Dreaming of owning a food truck?

How to open a successful food truck 
By Christine Lagorio updated 6/1/2010 7:31:24 AM ET You're not exactly ahead of the curve if you think vending specialty food out of a van could be your big meal ticket. But that doesn't mean you can't make it big by betting on a banh mi bus or a churro cart.
Street food in New York and Los Angeles took a decidedly foodie turn in 2008, when gourmet trucks such as Rickshaw Dumpling Bar and The Dessert Truck, founded by a former Le Cirque pastry sous chef, started parking on the Manhattan streets. Formerly, lunch from a to-go cart might entail a greasy, mixed-meat kabob, a shriveled hot dog, or a stale pretzel. Today, the state of the cart is healthy, and increasingly high-end.
Call it a coast-to-coast surge of mobilized chefs, taking street eats to the next level.
The most successful are super-social-media savvy, with a loyal following that will meet them at any urban curb. Still, if you think you've got what it takes to serve meals on wheels, there are plenty of factors to consider first, the least of which should not be geography. While New York has no available vendor permits and Portland's food-truck market is already quite crowded (Multnomah County has nearly 400 food carts, according to the Portland Oregonian), other mid-sized cities look ripe for entrepreneurs.
When Scott Baitinger opened Streetza Pizza in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, last year with Steve Mai, the pair was virtually alone as street vendors – so much so that a local insurance agent had to create a policy to cover their previously unheard-of business. This year, Milwaukeeans seem to expect a snack truck to be parked outside Water Street bars late nights. Things are going so well, in fact, that Streetza is expanding via a partnership to Cleveland, where at least six new pizza trucks were slated to be in working order by Memorial Day.
Does sliding hand-tossed pizza topped with veggies grown by friends into and out of a mobile pizza oven all day sound like a dream? Well, Baitinger still has a 60-hour-a week day job, and no plans to leave it. New vendors cite considerable start-up hurdles, such as getting proper licensing, funding a kitchen and truck, mastering social networking, and staying profitable through poor weather and off seasons.
Ready to confront those obstacles and give a culinary venture a go? We've compiled stories and advice from entrepreneurs who have pioneered successful food carts.
So, you have a killer idea for a food truck. If you're thinking something fresh and hearty, something already sold on the streets of another country, or something sweet, it's likely you're on the right track.
As with almost any entrepreneurial endeavor, securing financing should be one of your first goals. Online forums and sales sites can help you determine your costs. If you want to start small, a standard, used hot dog style cart costs about $2,000 to buy, while refurbished trucks for driving and vending can run more than $40,000. That high price tag is usually due to local health department specifications, which any truck that serves food must comply with and be refurbished to meet.
Before you buy, though, assess your needs. The less you need your truck to do, and the smaller it can be, the cheaper it will be. Cody Fields, a former engineer who built wastewater treatment plants, launched his Austin empanada truck, Mmmpanadas, in early 2008. He started small by cooking his empanadas at home and selling a few dozen at a time to local bars and coffee shops. But he found serious expenses involved in expanding to a truck.
"You can spend $20,000 in buying your initial truck," he says. "I would recommend people think about going with a smaller cart — something that's not a full mobile truck, and not a full mobile kitchen.
" In New York or Los Angeles, where food carts are most popular, it might be possible to purchase a truck previously used by a vendor. Used is advisable, especially because acquiring and retrofitting a new truck can cost $75,000 to $100,000, according to a food-truck analysis by New York Magazine. Vending windows, lined walls and floors, electricity, hot running water and a retail payment system are all necessary, so even if you find, say, an appropriate-sized old DHL step van for sale for $10,000, the retrofitting will be a significant expense. Food carts generally have the same health and safety requirements as restaurants, so you can expect regular inspections for fire and health issues.
In designing the truck, you'll have to decide whether you'll be cooking most of the food on-scene, or simply using the truck as a retail and storage space. Empanadas, for instance, take considerable prep work, but can be easily stored and sold. Same goes for cupcakes or pastries. Tacos and pizza, on the other hand, need to be freshly assembled at the point of sale.
For Baitinger and Mai, fitting their truck with a functional pizza oven was the most difficult part of starting Streetza. They had purchased electric appliances for the truck, including a full-service pizza oven, before realizing that a generator to run it all wouldn't even fit in the truck. "We went through a comedy of errors, and still have an extra pizza oven we purchased sitting in my garage," Baltinger says.
A mobile restaurant doesn't have the same permitting process as a brick-and-mortar establishment. Nor does it have to pay traditional rent. But there are some other costs and logistics to consider.
Insurance This shouldn't run you much more than regular vehicle insurance, but do make clear to your underwriter any additional risks your truck might pose. For example, you might want to mention that you carry five propane tanks or have an open flame in your vehicle.
Permits Although necessary permits vary based on locality, in New York, a vendor needs a Mobile Food Vendor License and any vending vehicle needs to be equipped with a Mobile Food Vending Unit Permit. Securing a truck permit can be tough; certain cities, including New York, have a cap on the number of permits in existence at one time. It's not unlike the market for liquor licenses, experts say, with a waiting list that can run more than 10 years, according to the Street Vendor Project. While renting or buying a permit on the black market is illegal, inspectors have been known to turn a blind eye once a permit is in a vendor's hands.
Preparation facilities Even though plenty of mobile restaurants and bakeries can be started out of a home kitchen, consider the possible future need for extra facilities. When Lev Ekster launched his CupcakeStop truck last year, he hired a baker and rented a Brooklyn kitchen space only for evenings, which kept costs down. Since then, he's expanded to a full baking facility, which he's combining with an office and storefront in New Jersey.
Truck storage and security Some cities' departments of health require that vending vehicles be stored in approved commissary locations when not on duty. Expect to pay for this parking, including electricity and refrigeration costs.
Parking If you're planning on parking — anywhere, really — you'll need permission. Baitinger recommends befriending local city council representatives and establishment owners before choosing regular spots. In metropolitan areas, neighborhood associations can be helpful partners. For special events or privately owned areas, though, you might have to pay for a good location. For Ekster's second CupcakeStop vehicle, for instance, he's planning on parking daily at New York's South Street Seaport, and is paying a few thousand dollars a month for that prime tourist-heavy locale.
Buzz is a huge part of what makes a food-truck launch successful. With social media allowing vendors to distribute exclusive-feeling information about their location or daily specials, the best newly launched trucks strike a fine balance between elusiveness and consistency.
That is to say, not everyone who might want a burger is following the tweets of New York vendor Frites 'n' Meats. But if they know the truck usually serves dinner at a particular corner in TriBeCa, they can find it. When choosing a location, vendors should pay special attention to exceptions to vending rules on local park property, and be careful to stay away from competing brick-and-mortar establishments (at least until they know and love you). Milwaukee's Streetza truck, for example, had trouble gaining acceptance from local bars and restaurants due to fear it might drive business away. Now, they know the truck draws a regular social-media crowd to an area.
"In the last year, everything has taken a 180-degree turn," Baltinger says. "At first, people were trying to keep us away from their brick-and-mortar establishments, and now they want us. Still, we will never park within 500 feet of a pizza restaurant, because just ethically that doesn't seem right."
In addition to Tweeting locations and specials, Streetza crowdsources menu ideas, and held a Twitter vote on their truck design. And Baitinger is thankful for the synergy: "As much as Twitter has given to us, I try to give back to it. I give plenty of praise, and I even found my accountant on Twitter!"
Every city seems to have a distinct vibe. In L.A., there's more of a swoop-in-and-serve-em-up-quickly feel. Take the famed Kogi Korean BBQ truck, which will tweet a new location, be met by a swarm of 40 hungry fans, serve, and then take off for a new spot. In New York, vendors tend to make a schedule and stick to it. In Austin, Texas, and Madison, Wisconsin, carts and trucks gravitate to the same area, forming something of an outdoor food court, or maybe a trailer park that happens to vend cheap lunch.
If you make the decision to be a highly mobile vendor, you'll want to use Facebook and Twitter early to cultivate a loyal customer base. Baitinger says Twitter is a key to his business success, estimating that 70 percent of his sales can be directly tied to social media. "It's not always someone who's on Twitter," he says, "but it's someone who is who said something to a friend." "At a core level, we use Twitter to broadcast our location. But also, we try to push the stories about the people who eat our pizza. And photos of them. It's building a community,"
Baitinger says. Even at the most modest outset of your fledgling business, think about what you really want to create for yourself. "Creating a food truck, and a job for yourself is fairly easy to do," says Fields of Mmmpanadas. "Creating a business is much more difficult."
Ekster's CupcakeStop truck is available for events, and he does a lot of corporate store openings, such as Victoria's Secret, and bar/bat mitzvahs. He tends to book the truck on evenings, so after it is done selling to the workday crowd in Manhattan, it can head out to Long Island for a party. And that income helps make the business model sustainable. "You can make more money selling cupcakes outside than at an event, only an event is guaranteed," Ekster says. "You sign a contract and, rain or shine, you get paid."
Events are a reliable source of income for many new street vendors, and so is catering. The Streetza partners discovered this when offices started ordering their pizzas for lunch, because there weren't fresh-out-of-the-oven pizza choices readily available in downtown Milwaukee.
Online sales are another promising arena for less-perishable food products, as well as t-shirts, and other novelty products. Distribution to coffee shops, grocery stores, and other vendors is another option. That's exactly where Mmmpanadas is going. The company is already distributing empanadas, and is beginning to supply them to Whole Foods locally this month. "We're trying to create our wholesale business, but the truck only helps with that. It's a moving, 20-foot-long billboard for us, that increases visibility," Fields says. Copyright © 2012 Mansueto Ventures LLC.

Would pay $11,111 for a coffee maker?

By Dan Seifert on October 1, 2012 02:00 pm @dcseifert Verge Blossom isn’t looking to steal sales from the likes of Keurig, not yet at least. Instead, the company is gunning straight for the high-end, extreme coffee enthusiast market with its Blossom One Limited brewer. The $11,111 machine is hand-made with exotic materials like mahogany and teak, and Blossom is even hand-delivering it to customers that are willing to plunk down that kind of money for a coffee maker. But while the One Limited has some exotic materials, it’s the integration of new technology with the traditional methods of making coffee that has our interest piqued.
 A FANCY WAY TO MEASURE COFFEE TEMPERATURE WHILE IT BREWS For starters, Blossom says that the One Limited features an all-new heating system that gives very granular control over the temperature of the water used. Temperature, along with pressure and the ratio of coffee to water, is one of the key factors in brewing coffee. Cheap coffee makers, like the ones you find on the department store shelf, generally don’t get water hot enough for a proper "extraction" (what coffee nerds call brewing), and therefore produce an inferior cup of joe. The One Limited has a "proportional integral derivative feedback control loop," (monitored by an Arduino, naturally) which controls the temperature of the water throughout the brewing process. Blossom president Jeremy Kuempel explains this technology as "a fancy way of saying we measure the temperature of the coffee while it brews and we use heating elements to correct that temperature to whatever [the user] has set it to be." Additionally, the feedback control lets the user control temperature values and curves throughout the brewing process. Blossom has also incorporated a simple control dial and monochrome LCD on the front of the coffee maker to select the desired temperature and time for steeping. Kuempel gave us a demonstration of the technology on what the company calls the "Dev 2 Prototype," an early version of what will eventually become the One Limited this coming spring. He was sure to stress that while this machine uses similar processes to the One Limited to brew the coffee, the final product will look significantly different from the prototype. Regardless, the Dev 2 was able to produce an eight ounce cup of coffee in about 70 seconds from start to finish, including heating the water to the desired temperature. Though that may sound like a long time to those used to automatic brewers and pod-based machines, it is actually pretty quick for a full manual coffee brewer. The ubiquitous automatic coffee maker has been a staple of the modern kitchen for decades with little innovation across the handful of designs in use. But a recent resurgence in the interest of specialty coffee has spawned a number of new innovators in the space on both the high-end and the low-end of the market. Blossom Coffee is a young company that hopes to use mechanical engineering experience and new web-connected technology to improve upon the age-old coffee maker, and it’s using the five-figured One Limited as its launching platform. Like the thermostat market, the world of coffee makers is largely dominated by a few well known, entrenched brands that have been pumping out the same designs for decades. Entrenched companies don’t like their bread and butter messed with, and the legal action from Honeywell against Nest is a prime example of that. Things in the coffee maker market have been shook up a little with the surge in popularity of automatic pod-based single cup brewers (think Keurig), but those do not cater to real coffee aficionados. While the pod-based brewers are simple, quick, and automatic, they give the user very little control and are generally derided in the high-end coffee world. While Blossom has used the engineering chops of its designers to improve the heating performance of the One Limited, it has also added 21st-century things like always on 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi connectivity and a digital camera. A camera on a coffee maker, you say? Why, yes indeed. Blossom has made the One Limited programmable through QR codes, so owners can use the camera to scan a code provided from a coffee roaster to automatically set their coffee maker to the right temperature and brew time. Additionally, Blossom plans to deploy a webapp accessible from a smartphone or tablet that lets owners push custom settings to their One Limiteds over the internet. Blossom hopes that this level of customizable control will interest boutique coffee shops, which can run different One Limited machines for each type of brew that they choose to offer, as opposed to current machines which can take a long time to adjust their temperature for various types of coffee brews. The One Limited, with its five-figure price tag and extremely limited run is just the beginning for Blossom. At over eleven grand, the One Limited is clearly targeted to someone whose perception of money is on the level with their perception of minute differences in the pH balance of tap water. The company admits that this particular model will only appeal to the exceptionally wealthy coffee connoisseur, but it has plans to release more mainstream versions of its coffee maker in the future, provided this one is a success. "It’s my vision to make amazing coffee available to everyone," noted Kuempel. Given the relatively low profile of the One Limited, the existing producers of high-end coffee makers (think Bunn, not Mr. Coffee) haven’t really paid too much notice to Blossom. But, as we saw with Nest and the legal issues that crept up once it started encroaching on Honeywell’s thermostat turf, Blossom may ignite the ire of some of the larger companies if it gains enough traction. At the end of the day, it's hard to see this particular device or other variations of it making a dent in the world of big coffee. While the engineering behind the One Limited is interesting, it essentially takes a pretty simple process and unnecessarily complicates it with enough control parameters to make even the most hardened coffee nerd's eyes water. Don't get us wrong, the coffee it produces is good (really good, in fact). But so is the coffee made with a $26 plastic AeroPress. The creators behind the Blossom One Limited have done an excellent job of marrying their love of engineering with their love of coffee. Fortunately for the rest of us, there are far simpler (and cheaper) methods of getting our daily caffeine fix that don't seem to be going anywhere any time soon.