The Tough Choices that Make or “Brake” a Food Truck Build

On March 14, 2013, I started to build a mobile kitchen. I’d been selling fried pies from a small wooden stand, but that wasn’t quite cutting it. I needed more space, running water, electricity, and a shield from inclement weather. So after a year in business, I decided to start building a food trailer. And guess what? I’m still working on it.

So, what’s taking so long? Why – when I had funds, support, and a clear plan – did I spend two years making mistake after mistake, continually delaying the completion of this seemingly simple undertaking? I’ve had two years to think about it and here’s what I’ve come up with: Throughout the process, I let what I wanted take precedence over what I needed.

Want: A food trailer, right away

I wanted a food trailer and I wanted it immediately, so I pretty much bought the first option that came my way. A friend had a 4-by-8-foot trailer he’d been using to serve barbecue, and it looked fine to me. It had running water, a service window, and electricity, so I bought it. That was my first mistake. My desire to have a trailer right away kept me from properly considering what I needed in terms of space and equipment.

Need: Equipment

I should have looked for a trailer with a fan for ventilation. Though I won’t be frying on the trailer, I know from a few food truck owners whose trucks don’t have ventilation that they are often miserable during the summer months. I didn’t do a proper initial inspection of the plumbing or electricity on the trailer I bought and only later realized that the pipes would likely freeze in the winter, and there weren’t enough outlets for things like my fridge and the charger of the iPad I use for point of sales. In the end, it made more sense to gut the entire trailer and start from scratch, meaning I lost a lot of money and time.

Want: Curb appeal

I thought a lot more about how I wanted the trailer to look and feel than how it needed to function. I really enjoy creating ambience around my pies. Making sure my branding, packaging, and “venue” (be it stand or food trailer) fits with the aesthetic I’ve created means that customers get a great all-around experience. Because I could envision the trailer fitting into this aesthetic, I found myself more focused on its beauty than its brawn. The first thing I did after buying the trailer was to contact my graphic designer and have him start working on designs for the outside of the trailer. As a result, I’m thrilled with how the trailer looks and proud of the transformation from a rugged black barbecue rig to a lovely little pie mobile, but can’t deny that ultimately, what’s inside is far more important.

Need: Enough space to function

If I had stepped back from the look I wanted to create and thought more about the equipment that needed to fit inside of the trailer, I would have realized that my plan wasn’t practical. Once I installed new sinks, added a fridge, and mounted a warmer for the pies, I saw that I was short on counter space. I’d originally planned on adding a hood and small countertop fryer so I’d have the ability to fry on site at events, but now the trailer was so crowded that I had to rule that out.

Want: Total control over every step

When I first bought the trailer, I loved the idea of doing everything myself. The thought of rolling out a trailer that I had gutted, tiled, plumbed, and wired appealed to me. However, as I kept running into mishaps and making mistakes – like when I tried to install the FRP (fiber-reinforced plastic) walls on my own and ended up with walls that were mysteriously each an inch too short – I began to consider hiring experienced professionals who could equip the trailer in the way that I needed.

Need: Help

Eventually, I conceded that I needed help, especially with the more complicated processes like heating and plumbing. Unfortunately, there aren’t any plumbers or electricians in my local who specialize in working on food trucks. It was therefore up to me to oversee the work and make sure it was conforming to municipal codes. This seemed daunting until I realized I had the perfect allies to help guide me through the process: my fellow food truck owners in the community. With their help, I was able to identify which projects (like tiling and mounting equipment) I could probably do myself and which projects (like welding) were better left to the professionals.

graphic of mobile kitchen rear view

Now playing (at last): a food truck named necessity. Graphic by Jarred Elrod.

I am about to pick up my trailer from a welder who is installing a counter outside the service window. Next step is making the few final tweaks to get the vehicle road ready. In the coming weeks, I’ll face my first health inspection, get the mobile kitchen certified, and hit the roads. If everything goes to plan, I may have an official trailer finished almost exactly two years after I started the project.

I’m hoping that it’s what I want and, more importantly, what I need. After all, it isn’t bad to have a clear idea of what you want. A vision that makes your heart sing will serve you as you move forward, encounter obstacles, and wonder if it would be best to just give up and find a nice cushy desk job.

But when you’re doing the difficult work of building a functional kitchen space, what you need comes first. Keep the vision of what you want close to your heart; just don’t let it creep up into your brain, where you know what you need.

Dale Mackey
Dale Mackey

Dale Mackey is a Chicago native who moved to Knoxville in 2007 and has no plans of leaving. She spends most of her time making and selling fried pies, but when she finds a free moment, she enjoys writing, eating, playing with her cats, playing with her husband, and going on adventures. She's named after cowgirl Dale Evans, and hopes she does her namesake justice.