July 11, 2016

Rolling With A Food Truck Expert (PODCAST)

food truck podcast Brett Lindenberg, founder of FoodTruckEmpire.com, shares his insight into what it takes to get a food truck rolling these days and tips on how to keep the business successfully running.

Notes: Links to resources mentioned within the podcast are included below the transcript.


Jennifer: Today, we’re talking to Brett Lindenberg who’s a founder of FoodTruckEmpire.com which was started in 2013 with the goal of becoming the ultimate resource for aspiring mobile food owners. Today, FoodTruckEmpire.com received over 60,000 visitors each month and has been cited in publications like Entrepreneur Magazine and Restaurant Hospitality.


In July of 2016, FoodTruckEmpire.com will be kicking off season two of their podcast series where they’re going to be following along a hot dog cart vendor on his journey to build successful mobile food business.


For more information about the podcast series or any of the resources available on the Food Truck Empire site, visit www.foodtruckempire.com and we will as always include a link to this in the transcript page for today’s podcast on the small food business site as well. Brett, thank you so much for joining us. Really appreciate it.


Brett: Thanks for having me too Jennifer. I’m a big fan of yours so appreciate being on the podcast.


Jennifer: This is awesome because you’re bringing a whole bunch of a food truck knowledge. You go so deep into this industry. I wanted to start with you started foodtruckempire.com in 2013 and now we’re recording this podcast in 2016, what changes have you seen in the food truck industry between then and now?


Brett: Yeah, when I started the blog back in 2016 I was actually starting it basically because I was looking into a food truck business for myself and I couldn’t really find any information about it online but I was a big fan of this what me and you are doing right now, I listened to a lot of podcast.


I was like, “Well, maybe if I started a podcast I could basically just have an excuse to talk to a bunch of food truck owners and not have them be like fearful in sharing information with me and then just go from there and see what happens.” That’s what I did. I would say one of the biggest things between then and now when I got started is I think there’s just … In general, I’d say the industry I think is getting … There’s a little bit more information that’s getting published about it.


I think it’s maybe the industry as a whole as getting structured a little bit better and there’s a little bit less just the myth of the joys of operating a food truck from TV shows like the Great Food Truck Race where you’re just going to buy a truck and go about there and park somewhere and make a whole bunch of money.


I think just the expectations and the understanding of all the actual work it takes to actually run a food truck successfully and the hours that go into it. I think that is a really big thing between, or difference between then and now. You’ve got more people that want to get into it for I would say the right reasons because they’re really serious about it and they’ve done their research.


I think that’s a really great change and then I’d say also too another big change that say between then and now is just how food truck owners are expecting to make their money. This goes into just having a better understanding of how to operate a food truck. Like I said, back in the day they might expect to park downtown somewhere. I think folks go in with a knowledge of maybe like, “Oh, I’m going to use catering as my main income source.”


I guess just overall education is a little bit better and then I would also say on top of that … I think a lot more established restaurants have gotten into the food truck ownership game just because they understand a little bit more about the marketing benefits of it plus they’ve already got the infrastructure setup to build it.


If you’ve already got maybe four or five restaurant locations dropping 50 to 100,000 on a truck isn’t really that much using air quotes here compared to what they’ve already invested into their business. A little bit long awaited but I’d say those are the big overarching changes that I’ve seen from the folks that I’ve talked to anyway.


Jennifer: You mentioned the first thing that you were talking about was more of the reality of owning a food business and some of that coming to light, would you mind to sharing based off the folks that you’ve talked to, if any of our listeners are still in that fairy tale of owning a food truck would be so much fun, what are some of those realities?


Brett: Yeah, I would say if you or someone that wants to start a food truck, I’m definitely not discouraging anyone from doing it but I would say it takes some time at least to get exposure to it without investing a ton of money into it. Don’t go out and buy a food truck first and then try to figure this stuff out.


I would say when a lot of folks that we recommend doing right away is one, just try to go out and maybe getting a part time job or just offer to donate some of your time to working on a food truck. That can be a really, really fast way to understand like, “Oh, I’ve got to wake up in the morning and I have to do a lot of and maybe two or three hours of prep work. Before, I actually go out and serve the food during my lunch hour for couple hours and then there’s maybe another two or three hours of clean up afterwards.”


Doing some things like that are easy and non costly ways I guess to get exposed to it and just understand how much work is in involved with it. I would say on top of that too just the other best thing that you could do is just start and meeting my partner Anthony who … we work on a food truck classes together that is through the website but the thing that he recommends as somebody that’s owned a food truck for about three years now is actually taking time way before you ever buy a truck, way before you get started is to start working just on a business plan and get really detailed about it.


where I’m going to be parking? How I’m going to be making money? What’s specifically am I going to be serving on there? Basically, reverse engineer it and start thinking about like, “Hey, how many meals do I actually have to make to make this certain … the income that I want to make and what are my cost going to be?” If you go about it by writing a business plan and just maybe donating some time to a food truck so you get the realities of what it’s going to take to operate then I think you’re going to be in a much better place to actually start this type of business.


I’ll tell you just one quick story. There’s a lady that went through one of our classes actually and she goes, “Oh my gosh, I don’t think I can start a food truck because it’s not going to make enough money.” For me based on what I wanted and based to your like, “That’s great that you found this out now versus spending 50,000, $75,000 first and then going out and try to do this and figuring it out then be certainly a lot more painful then than it is right off the bat.


If you decide of course of you do, you are turned to operate a food truck you can play around with the numbers, “Okay maybe I have to make more sales that sort of thing before moving forward.”


Jennifer: There’s a food truck entrepreneur I know. I actually just happened to know that she did go through your courses as well. She ended up as she was coming from a background that was not … had nothing to do with food, she actually went and she interned for free at a local restaurant and she was like, “It’s not a food truck but she needed to feel comfortable in her culinary skills and being able to turn over a decent quantity of food during the course of a couple hours.”


It’s been a couple months that she’s been working for free for them in addition to no joke also working on getting the truck ready to launch and also working her real job but she needed to do that to feel confident that she could be really good in the truck. Hearing you say that reiterated that point to me.


Brett: Yeah, for sure and I think that’s a great way to go about it too because maybe in your area, maybe you live in a smaller area where there just aren’t that many food trucks around to get that opportunity, I think go in the restaurant route is a great way to do it, the basics are still there. You’re just probably operating in a little bit larger space.


Jennifer: Speaking of smaller towns versus larger towns, there are some people … I’m here in Seattle and there’s one area where you’ve got the new Google buildings and Amazon’s just moved into their new building and Microsoft moved down there. It’s a very hip trendy area. You go down there during lunch time and there are no joke over a 100 food carts or food trucks.


There are some people who would argue that certain cities or certain parts of the country are over saturated when it comes to food trucks and then there are certainly others who some would argue or some lagging in their food truck laws and are pretty … can pretty much pf a food truck desert.


Do you think that there’s a way for entrepreneurs to break into a crowded market place like a Seattle or do you think there are certain markets where an entrepreneur might have to say, “That’s just … It doesn’t look like it’s going to work for me in this area.”


Brett: Yeah, that’s a really good question. I think this goes back nicely too to what’s the difference between 2013 when the website first got started versus now. Maybe back in 2013, if you started a food truck in say a medium sized town like Omaha, Nebraska in the middle of nowhere. If you started a food truck then in the mid west in a medium sized town, you’d probably get, you literally can get featured in the newspaper because you’re a food truck and you’re coming to town and it’s a really big deal.


If you’re getting started now to a point especially in a place like Seattle or anywhere like in LA or San Francisco just the fact that you’re a mobile cart or you’re a food truck, that does really matter so much. They press novelty has worn off on that element as of right now but I think there’s still definitely a way for … I think that’s like saying is it too saturated? Is it too saturated to start a restaurant in San Francisco? Is it too saturated to start a restaurant in New York?


It’s definitely more competitive I think but is it still possible to be successful in the area? Yeah, sure, of course but I think it goes down to you’ve really got to invest a lot more like planning into it and really think about … it gets down to the marketing basics again I guess I should say like are you cooking any type of unique food? What’s your story? What’s the unique food that you’re serving in your area? How are you going to be able to articulate like what’s different in your area.


It goes back to again the business plan. Since you know it’s maybe a tougher area to get into, like what are the first things that you’re going to drum a business in your area? You know what I mean? You’re going to go to the route that everybody else is doing like trying to park in front of the Amazon or some place like that or do you want to try to find catering opportunities in your area to start building up the business.


I think it really the more competitive in your area, the more you have to think about what food are you going to serve, what’s your brand going to be, what makes it different than everybody else and then really, really spend time and invest a lot of time in that business plan to make sure that you’ve got plan A, plan B, plan C, plan D for how you’re going to generate revenue right away.


Jennifer: As you’re talking about that, it also made me think about I know having talked to food truck entrepreneurs up here again in Pacific North West because it rains a lot. They talked about the seasonality aspect of their revenue from straight street sales. It varies so widely that they really have to plan in their business plan to rely on catering in the off months because people just don’t want to go out and stand in line when it’s pouring rain.


They’ve been telling you they have to actively market a couple months in advance thinking, “Okay, I’ve got to be ready for doing catered events in October, November, December when the weather is terrible.” Even though right now, it’s May and it’s beautiful. I still have to be marketing out so that I know I feel those months.


Brett: Yeah, for sure. I think that’s a good thing to definitely keep in mind when you’re getting started to. Depending on what your goals are for the business too like my buddy Malcolm Bedell who owns Wich Please food truck out of Rockland, Maine. The town that he operates in is a town that gets … it’s cold in the winter, obviously you’ve got snow and stuff but it’s basically a destination for folks to come during the summer time to be near the ocean and eat lobster and that thing.


Summer time it fills up. Winter time, there’s pretty much only locals there. For him, he just totally shuts down his business for probably between November and March and then he understands the summer time is when I’m going to make all my money. I’m going to shut down just maybe take an odd job here there to get by during the winter time and then be back at it again I guess in the summer. That’s certainly something to keep in mind if you’re in the Northern states or Canada and build it into your business plan for sure.


Jennifer: Yeah, absolutely. In my mind, I was like … Maine is gorgeous but I’m also like, “I’ll take a job maybe in the Caribbean.” Speaking about marketing, I guess I’m interested in you’re so close to the food truck industry and you talked to so many folks. Are you seeing any particular trends right now either with respect to food though I know that that can be hugely variable based on region or what about marketing, the marketing piece seems to be a big question for a lot of food trucks.


Are you seeing anything … do folks still rely on Twitter when it comes to food trucks or are they on the Snapchat or something else entirely.


Brett: Yeah, it think when you get into social media marketing and I would imagine you probably heard the same responses is that it’s like you can spend so much time on Facebook, you can spend so much time on Twitter and Instagram and all these different places but they often don’t yield maybe all that results in terms of your time.


What seems to be a trend if you will that is working for the folks that I’ve spoken to is I would say not even on the social media marketing side, everybody is still … you want to close your location on Twitter, you want to close your location on Facebook, you take phone photos and definitely not against any of that.


There seems to be a lot of the food trucks that are successful are building relationships into their businesses and what I mean by that is … I can’t remember the name off the top of my head so I apologize, I might have to follow up with you on this one but there’s a truck in Oklahoma that they build basically a nonprofit charity element into their food truck.


Basically instead of having someone pay a said amount at their food and truck when they come to eat, they can basically give a donation. You can give a donation for they recommend $7 to be able to eat there but you’re not forced to eat anything or you’re not forced to pay anything. That way anyone that’s homeless or anyone like that can come, they can have a good meal, they can literally order anything off the menu without having to pay anything.


What’s worked out really well for that truck is that you’d expect that, “Oh maybe they might not make the money because there’s going to be too many people taking advantage of them.” But what seems to happen is that people will actually want to pay more because they know that if they pay $14 instead of $7, that they’re going to have another meal that they can give to someone else that’s homeless that happens to end up coming by and of course that thing really attracts a lot of attention from local press and newspapers, television and all that thing.


I would say those don’t have anything to do with social media or anything like that but if you can find a cause that you’re passionate about that you can somehow attach your food truck on to you and your brand on to you, that’s going to help you build relationships with a lot more people locally.


You can build relationships with different organizations that are going to help you book more catering gigs or book more events locally. Doing things like that just some clever basic drill marketing like that seems to be what works the best right now. I think that’s something that’s not trendy.


I think you could come in at anytime and have a social cause that you’re behind wither it’s a huge one or maybe a small one and I think you’re going to see success. I would say also on top of that, you might be aware of them, I’m sure there’s probably some of these trucks nearby you but do you have Kona Ice trucks nearby you Jennifer?


Jennifer: We don’t because it rains too much but I’ve heard of them.


Brett: Obviously just in case anyone doesn’t know, they’re a shaved ice truck and they’re a franchise that you can buy into but one of the ways that they train all of their vendors and obviously shaved ice is a little bit different. It’s super high margin rights. You can give away 25% of your profits and it only costs literally less than a dollar for … way less than a dollar for each shaved ice but basically their marketing plan that they teach everyone and they have over a hundred trucks that operate now is basically … you just connect with … you reach out to your local schools, you reach out to your local sports teams.


You just say, “Hey, invite us out to your event. We’re going to give you 15% of everything that we sell there and we’ll cut you a check at the end of the day because we want to help you raise money for your cause. It’s super easy to have us there. You don’t have to fill out anything, just let us plug in somewhere and then we’re literally done.”


I think that just that business is able to build a franchise just using that model. Super simply if you can do something similar with your truck, I think you’ll be in a good spot and it gives you a reason to talk to people too and meet people in your area as well.


Jennifer: It also definitely differentiates you. If it’s done, I know he’s talked to folks about if you’re going to do something like this, it has to be authentic. You mentioned, it has to be a cause you believe in. There has to be a reason why you’re doing this and not just a straight marketing angle but if it is something that you believe in the marketing piece, it’s certainly a nice bonus.


Brett: For sure. I think it can make you feel a lot more worthwhile maybe if you’re getting up in the morning you got this larger goal to help the local community or whatever. You just connect to I think that can make life a lot better and more fulfilling.


Jennifer: Since you’re talking a little bit about revenue and numbers, the million dollar question if you will, I know this question is going to come with a huge [inaudible 00:21:45] because I know that there are so many different factors that are going to go into this answer but for somebody who’s looking to start a food truck and is starting to build out their business plan and is now at the point where they’re trying to figure out how much they need to allocate to start up costs, is there a rough number that somebody should go in with thinking, “Okay, I need roughly X to get going.”


Brett: That is the million dollar question. It’s usually followed by it depends but I’m going to try to give you something more concrete here because I will say a lot depends answer to you. I would say I think generally speaking especially with the food truck and with a lot of things in life, you’re either going to pay a lower amount now right away to a food truck but then you’re going to probably have to do more work later.


Whether it’s repairing something or getting your truck up to the right health standards or repairing it down the line something like that, you can pay … you can go in eBay or something like that and buy one for under 20,000 but you’ll probably have to pay more later. I would say what seems to be a good area, rough ball park area is between 50 to $75,000 to get a food truck that has all the equipment that you might need that isn’t going to break down right away is going to pass health inspections.


I’m tap and tossing into that’s a few things that are maybe a little bit dependent on where you start. What type of business permits do you need in your area. Do you need to have a special permit to park on the streets on your city. There are some flexible dollar amounts that you got to look into.


With that being said I know Anthony who owns Switch It Up who created the food truck course with, he spent just under 50,000, I want to say about 45,000 on his truck to get it started and that … aside from just regular breakdowns here and there, it’s going to be able to last them for three plus seasons now and he didn’t even have to spend $50,000.


I would say if you want a good ball park estimate, 30 to 75 would be a good kind or range to expect though unless you want the super most high ends flashing lights on your truck maybe a sound system, something crazy like that. Obviously you’re going to have to pay a bit more.


Jennifer: As you’re talking I was thinking I’m also just for the listeners, I’m going to include a link to your courses as well on the transcript because in addition to that 50 to 75,000, that’s the truck cost for them, there are all those other start up cost and I know having talked to some folks who’ve gone through your course, you guys will be able to help them list out what some of those other costs are and how to figure out where they need to be looking for a permit.


For anybody listening, I’ll include a link to their courses as well so that if this is something you’re looking to getting into, this is a great online course for you to really get all those numbers and start to figure out how this business plan of yours is going to line up with your business goals.


Brett: Cool. Yeah, I appreciate that. I was going to say too I’ll send you a link to just on the website it’s totally free to getting your email or anything, just a cost breakdown that list out some of the basic costs. Obviously it’s all a general information because we don’t know what location you’re starting in.


Also I’ll send over the link to a rough … we’ve got an example of Anthony, my partner’s business plan template. It’s got all of the information that he used when he got started with his food truck and that was just for one location in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Getting started there is going to be a lot cheaper than if you want to start in New York City but it will at least give you a sense of like, “Okay, here are some real numbers from a real business in one random town in the United States.”


Jennifer: Cool. I’m just having something to start with is usually for most folks better than simply pulling a number out of the air. At least this would be something for them so thank you.


Brett: Yeah, no problem.


Jennifer: We’ve talked a little bit about somebody who’s looking to get into this for the first time but I wanted to just spend a couple of minutes before we finish up today talking about what about somebody who has been on … they’ve been up and running for six months or a year or more, do you have any words of advice for them obviously again the challenges they’re facing are going to be specific to their business but as you’ve talked to food truck owners who have been in business for a little bit, are there common themes that you see coming up. Do you have any words of advice that you can pass on to those folks?


Brett: I would say Anthony and I have done a couple of food truck courses right now and I would say that it is really, really evident who is actually going to be launching a business and who’s going to be successful at it. It seems like almost right away and it’s mainly depends on the approach and how much seriousness folks approach it with.


If you are actually taking the time to really legitimately think about where you’re going to go an event, what you’re going to be serving, what your menu is, where you’re going to source the information. I would say 75% of the people don’t really actually go out and do any of that preliminary work to even go through the research stage of it.


I really would say and just if you have it invested in a truck yet, it really just needs serious and honest with yourself in that early part. Do I really want to be doing this? Do I actually want to go down this path because you don’t want to be unhappy with your decision in six months or you’re down the line.


I would say one of the big hangups initially is for folks that do get past that initial part, get their truck is just understanding that it just takes a little bit of time to get networked in with people in your area to start building up business. There’s a lot of folks that will get discouraged I would say.


Maybe one or two months in when it’s like, “Oh, I applied for this big event in my area. They didn’t let me in or whatever. I wasn’t able to vent in it. That was my big coming out party and we’re going to make a lot of money at this big fair at my area or whatever.” I know basically the advice that Anthony always gives is like, “Hey, that completely comes with a territory especially when you get started.”


When you get started, nobody knows who you are, they don’t know if you are even going to show up on time or anything like that but eventually, you just have to keep at it, keep applying for different things, you’re going to get an opportunity to be at some of those larger events in your area, get the opportunity to the event an ideally within a years’ time or however long it takes you, eventually those opportunities are just going to start coming to you and you’re not going to have to work as hard to just get an event.


I would just say early on just understanding that you’re going to get rejected a few times and that it’s okay and it’s part of the process. It doesn’t mean that your food is bad. It just means that you got to keep grinding your way of it and just in understanding that if you continue to do that for six to 12 months, you’re going to start getting ingrained into that local little food truck community.


Once you’re in if you will and if you’re cool and if you’re nice to people, you don’t serve people over and that thing, you’ll probably okay as long as you stick with it but I would say the first three to six months, they can be hard and I think that gets into a good point to raise here is just like with any business especially early if you can have buffer, that’s great.


If you can maybe not quit your day job right away until it makes sense to you. There’s a lot of food truck owners that are very, very successful now that they just started doing a few weekend events or maybe a few catering events. They didn’t even buy a truck yet just to get their name out and I think if you go about it that way, it’s not like you need to make money immediately on your first day, I think you’re going to be a lot better off, a lot less stressed out and make better business decisions.


Jennifer: Which is ultimately what it’s all about but the point that you’re talking about though about building up a network or taking the time to network, I think that technically falls under marketing but that’s something that a lot of people forget that you do have to network. Networking as a food truck owner might be different than networking on the golf course as a finance guy but networking is still a huge piece of it and your reputation.


You mentioned not being a jerk to anybody especially other food truck owners or other commissary owners because it is a small little world and your reputation will proceed you whether you wanted to or not.


Brett: I would say too it’s just what you said just reminded me of something as there’s probably, you want to get the food truck game. There’s probably a handful of trucks in your city that are the big ones. They just seem to have all the best events, that thing. Those are really the guys that you want to get in with if possible and obviously they’re going to be the ones that folks around the most and try to get the most attention of but food trucks like that, they usually got two or three offers on any given weekend.


If you can be a cool guy that maybe helps them or just offer to help them in any way early on, there’s a good chance that over the next few months, maybe it will take a while for you to build a relationship up with them but they’re probably going to send some business your way eventually so definitely don’t think of the big guys as the competition.


They can be your biggest fans especially if you do them more as allies especially as the new guy. They’ll probably know about a lot more stuff that you’re not aware of and if you’re a cool person and you’ve helped them out in the past and you seem you’re really reliable, you’re serving just decent food, you’re probably going to get more opportunities by giving that.


Jennifer: That’s a great point, I hadn’t thought about that, thanks. That’s a really good point. My last question to sum it up for today and it’s if you have this crystal ball and you’re looking into it and you say, “Where do you see the food truck industry headed in the next weather three years, five years, 20 years down the road, you pick the timeline.” What do you see happening?


Brett: That’s a good question. I would say some of it if I had to make a prediction, some of it is just following along those general food trends if you will. I think there’s just this big mega trend to serve food and eat food that you know where it comes from and it’s sourced and it’s local to where you live geographically.


I think that’s going to become a lot more of a thing. I know there’s a successful hot dog vendor called Natedogs dogs in the twin cities area of Minnesota that you’d think, “Oh hot dogs, that’s the most massed produced thing ever.” What he’s done to differentiate himself is basically getting sausages that are raised locally there within 25 miles of where he lives creating mustards and ketchups that are homemade and that thing.


I think that there’s a lot of opportunity and I think that there’s going to be a lot more vendors going after that market that goes along with the rest of I don’t know, just the direction that food is heading anyway even in grocery stores. I would say beyond that I think it’s just going to continue and I don’t think this is a bad thing but the industry will continue to get more regulated.


I think that the laws of what it takes to get started in each city from a health department’s perspective is going to start getting hopefully a little bit more consistent as people borrow regulation and health code from other cities, see what’s working well and what’s not working well elsewhere.


I think that’s going to be another thing that’s going to over the next rules of government is always a little bit slower but over the next five to ten I think that is definitely something that will happen is there will be a little more consistency there.


Jennifer: That would be great to see. I know at least here sometimes you will have food truck vendors who … or food truck owners who want to go just from Seattle across the bridge to another city technically and then technically it’s another county even though it’s ten minutes away but the laws are so totally different that it prohibits that. Yeah, just to be able to give those guys more opportunity would be awesome.


Brett: Yup, I agree.


Jennifer: I want to say, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with us today and share your thoughts. Like I said, I’m going to include links to a whole bunch of stuff on the transcript page of this podcast. Go over there to check it out and you can also check out Food Truck Empire at foodtruckempire.com. Brett, thank you so much.


Brett: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me Jennifer. Appreciate it.


Jennifer: Thanks. Bye.


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