If you live in an urban area, it’s likely you’ve spotted a few local food trucks snaking through the streets. Perhaps you’ve marvelled at their ability to pull up, feed the hordes in minutes and shoot off again – a very tempting alternative for restaurateurs who are used to working long hours and late nights.
It’s a trend that has been steadily growing over recent years. Cities like London, Brussels, LA, Portland and New York are renowned for their gourmet food-truck gatherings; offering everything from naturally raised duck confit to fresh oyster po’ boys. Gone are the days of shady food vans doling out substandard fare; these days you’re more likely to be greeted by a professionally trained chef putting the final delicate touches on a plate of whisky ganache truffles with rhubarb ash.
So why are an increasing number of food entrepreneurs turning to mobile kitchens, rather than the traditional dream of opening their own permanent restaurant?
"I’d imagine there would be at least $100,000 difference between starting up a food truck business compared to a restaurant.”
Less financial risk
Renowned restaurateur Damian Griffiths says it’s partly due to the current economic climate. “It’s tough for young chefs and business owners to open a bricks-and-mortar store or restaurant,” he says. “But if you’re smart and can invest in the start-up costs of a food van, then it can be a really cost-effective way to bring your product to the masses – rather than basing all your marketing around the customer coming to you.”
Griffiths is the mastermind behind dining venues such as Alfred & Constance, Kwan Brothers, Alfredo’s Pizzeria and Mister Fitz’s Finest Ice Cream, as well as hole-in-the-wall joint Doughnut Time, which also operates as a roving dessert truck.
Brent Colautti, executive director of mobile catering and cocktail van Something for Catering and restaurant and bar Gainsbourg, says that food trucks not only carry less financial risk than restaurants, but they can also allow food entrepreneurs to launch sooner, with less capital.
“You could start this kind of business on a much smaller budget and still present yourself as a quality professional,” he says. “Depending on your restaurant, I’d imagine there would be at least $100,000 difference between starting up a food truck business compared to a restaurant.” Colautti adds that restaurants also carry far more ongoing costs such as annual fees, insurances and licences.
“It's an opportunity for entrepreneurs to de-risk their start-ups."
Opportunity to test your product
Angela Hirst is the founder and director of Brisbane’s first incubator for food entrepreneurs, Wandering Cooks, which offers commercial kitchens, business resources, trade opportunities and support for small food businesses.
The incubator has helped countless emerging food start-ups get a foot in the door by launching market stalls, pop-ups and food trucks. Hirst says these small-scale operations are a great way to gauge public interest in your new venture.
“It's an opportunity for entrepreneurs to de-risk their start-ups, try new ideas out and, particularly popular with new residents to Australia – it’s a way for them to feel into how people might like their particular take on another culture's street food.”
She adds that it’s also a great first step for those who still plan to eventually open their own permanent venue. “Although there are a lot of people starting this way, I think many of them are still dreaming of a bricks-and-mortar place in the end – this is just a great way to test the water.”
“The mobility of the food truck opens doors to catering opportunities and allows you to chase the crowds.”
Ability to chase the crowds
Of course, a major advantage of a food truck is the opportunity to pursue customers, wherever they may be. Mobile ventures can follow the crowds and pop up at festivals and other events, while also expanding their reach across regions and states.
“Food trucks are great because of their mobility, compared to a restaurant where once you’re set up you’re not moving for a long time,” says Colautti. “The mobility of the food truck opens doors to catering opportunities and allows you to chase the crowds.”
Griffiths says that ‘Barbara’ – the classic vintage caravan that distributes Doughnut Time delicacies across South East Queensland – was a way to get his products out at public events. “Barbara was actually one of our very first investments, and in many way our second ‘store’, just on wheels,” he says.
“At the time, we had our sole Fortitude Valley (Brisbane) store and knew we had to be able to bring our doughnuts to various events.”
But Colautti adds that the temporary nature of food trucks can also be a drawback. “The negative is that you need to basically set up from scratch every time you attend an event, which requires a lot of work compared to a restaurant where everything is there for you to trade as soon as you open the doors.”
Meals-on-wheels ventures can give food entrepreneurs more freedom in a number of areas, from opening hours to staff to lease commitments.
“For me personally, the food truck is a lot less stressful than a restaurant due to the financial risks and the fact that you can have the flexibility of deciding when you want to trade or not; whereas at a restaurant you don’t have that option,” Colautti says.
“Restaurants are usually open seven days a week and most nights, compared to a food truck where you may trade three days a week. This then requires you to employ a lot more staff and cover a lot more hours of the week. You can’t physically do all of the hours at the restaurant so you then need to hire managers to help – and finding the right one can take months or a year, and because of that, restaurants are a lot harder to control.
“Unless you own the freehold of your restaurant premises, you’re also forced into long-term leases, which can tie you down for up to five years. If the business isn’t working and you can’t find a tenant to take over your lease, you’re stuck paying rent for a business that’s losing you money.”
“I think the trend is really only beginning in Australia – we always seem to be a little behind the 8 ball."
Bright future ahead?
Colautti says the long-term outlook for food trucks will rely heavily on council and liquor licencing laws. “If the laws become more lenient towards food trucks, then I could see a lot more restaurateurs considering this as their favourable option,” he says.
“I think the trend is really only beginning in Australia – we always seem to be a little behind the 8 ball. Food trucks have been part of street life in the USA for many years; I think it’s only the beginning. The vessel may change from a truck to a container, but the concept will continue to evolve.”
Griffiths certainly plans to continue investing in food trucks. “We have another van for Doughnut Time in the works that we’re excited to reveal very soon. As for the other businesses, I picture Mister Fitz’s Finest Ice Cream right at home inside a 1950s-inspired ice cream truck. Watch this space!”
But as Colautti observes, regardless of your vessel of choice, it all comes down to the entrepreneur’s offering and service. “The main belief I have is that if you’re a good operator with innovative ideas that deliver a good product, you’ll do well no matter if it’s a restaurant or a food truck.”
Lauren Griffiths is a Queensland-based freelance writer who writes about marketing, media and entrepreneurship.