How to Set Up a Mobile Kitchen
Food tastes better outdoors, and a mobile kitchen gives you the infrastructure to cook your favorite dishes for a crowd just about anywhere. You can create a mobile kitchen that travels as a self-contained unit, or you can assemble different components that can be disassembled and moved. Either way, your mobile kitchen will need equipment for cooking, refrigeration and storage as well as infrastructure for food safety, such as water sources for washing hands and dishes.
- Food truck or trailer. A food truck or trailer has all of its appliances installed. You just need to drive or tow it to a location, hook up to a power source and fire up your stove.
- Food cart. Like a food truck or trailer, a food cart has all of its appliances compactly preinstalled. Unlike a food truck or trailer, a food cart needs a separate covering, such as a tent. It is also much smaller, so it doesn't allow you to cook as much volume.
- Tented kitchen. A tented kitchen is a collection of equipment arranged under a tent. It can include stoves and mobile refrigeration. It is considerably less expensive to outfit than a food truck or food cart, but it requires more work to set up and break down at each location.
- Stoves. The most effective way to access enough heat for mobile cooking is to use appliances that hook up to propane tanks. You can buy relatively inexpensive heavy-duty camping stoves for tented mobile kitchens, or you can buy professional restaurant stoves that are adapted for propane heat and install them in your food truck or trailer.
- Refrigeration. In many locations, food trucks are required by local health departments to have mechanical refrigeration. This can be supplemented by coolers with ice or refreezable ice as long as your configuration is sufficient to keep potentially hazardous foods cold. For a tented kitchen, you'll most likely use coolers and ice rather than mechanical refrigeration.
- Portability. Because mobile kitchens move from place to place, you'll also need a vehicle large enough and dependable enough to move your equipment. Food trucks have this element built in. Trailers need equipment for hitching, and a tented kitchen should be able to fit in a van or truck once it is disassembled.
Your mobile kitchen should include features that allow you to maintain levels of cleanliness and temperature control sufficient to keep your food safe. Food trucks, carts and trailers should have hand-washing sinks installed, and you'll need a system for replenishing the clean water supply and emptying the gray water tank.
Tent kitchens can use insulated, 5-gallon containers with flip spouts to keep the water flowing freely. Make sure your water is always warm and make sure you have liquid soap and paper towels on hand.
Washing dishes can be tricky in a mobile kitchen. In a tent kitchen, you may not be able to wash dishes at all, but you should have a home base commissary kitchen where you can wash them to health department standards, and you should bring extra sets of dishes so you can switch them out every four hours or so. For food trucks and food trailers, regulations for dishwashing vary from place to place. You may be able to wash your dishes in your truck or trailer if you have a three-compartment sink or a commercial dishwasher.
For a food truck, food cart or food trailer, you'll most likely have to prepare floor plan drawings and an application that covers everything from the menu to dishwashing. Don't start building your mobile unit until your local health department has approved your plans because it can be expensive and frustrating to backtrack. You may also need to submit plans to your state's department of labor and industries.
For a tent kitchen, your application may only need to include your menu and details about how much prep will take place in your kitchen and how much can be completed on-site. Contact your local health department and make sure you understand the regulations before designing your setup.