The mobile dining business is exploding all over the country as new food carts and food trucks continue to pop up in every major city. The warm summer months bring longer daylight hours, longer lines and higher sales figures for those outdoor businesses, but the opposite tends to happen when the weather turns cold.
The city of Columbus tends to have relatively mild winters compared to other regions further north, but the snow and ice in February can make a huge impact on any business that relies on outdoor foot traffic.
“This is the million dollar question in this industry,” says Zach James, owner of Paddy Wagon, who will operate his burger truck for his first winter season this year. “How does a primarily outdoor, warm weather business survive the winter months?”
James is planning on a temporary transition for his business to be able to focus more on catering services for indoor events and group parties.
“I think that a switch is a must,” says Kim. “Your biggest promotions and new ideas should come out right before winter. Customers don’t want to wait a long time in the cold, so you have to give them something that is worth their discomfort.”
After seeing a 50 percent drop in sales last year, Kim is already working on plans to combat the winter blues with enhanced marketing techniques, a change of hours, the addition of hot items to his menu, and collaborations with other similar types of businesses.
“The winter is the most important time for food vendors to work together,” he says. “It’s survival time and you have a better chance of drawing a crowd with others.”
Jim Pashovich, owner of a pita-selling food truck called Pitabilities, says that most of the winter challenges are similar to what he faces throughout the rest of the year, which includes scouting good locations, estimating how much food to make, and providing good customer service. He has been operating food carts since 1987 and hopes that this year’s cold weather sales won’t drop off quite as much now that he’s operating a larger food truck business.
“People still need to eat in the winter,” he says. “We come out to offices so that our customers don’t have to get in a cold car, drive to their destination, get back out in the cold, and do it all over again to get back to the office.”
Pashovich does admit that the number one challenge during the winter is keeping your truck or cart up and running, and keeping your cooking equipment from freezing at night.
“Our water tank is heated and we keep a heater in the truck overnight to make sure all the plumbing stays in workable condition,” he explains. “Beyond that, vehicle maintenance is much the same as it is in the summer.”
Paddy Wagon faces a similar challenge with water tanks located beneath his truck, which he hopes to remedy with submersible heater systems.
“Every truck is unique,” James says. “And of course I’ll be adding a few extra layers under my chef’s jacket to keep myself warm.”
Another winter survival tactic comes in the form of financial planning during the hot and cold seasons.
“I’ve only experienced one winter so far and my business did slow down for two to three months,” says Carla Saunders, owner of the 3 Babes and a Baker cupcake truck. “You have to know that most likely your business will slow down in the winter time, so plan in advance, set money aside, and start saving in the summer when you are at your busiest.”
Some food cart operators don’t think the extra effort required in the winter is worth the small amount of capital gain.
“When it gets below 35 degrees my hands stop working well, so we close up for the winter,” says Becky Karppala, owner and operater of Veggielicious. “I use my hands a lot in preparing the food and it becomes really difficult in the cold.”
For the food cart and food truck entrepreneurs who decide to make a go during the winter, experienced business owners offer the following advice:
“The more you can diversify your business, the better you will be able to make it through the winter,” Saunders says. “You can try catering, doing special events, partnering with others, getting your product in a brick and mortar store, or work on generating online sales.”
“My advice is to realistically look at your situation and decide if you truly believe you can make money while freezing your ass off every day,” Kim says. “Stay consistent with your locations and add special items that you sell specifically in the winter that customers can’t normally get any other time of year.”
“Bundle up and keep on trucking,” Pashovich says. “Carharts are great cold weather clothes. The food truck and food cart industry is here to stay, so let’s keep our customers happy and fed all year round.”