Food & Drink

Things you don't understand about food trucks (unless you run one)

food handoff
Dan Gentile

Despite their inability to stay open during inclement weather, food trucks have taken the nation by storm. And although they're oft romanticized in the media and on the big screen, that dude from Swingers is just about the only thing that's money about running a food truck. It's a hard, hard gig.

To pull back the hood and learn more about these mobile sustenance suppliers, we talked to a group of food truck owners about everything from auto maintenance to grey water to kimchi fries. Read on to get a greater appreciation for just how hard it is to sell a taco out of a truck.

truck engine
Dan Gentile

The truck itself

You have to become a mechanic
A lot of these trucks are 20 years old, so stuff breaks. Often. Tires will blow out, transmissions fail, engines overheat. Be prepared to become very good friends with your truck's owner's manual.

Kitchens weren't meant to be put on wheels
Many city regulations forbid building customized equipment to suit your trailer, so operators are forced to use after-market equipment that's often awkwardly welded or mounted to the truck. Also, refrigerators weren't built to take speed bumps.

There's way more cleaning than you'd think
To keep a truck from devolving into a roach coach, you're hosing it down every single night.

rear mirror
Dan Gentile

They are not easy to drive
Imagine a moving van. Full of food. That you drive every single day.

If it's cold outside, you better watch your water tank
If your truck is not well-insulated, your toes will not be the only things freezing.

money drawer
Dan Gentile

Costs

Overhead is lower than a restaurant, but it's far from cheap
As with a brick-and-mortar, you're still paying rent, gas, water, electricity, labor, and on top of that, rent for a commissary kitchen.

There are hidden labor costs
If you're not a stationary cart, enjoy paying your employees an extra hour to drive the truck to and from the site.

food truck
Dan Gentile

You pay rent to park
You can't just roll up and sell Korean tacos anywhere, you know! At least not without getting fined.

Consumers expect to pay less, which is unrealistic
Food trucks usually can't sell high-margin items like alcohol, desserts, or appetizers, so margins might be as low as 10%.

event food truck
Dan Gentile

Private events drive profits
Without a steady stream of catering and private events, it's very hard to keep the business afloat.

You should start with at least six months of operating expenses
It's pretty nice to think that you can Kickstart a trailer from thin air, but it actually takes a very long time to become profitable in any business, let alone one known for cheap food and stiff competition.

food truck sink
Dan Gentile

Inside and outside the truck

Water is an issue
You can only carry so much water. All that grey waste water has to be disposed of properly, and a full dirty water tank pretty much means the end of the business day. Conservation of liquids is key.

Kitchen devices break
If the fryers go out, you simply keep calm and carry on... especially if you're specializing in fries.

Light is crucial
If no one can see that you're open, no one is coming. And if you can't see inside the trailer, you can't cook. The lights on many trucks run on the battery, so if that's out, you're done for the night.

generator
Dan Gentile

Your electrical footprint is limited
If you want to add a fancy sous-vide machine to your trailer, you've got to consider how that impacts the overall electrical load of your operation. You can only pull so many amps from a generator.

Once you're on site, there's no turning back
If you forgot something, you've got to improvise.

air conditioner
Dan Gentile

If it's 100 degrees outside, it's 115 degrees inside
Try running a fryer, steam table, and grill in a space the size of a dorm room without sweating through a few shirts.

Your posture will suffer
Think about every food truck you've ever patronized and imagine the guy taking your order. He's getting great experience in case Notre Dame calls and they need a new hunchback.

You're always burning fuel
Every hour a food truck is open, there's money going into running the generator.

kimchi fries
Dan Gentile

The biz

If a market is already saturated, it'll be much harder to succeed
Your small town doesn't need four Korean taco trucks. Or maybe it does, but it's likely only one or two will survive.

There's a greater trust with employees
The managerial structure is much leaner on a truck than in a restaurant, so you better trust that shift leader. Especially because he's probably your buddy.

Owners essentially become real-estate agents
That hot new location can mean the difference between success and failure, so owners are always on the lookout for new spots in prime areas full of hungry people.

It's not a one-man show
Although the perception is that food truck ownership is a life of independence -- the landlocked equivalent of a self-sufficient sailor -- you're really just as dependent on a team as you would be in a restaurant.

fry cooking
Dan Gentile

It's not glamorous
The media might make food truck owners out to be renegade all-around cool guys, but the reality is that it's one of the least glamorous (so much sweat!) and most difficult jobs imaginable.

Press doesn't equal success
Even the most talked-about trailers might be barely treading water. And if that water's grey, they're in trouble.

The odds of success are microscopic
Although the initial investment is less than a restaurant, the odds of succeeding are even lower.

food prep
Dan Gentile

The food

Menus have to be limited
There's just not enough space to have a ton of options. Or room to store the ingredients.

People expect their food quicker
There definitely isn't table service, and there might not even be tables. Odds are people are either on the way back to their office or have been out at bars, so the normal 10-15 minutes they'd expect to wait for their food is condensed to less than five.

Tight quarters make prepping awful
Moving around in a normal restaurant kitchen is already an intimate dance, but in a trailer you're essentially grinding on each other. And not in the sexy, R. Kelly way, though he probably should write a song about getting down in a food truck. Or maybe he already has...

You probably need a commissary kitchen
Depending on health codes, you might not even legally be able to cook everything on your truck.

Dan Gentile is a staff writer on Thrillist's National Food and Drink team. He has written about hundreds of food trucks, but just finally realized that their water doesn't magically disappear. Follow him to more dumb epiphanies at @Dannosphere. And special thanks to Chi'Lantro for being so photogenic.