Build your own food truck. “If you’ve got the resources and the time, do it yourself,” Duncan advises. “I just think that’s the only way I would ever recommend doing it. If you at least did some part of the construction yourself, so you know what’s up and you’re not just walking into a trailer or truck that’s full of all this shiny equipment and you know how to use it but you don’t know how to fix it.”
Duncan explains how they got Captain Muchacho’s road-worthy. “We bought the exterior, interior walls, and AC unit brand new, custom built. Everything else, me and Maria and a couple of our friends who are really handy and we’re really thankful for, built it over the summer. So we put in refrigeration, ventilation system, gas lines, the big flattop griddle, prep tables, counters, cabinets, plumbing, additional electrical wiring, fireproofing. It was a lot of stuff that I could have had done for me, but we probably saved $15,000 or $20,000.”
In addition to saving on labor costs, Duncan says you will, “develop actual sweat and blood for your business. If something breaks, you’re gonna know how to fix it, and that’s a big deal.”
Design your food truck with long-term goals in mind. “We got such a big trailer because we want to go to music festivals,” Duncan says, but admits that they overlooked something during the design stage. “Our window is huge. It’s a 16-foot trailer, and the window is literally 8 feet wide, so we can’t fit as many appliances in there. And that’s not really something you can fix. With our setup, I was worried about it [because] we wanted to add a fryer eventually, or an oven or something. Then we started creating all these fresh items around what we had, and I think that made it stay true to the concept.”
Equip your truck with the necessary resources. “On a food truck, we’ve got just a limited supply of water, so you can’t legally serve when you’re out of water, and you shouldn’t. The same thing could be said about gas, you know; I have to take off my propane tanks and get them refilled. You have to worry about your levels of gasoline. How long are you gonna be out? Are you gonna have backups? If you do run out of water is there gonna be a water truck to come refill you? Where are you gonna drain your waste?”
Get the word out. “I first went to Hops and Hollers [a local craft beer store and taproom] and dropped off a menu, and then the owner contacted me and said that he’d love to have us out. I think that all of the people who were coming to his spot really liked it, and whenever there’s an awesome food truck there, he gets a lot of business. So we just started working together more often.”
Be prepared to work hard. “I already knew it was gonna be a lot of hours, but if you’re not out there, then you’re not making any money. Even if you’re only making a couple hundred dollars for a slow Monday night, you’re still out there bringing in revenue.”
Work in a restaurant first. “We knew a lot of people in the industry who helped us out. If you’re thinking about starting a food truck, you should definitely go work in a restaurant. Whether it be a really small restaurant or whatever kind of food you want to sell, you should probably go check out how they do it. You’ll learn a lot just by observing.”
Duncan also suggests treating the food truck like a regular restaurant. “It’s easier and more cost-effective if you’re open each day. You’re going to have way less product loss than you are if you’re saying, ‘Well we’ve got an event this Saturday, and an event next Saturday.’ You’re not gonna be able to sell your food from the last Saturday.” Duncan warns that if your events are too spaced out, “You could way over-prep and have to throw a lot of it out, or you could under-prep and leave a lot of money on the table.”
Food trucks need faster turnover. “In restaurants, you’ve got people sitting down, and they can order drinks, and you can get revenue like that, but with a food truck, when you’ve got a big line, you maybe want to do a minute, minute-and-a-half ticket. You wanna set yourself up for speed. You have to think about that, as far as providing good food practically fast. Because, yeah, we love it, but we’re also trying to make some money, too. The faster you can turn your line and provide a quality product every time, the better it is for everybody.”
Save the stress for what you can control. “I wish that I would’ve known it was just gonna take time to fill out your business and adapt to what needs to be done. There’s no way you can predict that stuff before you even open. I think I could’ve avoided a lot of stress. Instead of worrying about stuff, you just gotta believe in your product and just go out there and do it.”