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You want your own business. You have a passion for food.
So operating a food truck might sound ideal. Less overhead than a restaurant. Few if any employees. You drive to where the customers are. How hard could it be?
Well, pretty hard.
“If you plan on owning and operating your food truck, you should expect workdays approximating 12 to 16 hours as you will be in charge of every part of the business,” the National Food Truck Association says on its website. “The daily routine of a food truck operator is long and tedious: planning, shopping, prepping, marketing, cooking, selling, cleaning, storing, bookkeeping, forecasting, scheduling, advertising, etc. You will soon become an expert on many domains of the restaurant business, adding to this the joys of mechanical situations and weather hazards.”
Brent Cunningham, co-owner of Witty Pork, has seen other operators come and go in Colorado Springs just in the two years he’s been in business.
“It’s just a lot to juggle,” he said. “I don’t know if people understand how much it takes.”
Hector Diaz, of the Cuban-themed food truck Lucy I’m Home, laughed when asked what advice he had for newbies.
“I would discourage people from doing it,” he said. “Well, not necessarily discourage, but make sure they’re aware of all it entails. … I would definitely recommend you do some research.”
Despite the challenges, more and more entrepreneurs are making the jump. The food truck industry is the fastest growing sector of the food service industry, leaping from $650 million in 2013 to an estimated $2.7 billion in 2017, the National Food Truck Association says. It’s not clear how many food trucks operate in Colorado Springs. El Paso County Public Health has about 220 licensed mobile food vendors in its system, including 41 “prepackaged” mobiles, mostly ice cream vendors. Of the 178 full-serve mobile units, the system doesn’t delineate between food trucks and food carts.
Cunningham has seen new food trucks enter the scene in the last two years while demand grows. “More corporate buildings are calling us, ‘Hey, will you come out and set up for lunchtime?'” He also points to the success of last summer’s Food Truck Tuesdays on the grounds of Pioneers Museum. Food Truck Tuesdays ran for 10 weeks starting in August, with eight or more trucks each week, and will be returning this summer. Lance James, development director for Pioneers Museum, expects Food Truck Tuesdays to begin earlier this summer, but no start date has been set.
More food trucks mean more competitors, but the landscape seems to be a friendly one.
“I think the biggest thing that has been a blessing for us is being able to have a network of people that had already had food trucks,” said Jose Apodaca, who opened his Mira Sol food truck with his wife three years ago. “We didn’t know anything.”
Rocky Mountain Barbecue, owned by Chad and Katie Davis, has been in business since August 2014. Katie Davis said she’s happy to provide newbies with the benefit of their experience — but with one caveat.
“I will help out the trucks if they run their business right,” she said. “It seems nine times out of 10, it almost seems like a requirement to be a flake. We get so many phone calls in the summertime, ‘Our food truck backed out.'”
One tip she offers: Be careful of corporate sites that overestimate demand for food trucks. One location wanted food trucks every day, she said, but found employees weren’t willing to shell out the money that often for lunch. Others, in seeking a variety of offerings, may want multiple food trucks, but that might mean not enough business for some of the trucks.
“We always ask how many food trucks, how many people,” Katie Davis said.
Rocky Mountain Barbecue began operating at corporate sites, then partnered with various breweries; it’s a natural alliance for breweries without kitchens. But the Davises have largely said goodbye to breweries, though Rocky Mountain Barbecue remains a regular at JAKs Brewing Co. in Falcon.
“We don’t want to work nights,” Katie Davis said. “We have kids, and it was putting us at 17-, 18-hour days, Sometimes in the summertime, we will have three or four gigs a day.”
They’re now focusing more on catering at private parties and events such as weddings and graduations, and primarily booking on a prepaid basis with a set minimum amount. That solves one common problem for food trucks: predicting business.
“There has to be some kind of profit in it or we don’t eat,” Katie Davis said. “This is our sole livelihood.”
Lucy I’m Home is employing a similar strategy, Diaz said.
“If we feel there’s going to be a good turnout, we’ll take a leap of faith,” he said. “But if it is something we don’t have a gauge on, we’ll try to negotiate a minimum amount from the people who asked us to be there.”
It’s more challenging for newer trucks to negotiate such a deal, Katie Davis said. “When you’re new, you have to take what you can get.”
Witty Pork is experimenting with bringing customers to the food trucks. While its two trucks — Street Treats and Wood Fired Pizza — still make the rounds, Witty Pork also has set up The Food Truck Stop at 6449 Omaha Blvd. on the east side of town. A different food truck sets up shop there each day on weekdays. The idea is to create more dining options for people on that side of town as well as provide a regular spot for food truck operators.
Witty Pork also operates a commercial kitchen there. Food trucks must use an approved commissary for storing and prepping food, dumping gray water and other functions unless they’re a “fully equipped” unit; most food trucks do not meet that standard. Witty Pork sublets the kitchen space to other food truckers and caterers.
Witty Pork is a family business; Cunningham started it with his brother Todd, with help from their mother. Brent’s wife, Christina, left teaching to join the business and handles “the paperwork side of things,” marketing and networking.
“She’s the nucleus of our group right now,” Brent said. “She’s definitely pulling all the strings together.”
Social media is key, Christina said. “People have to know where you are, so we’re real good at having our schedule on the website, on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and then I post daily too, ‘Hey, here’s where we’re going to be today.'”
Despite the challenges of the business, “it is fun,” Christina said “We get to do fun things and be at super fun events and be together.”
A lot of the food trucks are family owned and operated, said Mira Sol’s Apodaca. That family spirit extends to the crowds that gather at the trucks.
“I think that’s one of the things that people like about food trucks,” he said. “It’s a community.”
Though it requires “busting your butt,” Diaz also finds the business rewarding. “The reaction that you get when they eat your food, that makes it all worthwhile.”
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