Mobile food operations enable you to take your food out into the open air, to serve hungry crowds at events and on street corners. Both carts and tents are mobile food setups that feature broad possibilities as well as some limitations. Your choice of mobile operation might depend on your budget, the venue, or the type of food you serve. Some food purveyors even operate both tents and carts, using one or the other at any particular venue depending on expectations or space constraints.


Health departments might license carts on a yearly basis and tents on an event basis. The cost to set up a tent at a single event is usually lower than the cost to get an annual permit to operate a cart. However, the cost of getting permits to set up a tent at multiple events over the course of the year is usually higher than the cost of getting a single annual permit for your cart. Some venues such as farmers' markets often have special provisions for mobile food businesses operating out of tents, allowing vendors to buy a single, less expensive for multiple days at a single venue.


As of 2012, the cost of a food carts ranges from about $3,000 to about $20,000 depending on the simplicity or complexity of the appliances you choose. The cost of a mobile food tent ranges from about $2,000 to about $6,000, and includes the price of the tent, tables, cooking appliances, coolers and signs. It's also easier to outfit a tent with a smaller budget because you can start with inexpensive equipment and upgrade over time, while a cart needs to be constructed all at once.


Many local health departments require that all cart food prep must be done on the cart, and all ingredients and paper products be stored on the cart as well. In addition, some regulatory agencies require that all cold holding on a cart must be in mechanically refrigerated units such as refrigerators that run on electricity from an extension cord or a generator. As a result, your sales capacity on a cart may be limited by how much perishable product you can fit in your refrigerator. In contrast, tent operators can use multiple coolers with ice, increasing their sales potential.

A cart is ideal for a very simple mobile food operation such as a hot dog or tamale stand. Because of their limited size and storage capacity, a food cart works best when your menu only involves a few simple steps such as steaming a hot dog, transferring it to a bun, and adding condiments. In contrast, a tent allows you the space to set up a wide range of equipment including stoves with multiple burners and prep tables for more complex assembly.