So Glad You Asked!
Maybe one day, when food trucks are as familiar as fast-food restaurants, customers will just order food and pay for it. Until then, if you sell food from a mobile kitchen, you know that a big part of the business you do is answering customers’ questions about it. I love answering those questions and have been taking notes to share with everyone. If you don’t see your question answered here, please let me know; we’ll do this again soon.
On Startup Costs
In calculating your startup costs, was there anything that you didn’t account for that surprised you?
The packaging was not something I thought about as a significant cost when I started, but the bags and labels for the pies really added up. Depending on the flavor of the pie, sometimes the bag and label can be close to the cost of the ingredients. But those are also the things that signal to customers, “This is a real product and we are a real business.” I put a good deal of money into the branding of my business and it was money well spent. I think presenting yourself in a professional way when you’re starting out is important, especially before people try your food.
How did you find a kitchen to work in?
I just called everyone: nonprofits, churches, other places that have commercial kitchens but aren’t using them all the time. Eventually I found a nonprofit that let me use their kitchen for a while, and then I found a restaurant that let me do the same. I know someone who’s renting a kitchen at a nightclub that’s never used. There are kitchens out there and people willing to rent them if you dig deep enough—not as many as you might wish there were, but times are changing. For example, in my city, Knoxville, Tenn., the Central Collective (perhaps you’ve heard of it?) is opening this year with a commissary kitchen.
On the Health Department
When should I first contact the health department?
Before you start building or ordering anything, you’ll want to send your food-truck plan drawings to the health department because they may have changes that you need to make. They’ll typically forward your information to your utility, who will ask you about how you will use your food truck and the kind of equipment you will have inside. That determines whether you need an exhaust hood and a grease trap, and if so, what size. The inspection schedule will follow all that.
At what point should I get a business license?
Apply for your EIN (Employer Identification Number) early on, would be my advice. It can be difficult to get information from some wholesalers—never mind buying goods–if you’re just someone with a Social Security number. Even if you don’t save money on ingredients and equipment by buying them wholesale, I don’t think it hurts to have a business license or EIN before you start actually selling. If your city has a small-business liaison, your applying for an EIN (through the IRS) will alert them that you’re starting a business and enable them to reach out to you with assistance—so in that context, the earlier you apply, the better.
In general, I can’t recommend strongly enough that you get in contact with your city or town and the other organizations out there whose aim is supporting new businesses. There are tons of resources out there and knowing what I do now, I see that I would have benefited from reaching out to more of them myself.
If you could do it over again, is there anything you would do differently in terms of startup or build-out?
I would never try to build my trailer all on my own. It is so not my skill set. I thought it seemed pretty easy, and it wasn’t. I bought something that I thought was pretty much operational and turned out not to be. If I took all the money that I wasted trying to get my trailer into working order, I could buy myself a brand new customized one with everything I wanted inside.
Also, really early on, I should have done better analysis of the cost of goods and labor: how much money and time went into each individual pie. I didn’t do that. I sort of just picked a price that felt like one people would be willing to pay and would make it worthwhile for me, and went from there. I would definitely have benefited from a deeper understanding of cost and profit from the very beginning. You can’t really make a business plan without knowing that.
What is the etiquette around parking next to another food truck?
For a business or event that you’re selling at, that’s something you’ll work out with the managers or event organizers. And for selling downtown, there are designated spots that are first-come, first-served. Being friendly and communicative with other truck owners will go a long way. From what I’ve seen in my own town, turf wars between food truck owners are pretty avoidable.
On Getting High on Your Own Supply
Do you eat your own pies, or are you “burnt out?”
I have to taste the fillings and things regularly. But I’ll admit I eat a lot fewer pies now than I did when I first started making them. In the beginning, I was eating them all the time. I was like, “These are amazing.” But there are only so many fried pies one woman can eat in her lifetime. That said, when I get a hankering for one, I still find them to be delicious.