How to open a food cart or food truck

How-To Guides — By on September 24, 2010 at 8:00 am

Mobile food businesses have exploded onto the Columbus dining scene over the past six months, and the trend doesn’t appear to be letting up anytime soon (see: “Food Trucks and Food Carts Enjoy Success in Columbus Dining Scene“). If a mobile food operation is a business that you’re considering, then allow us to provide some detailed instructions on how to get one up and running, with the assistance and advice of a few of our established mobile food entrepreneurs.

Step 1: Research and Develop Your Concept

Cupcake selection from 3 Babes and a Baker

It may seem like we’re stating the obvious by advising you to develop your food concept first, but this critical step is one that should not be taken lightly. A poorly developed strategy or under-planned menu can set up a food cart business for failure from the start.

“New mobile food vendors will need to invest a good amount of time researching what type of food and beverages to sell and how well the product will move,” says Jeffrey Potter, owner and operator of Fusion Cafe. “Just because your  grandmother’s 100-year-old recipe for fried liverwurst is a big hit with your family, it doesn’t mean anyone on the street will buy it.”

The Columbus Metropolitan Library contains a wealth of information on starting a business and can also provide inspiration for menu planning through a large selection of cookbooks. The Central Ohio Restaurant Association provides a unique opportunity to plug into the local food industry and find peers and mentors who can assist with concept refinement. Both The Ohio State University and Columbus State Community College have culinary arts programs where additional assistance can be sought. Last but not least, the local food blogging and online community can often serve as a bellwether for all trends food-related.

“Sometimes this process is akin to being a detective,” adds Potter. “There’s a lot of research you can do on the  Internet, a lot of watching and observing established restaurants and mobile vendors, and cookbooks to study. In short, you have to establish that what you can offer is different from what everyone else is offering.”

Not to get ahead of ourselves just yet, but it’s also a good idea to keep locations and logistics in mind early on when developing your culinary concept.

“Establishing your concept will determine how your location will be selected,” says Paul Humphrey, owner of Leslie’s Creperie. “For example, Ray Ray’s Hog Pit has a set menu and stays in one spot in Clintonville, while Foodie Cart changes their menu daily and moves around a bit more.”

Step 2: Create a Mobile Food Business Plan

A business plan is another essential step for any type of business, food-related or otherwise. Almost any type of financial lender will require a sound business plan. Even if you plan on self-funding your business, having as much organized information as possible is key to success.

“Do your research on your business and have a business plan,” says Carla Saunders, owner of 3 Babes & a Baker. “I would highly recommend scheduling a meeting with ECDI, The Economic and Community Development Institute. They helped me early on with a lot of questions I had about starting this type of business.”

Another local resource for business plan development is the Columbus chapter of SCORE, a national organization of professionals who offer free small business training and advice to entrepreneurs.

“Developing a sound business plan will be the blueprint for your success as a mobile food vendor,” adds Potter. “Plus, you’ll need it to gauge whether the endeavour is worthwhile and to procure financing if you need it. Most importantly, it will force you to put a lot of effort and thought into how to calculate COG’s: cost of goods sold.”

Step 3: Acquire Funding and Financial Assistance

“The first step of the financing journey is establishing how much of a food cart or food truck you can afford,” says Potter. “Your financial institution will want to know how much they’ll need to invest in your dream.”

The Small Business Administration office in Columbus can assist with certain types of small business lending. Additionally, smaller banks and credit unions are currently a bit more likely to lend money to food-related startup ventures who have already completed the legwork on their business plans.

“Just like anything else these days, soliciting funds from financial institutions can be a frustrating process,” adds Potter. “Your ability to procure financing can be made easier by having a good amount of collateral or you can circumvent the whole process if you can foot the entire bill for your business plan yourself or indentify private investors.”

[Local Resource Database - Financial, Lending & Banking Resources]

Step 4: Purchase the Right Equipment

Misako Ohba, co-owner of Foodie Cart

The next step involves finding the right size vehicle for your venture and the internal equipment with which to stock it. Sizes can range from smaller towable food carts, which can run for as little as $2000 to $3000, up to the larger fully-equipped food trucks that can run $100,000 or more.

“Make sure your selected cart or truck will fill all of your needs or can be easily adapted to fit them,” says Humphrey. “There’s an abundance of used carts and vehicles for sale in all price ranges on eBay and concession/trailer websites. We actually found ours for sale in New Jersey via Craigslist.”

Three great local companies for mobile food systems and restaurant equipment include All A Cart Manufacturing, which provides a wide array of carts, trucks and and trailers, Restaurant Equippers, which sells commercial restaurant equipment, and Wasserstrom, another kitchen equipment supplier.

“Another great place to find equipment and supplies for your business would be Restaurant Depot on Wilson Road,” adds Saunders.

Step 5: Obtain Your Licenses and Permits

All mobile food operations are expected to produce food by the same safety standards as any brick-and-mortar restaurant. You’ll want to contact the Columbus Health Department at 240 Parsons Ave. for information on their Food Safety Program, which includes training and workshops for employees, guides for starting food businesses, and other information pertaining to proper licensing procedures.

“All of the information about licensing and permits for mobile vendors can be found online at the Columbus Public Health website,” says Humphrey. “You’ll want read it first to make sure you can pass your inspections.”

Depending upon the specific type of mobile business, a peddlers license may additionally be required through the city of Columbus Department of Public Safety, located at 750 Piedmont Rd.

Step 6: Select The Right Location(s)

The Skillet Mobile Kitchen

Selecting the right site for your mobile food business is a very important step when trying to find a centralized point for your target audience.

“Who are your customers and where will you find them?” asks Potter. “If you’re going to sell ice cream, the best location may not be for you to park in front of an existing ice cream establishment.”

The mobility inherent in a food cart or food truck business provides you with options on easy relocation, or establishing multiple locations throughout the day or week. Setting up at special events can also provide a huge boost in foot traffic during off hours or weekends.

“Keep a calendar and plan ahead for upcoming events and festivals,” says Saunders. “Don’t be afraid to talk to other food vendors for advice on locations.”

Some areas such as the Arena District, Brewery District and Franklin County Courthouse have additional restrictions on placement in the public right-of-way. Neighborhood and community events, including the Short North Gallery Hop, also can have temporary sidewalk restrictions and require your business to go through an application process to operate during those events.

“Get involved with the areas you plan on setting up in,” adds Humphrey. “Introduce yourself to local business owners, the neighborhood business association, and the Chamber of Commerce.”

[Local Resource Database - Community & Neighborhood Resources]

Step 7: Plug in to Social Media

Tawd Bell, Founder of Rad Dog

The wide-spread adoption of social media tools, such as Twitter and Facebook, has provided mobile food businesses a powerful way to stay in direct contact with customers. Not only can daily specials and menu changes be distributed easily, but location updates, special events, and weather conditions can be broadcast in real time to help steer foot traffic in the right direction.

“It definitely helps to register and stay connected with local business websites, local blogs, social media outlets, and networking events.” says Saunders.

Logging into Facebook and creating a “page” for your business takes only a few minutes, and setting up a business Twitter account is as simple as registering. These tools can be administered from smart phones and mobile devices while on site with your mobile food business, and a variety of third-party applications, such as HootSuite, can help manage your social media accounts in a more timely and productive manner.

“These are all extremely powerful tools, so make sure you get to know them and maximize the benefits they can create,” says Humphrey.

The local blogging community also is not to be overlooked as a resource for your food cart or food truck. There are dedicated local blogs on the subject of mobile dining, including StreetEatsColumbus.com and TacoTrucksColumbus.com. The messageboard on ColumbusUnderground.com also has a very lively and engaged dining discussion area where mobile food options are always welcome conversation. Get directly engaged with as many of these communities as you can find.

Step 8: Follow Through with Your Vision

Once you’ve got all of your ducks in a row, the last thing to do is get launched. Open your doors for business and start to establish a consistent schedule for your customers.

“There are so many people out there with great ideas that don’t ever get started,” says Saunders. “It took me nearly 10 years of second guessing myself before starting my business. You have to believe in yourself, think big, and surround yourself with like-minded people.”

This is a very strenuous profession, both mentally and physically, and those thinking about it should contact as many people as they can in the business to gain as much knowledge as possible before embarking on this adventure, says Humphrey.

“That being said, this is an awesome profession and a great way to own and operate your own food business without the overhead of a restaurant,” he adds.

Looking for more local information on mobile food business trends? Check out our Trendspotting article:
Food Trucks and Food Carts Enjoy Success in Columbus

Special thanks go out to the mobile food entrepreneurs who contributed to this How-To Guide:

Photography by Adam Slane.

Walker Evans Walker Evans (95 Articles)

Walker is the founder of ColumbusUnderground.com and co-founder of TheMetropreneur.com along with his wife and business partner Anne Evans. Walker has turned local media from a hobby into a full time career over the past decade and serves on multiple boards and committees throughout the community.


  • http://www.themetropreneur.com/columbus/members/munchythehippo/ kenny kim

    one thing i would like to add is that you should leave a little breathing room in the budget for unexpected problems. Say you spend all the money in your budget and have everything you need and your engine goes out, or your gasline breaks. Those random issues can be costly in a low budget scenario and i would make sure you have a quick solution. Being in ohio, time is most definitely of the essence and you may not be able to risk taking time off to figure out solutions during the “busy season”.

  • http://www.themetropreneur.com/columbus/members/bethiawoolf/ Bethia Woolf

    There is a useful series on Chow called diary of a new food truck owner. Currently there are 10 posts.

    http://www.chow.com/food-news/60464/diary-of-a-new-food-truck-owner-part-10-still-parked/

    I would add – keep good records of sales so that you can really evaluate how good different locations and events were and also to start to build up a pattern of busy times of days, days of the week and seasonality.

    Some of the food cart businesses have found winter locations partnering with bars to get them through the colder months.

  • http://www.themetropreneur.com/columbus/members/carlasaunders/ Carla Saunders

    I totally agree with Kenny and Bethia. I would also add, set aside $1,000 to $2,500 for Special Event fee’s, joining Organizations, Chambers, additional Marketing, and any extra unknowns. Be on the look out for a Mobile Food Association/Networking Group coming soon:-). This will be design to also help you start and grow your mobile business too:-). Special thanks to everyone that’s helped and supported all of us this year. We all couldn’t have done it without you.

    • http://www.themetropreneur.com/columbus/author/walker-evans Walker Evans

      The Mobile Food Association/Networking Group sounds great! Keep us posted on development. We’d be happy to help spread the word on it!

  • http://www.themetropreneur.com/columbus/members/mobilefoodvending1/ Laura Burrell

    Good Evening,

    As a Mobile Food Consultant, my job is to get you operational within 90 days without breaking your bank with a Custom Designed Food Truck! We assist with health department regulations, inspections, menus, locating untapped markets, and marketing with Social Media.

    My company, Discount Food Trucks, and our Manufacturer have over 25 years in the industry as Owners, Operators and Builders. We boast the LOWEST PRICES in the Industry along with Quality Craftsmanship, State of the Art Kitchens, Creative Designs, and Trucks built with full size ATM Machines (we built the first truck in the US with a Full ATM machine), security systems with mobile applications, Lo Jack, and Flat Screen TVs.

    Please give me a call!

    Laura Burrell
    Mobile Food Consultant
    discountfoodtrucks@gmail.com
    http://www.foodtruckandcartsale.com
    267-738-1656