Grilling for friends and family is both challenging and rewarding. It can become a passion that takes over your life. But what happens when you start thinking about turning your hobby into a business venture?
There are certainly many successful food trucks out and about on the streets. You will find them at most fairs, festivals, and farmers markets.
However, it’s not just a matter of buying yourself a truck and going for it. Running a street food business takes a lot of dedication and time. As well as management, marketing, and business acumen.
There are a few roads you can go down to achieve your dream career in grilling for people on the street. Yes, your passion can help carry you through, but let’s have a look at how you go about setting yourself up.
We will also look at some of the pitfalls you might need to be aware of. That way you can start your business with your eyes wide open.
The Food Truck
Food trucks have, over recent years, become very popular. The media focuses heavily on this new trend for selling tasty food from all cuisines.
Unfortunately, you can’t just park up a food truck and start selling your food wherever you want. In the US, every city and state has specific and varied regulations, licenses, and permits. These include truck permits, parking restrictions, and health department certificates.
You will need to contact the local government to find out what their policies are for the area you plan to use. Remember, crossing state lines, and even from city to city in the same state, these can vary.
Some cities limit the number of licenses they will issue for food trucks. Others might not allow parking in a public space.
You could be dealing with departments from the city, county, and state. Add to that the local health department as well. Not only will you need licenses for your truck but you will also need some. Especially in relation to food hygiene.
Buying a Food Truck
This can be a costly business. A new truck might cost upwards of $100,000. However, a second-hand truck could be between $20,000-$40,000. It’s worth shopping around to see what is out there that will suit your needs.
Have a business plan. Decide what you are going to cook and where. It might help you decide what type of truck you need.
Setting up the Business
When setting up your food truck business, you have to consider your financial options and make sure everything is in line with your business plan.
If you can’t finance it yourself, you might need to get a loan. Think about how you plan to pay it back, and the associated interest rates.
Research your options well and come up with a business plan. Consider the costs of permits, financing, equipment, ingredients, and cleaning. Also, think about how much you need to sell to ensure you make a profit.
There will be some insurance costs involved in running a food truck. This could especially be the case with grilling equipment on board.
Obviously, you will need to insure the vehicle. Also you will need to insure for damage to equipment, or loss of food as a result of a mechanical failure.
Think about where you can park your vehicle when it’s not out working. The neighborhood association may not be too impressed with it parked on the street in front of your home.
You might be lucky enough to have off street parking. Alternately, you could hire a private, secure parking space somewhere nearby.
When you’re out cooking for the masses, think about where you are parking. High traffic areas, as long as they are permitted, will bring in more customers.
Plan Your Menu
Food trucks are renowned for selling high quality, delicious food at a low price. The other thing people expect is quick service. Try not to stretch yourself too thin. Plan for foods that are grilled and prepared quickly.
Pulled pork or a good brisket can be smoked beforehand. Burgers are a quick and easy item to prepare. Think about your sauces, it might be these that set your food truck apart from the next one.
Events & Marketing
Catering at a special event or corporate function can be an excellent way to gain business. It’s getting the gig that might pose more of an issue.
Think about joining local associations in your community and do some networking. This could provide some useful and lucrative leads.
Another consideration is today's age of social media. It is an excellent way to advertise your business at little to no cost. Set yourself up on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to let your customers know where you will be.
It’s a great way to create a buzz about you and your food truck.
Once you’re up and running, think about merchandise. You customers might like wearing a cap or T-shirt with your unique logo on it. On top of that, you’ll get some free advertising, so it's a win-win.
Portable Grill Smoker or Trailer
A food truck might be a step too far for some. There are other options which will help you take your passion to the public. One of these is catering from a portable smoker, or having a mobile kitchen trailer.
The trailer can be purchased ready-to-go, or you could build your own. They are generally a complete commercial style kitchen. They will have refrigeration units, freezers, and a water supply.
A portable smoker is a commercial style grilling unit which can be towed or placed on a trailer.
Just like the food truck, there are licenses and permits involved. Your local health department can advise you on what the regulations are in respect to the type of trailer or smoker you have.
Setting up at local farmers markets, festivals, or fairs all need certification of some sort. There may be more required if you plan to travel to another county or state.
A trailer used for grilling is classed as an unrestricted trailer. For this type of business, you need to have access to a food service kitchen for cleaning and restocking.
It must be serviced daily after use and the details need to be recorded, both in the trailer and the kitchen. The kitchen also serves for taking on water, and waste disposal.
Your trailer must have hot water, refrigerators, freezers, and commercial-grade cooking equipment. There needs to be adequate storage for your equipment. You also need a sink for sanitizing, cleaning, and washing.
A trailer will need an inspection by the local health department. Before this is done, plans of the trailer will need to be submitted. These must detail the construction materials and a drawing of the interior.
Details of the plumbing system, and the material it is made of, also need to be included on the diagram.
In fact, one the few things a trailer doesn’t require that a restaurant does, is a bathroom.
Once you’ve got your setup and permits, look for places you can sell your food. Contact the organizers of events coming up in the areas you are prepared to travel to. Many will advertise online ahead of time. They might also have application forms for potential vendors.
There is often a cost involved in booking your spot. You might also find some event organizers will want a share of your profits.
After booking your space, plan your menu. Think about how many people you plan to serve, and then add some more. Also consider where you are going to source your ingredients.
If you are attending a local event, you will know where you can get the best quality ingredients to cook. If you are traveling further away, you don’t want your food to spoil. You might be better sourcing ingredients closer to the event site.
It might be a bit hit-and-miss at first. You might not buy enough ingredients or you might have some left over. With time, as you attend more events, you will get a feel for exactly how much you need.
Consider what other equipment you will need. There is all your grilling equipment, like tongs, fire resistant gloves, and spatulas. Then there are the things needed for food service like latex gloves, napkins, and paper plates.
Operating from a portable smoker rather than a trailer, you will be open to the elements at events. You might want to invest in a tent for some protection from the sun, or the rain.
Another consideration is how you plan to serve your food. Some collapsible tables could make life easier. They will give you both preparation and service space.
When it’s time to get on the road, be sure to leave plenty of time to get to the event. It will take you some time to set up and start grilling. Also factor in shopping time if you need to buy ingredients locally.
It’s a good idea to research the availability of the food needed ahead of time. Maybe call the suppliers and make sure they have what you want, and tell them you will be coming.
Start a diary noting which items are your best-sellers, and which don’t make the mark. Do this for every event you attend. While you might feel your memory is good enough to recall these details, over time you will forget.
At least the next time you attend the same event, you will have a better idea of what you need to purchase and cook.
One of the keys to success is having a robust menu, with food options that you know you can deliver. Before setting out on your new venture, use your family and friends as guinea pigs. I’m sure they won’t mind trying out your food.
See how long it takes you to prepare and cook the meals. You can then work out which will be best for a quick turnover. You might be better off having a few tasty signature dishes, rather than trying to offer a lot of variety.
Catering at Community Events
Another option to consider is using a portable smoker for catering at community events. Graduations, receptions, charity events, and even corporate events all require food catering.
The beauty of catering is that you can concentrate on cooking and getting food ready for your clients. It’s a much more simplified service than a food truck, or attending big events to sell food.
This could give you a feel for what people like. It’s useful knowledge to gain before venturing into the wider world of the food truck industry.
You can work out what customers prefer and tweak your recipes accordingly. It might also help you decide if turning your passion into a business venture is what you want to do.
It might take some time to get your name out there and recognized. But, some networking and marketing will certainly help. This is what smaller catering events will allow you to do.
If you’re truly passionate about grilling, you’ll realize the popularity that grilling competitions have garnered. There are events ranging from small town contests to state and national cook offs.
Some teams throughout the US do very well at these events, gaining both recognition and a host of awards.
Having the ribbons, medals, and cups to display are a grilling status symbol. They are sure to pull the customers in. You will see huge lines of people at these events, all hankering after the delicious grilled food on offer.
You could join a team and compete to earn your stripes, then the grilling world becomes your oyster. It’s an excellent way for you to embrace your passion and grill amazing chicken, beef, ribs, or pulled pork.
While competitors are not allowed to sell their wares, there are many other entrepreneurs that can. You could also join the ranks of these, using your smoker or trailer.
Watch out for the Pitfalls
There are some things that every new entrepreneur who turned their passion for grilling into a business wishes they had known. Let’s highlight some of the potential pitfalls.
Permits and Licensing
I know we have already mentioned these, but they deserve another airing.
Being mobile, you have the ability to travel wherever you want to sell your food. But only if you have the correct permits and licenses.
Different cities, counties, and states will have different stipulations. Navigating their requirements can be a minefield. Not to mention very time consuming.
It can sometimes take months before the various departments you have to deal with will give you, and your food truck or trailer, the go-ahead.
Check what you need for each area you intend to visit. The regulations can vary so much, so you might be better off traveling to the next county’s events. Their regulations might be easier and quicker to obtain.
There is also the matter of parking, you can’t just rock up anywhere and start trading. There will undoubtedly be permits needed for this as well.
In some counties you might also be restricted by the length of time you can park. Some might stipulate if you are parked for a certain length of time, there must be access to a bathroom close by.
Do your research and find out what you need, then there won’t be any unpleasant surprises.
Time and Money
Running a mobile grilling business is no walk in the park. However, if this is your passion, the rewards will be worth it.
It can take over your life from morning till night, seven days a week. Consider the time it takes to purchase your stock, prepare, cook, transport, and sell it.
Then there's the traveling to and from venues. Add to that the time spent cleaning, perfecting recipes, marketing, and so on. I am sure you get the picture.
It is very much a hands-on business, even if you get to the stage where you employ others to help. It’s your baby and you’re going to want to look after it.
Consider the length of time it takes to source your ingredients. As well as time taken for research and booking into events.
Even if you only plan to do this on weekends, much of your spare time during the week will be taken up planning.
We mentioned the rewards, apart from, hopefully, a financially viable business, there is the joy of grilling and sharing. You will meet and interact with many different people. You will see the pleasure your passion for food can bring to others.
Choosing the Right Event
This might be a bit hit-and-miss to start. You want to be attending the events which will ensure you maximum sales. Once again, it’s back to that word, “research.”
The chances are you won’t always get it right, but looking into footfall at events, and the type of clientele, might help you narrow it down.
Don’t always rely on the event organizers. After all, you are paying them money to set up there, so they have a vested interest in selling you a space.
I mentioned earlier about keeping a diary or journal. Noting down the best sites and events will help you going forward. You will be able to identify which events are good for business and which to side-step.
Truck and Equipment Maintenance
It’s not all just about the food, unfortunately. If your truck or trailer isn’t working, then neither are you.
It’s back to research, once again. Inevitably, as with all things mechanical, trucks can break down. Find out which are more reliable and how quickly parts can be replaced. Weigh up the pros and cons of gasoline versus diesel.
An older truck may have less initial outlay. However, it could end up costing more in the long run for maintenance.
If you intend to work events after dark, then you will likely need a generator. These also need to be maintained to work efficiently.
You might find yourself becoming a part-time mechanic, to add to the many other tasks. If not, make sure you have a fund ready to deal with repairs.
There is also the maintenance of your cooking equipment, refrigerators, and grilling tools. Make sure they are kept in tip-top condition, or replaced if necessary.
I briefly mentioned the power of social media. Don’t underestimate it. While there are a million and one other things you need to do, getting your business out there is also very important.
Don’t push this to the back burner. Growing your business to make more profit takes hard work.
Connecting with your customers and engaging with them is all part of the fun. It can be a very rewarding side of the business. It’s how you help build up regular clientele, as well as serving good food, of course.
Connecting via social media, whether Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or the many others, reaches many people.
You can make announcements, give special offers, communicate menus, and so much more. Almost everyone is connected in some way on social media, so take advantage of it.
A passion for grilling can certainly be turned into a profitable street food or food truck business. It is quite obvious though, this won't happen overnight.
There are lots of factors to consider before you start, and lots of hiccups you may encounter along the way.
What is certain, is if you’re passionate, you will succeed. It’s a case of perseverance. You will not only be an expert on the grill, you will also be a salesperson, PR manager, and marketing expert. You could also be a part-time mechanic and business manager, a jack of all trades..
The options are there for you. Whether you want to start small by catering community events with a portable grill, run the competition circuit, or go big with buying a food truck or trailer.
You only have to tune in to one of the many cooking channels, or search the internet to see how successful some people have become. Many have turned their passion for grilling into a rewarding, profitable business venture.
Plan things out, research, and stay passionate. There are not many people that can say they make a living doing something that they love. If this is your dream job, make sure you follow your dream.