Food trucks have come a long way from the utilitarian vehicles selling hot dogs and chips that defined the brand until the first decade of the 21st century. For many chefs and entrepreneurs, trucks have become a lower cost alternative to restaurants, with the added advantage of being able to cater to multiple sites. As food truck fare has been elevated to a gourmet trend, options for parking and vending have exploded with creative energy and enthusiastic community support.
The daily rent cost to park a food truck can vary from free to several hundred dollars depending on the location and the food truck lease agreement.
Food truck space rental agreements come in a staggering variety of shapes and sizes. You may find a food truck space for rent with an established food truck lot that charges a set fee based on the day or the month. Alternately, you may negotiate a custom arrangement with a specific property owner who is looking for extra income or wants a food truck to attract extra traffic for an existing brick and mortar business. Farmers markets and weekly festivals lease space to food truck operators as well, using a set daily price or asking for a percentage of daily sales.
- Food truck park rental rates. A food truck park, or pod, is a dedicated space such as a parking lot that hosts a community of food trucks and carts, attracts customers looking for a critical mass of food options and provides an area with eating amenities such as tables, tents and bathrooms. Rental rates for a food truck park are typically about $500 to $1,000 per month and you can make the most of your investment by vending as often as possible. Many food truck pods offer space on a daily basis as well, but you'll pay more per day if you reserve dates individually than if you commit to a block of time.
- Farmers markets and festivals. These events typically charge either daily fees or percentages of sales. Seattle's Fremont Sunday Market charges $75 per day for food truck vending. Other markets often divide their lots into spaces sized for canopy tents and they charge food trucks for double stall spaces because the vehicles are twice the size of market canopies. Alternately, a farmers market may charge food truck vendors a percentage of daily sales, usually in the 10 percent range.
- Smaller events. Sometimes you can get away with paying nothing at all for a food truck space, especially at smaller events where organizers want to enlist food trucks to help draw a crowd. This is especially true at venues such as elementary school carnivals. In fact, you may even be able to convince event organizers to pay you to vend by asking for a minimum sales guarantee, which requires them to pay you the difference if you don't earn a base amount over the course of the day.
- Catering. Food truck operators can also negotiate with individuals or groups for catering, which involves being paid by a single person or organization rather than asking each eater for payment. Like guaranteed sales events, there is no charge for a food truck space at a catered event.
When you negotiate with someone to lease space to park your food truck and vend, you must do due diligence to make sure the property has the amenities you'll need to operate legally and profitably. Permitting and regulation vary across different areas so make sure to contact your local health department and transportation authority before entering into an arrangement with a property owner.
Most local health departments require you to operate within a certain distance of a fully plumbed bathroom so you can wash your hands immediately after using the toilet. This is a requirement despite the fact that you'll also be required to have a hand washing sink installed on board your truck. Most places require you to be no further than 200 feet from a legitimate bathroom. If the person or company leasing you the space to park your food truck doesn't have a bathroom on site you can secure a signed bathroom agreement from a nearby business such as a coffee shop or office building, although you may have to pay a nominal sum for this convenience.
You should also do your homework before signing an agreement with someone who hasn't jumped through the required hoops with your local transportation authority. In most cities, you can't simply have a food truck parked on the street in front of a business. You must apply to the transportation department to make sure that the space where you'd like to operate meets local guidelines such as not obstructing traffic or taking up precious retail parking. Some spots have already been vetted and approved while others will require you to take initiative and petition for their use.
The fact that you're able to find an open food truck space for lease shouldn't be your only criteria in deciding whether a location is right for you. Also consider these factors before making your final decision:
- Foot traffic. An important part of the allure of food trucks is their ability to draw a crowd and contribute to a vibrant street scene. A food truck pod operator with experience and skill will be able to generate this energy by bringing together enough exciting trucks that people will come for the food alone. However, if you're setting up independently or in a spot that hasn't previously been used for street food, you'll have a leg up if you choose an area that already has plenty of foot traffic.
- Neighborhood. It isn't enough to simply choose a place with population density. You should also make sure that the area's demographic is right for your food. You'll most likely set yourself up for failure if you offer expensive gourmet meals in an impoverished neighborhood or if you park your barbecue truck in an area largely populated by Muslims or Orthodox Jews. Fortunately, unlike a restaurant, a food truck can simply start its engine and change locations if a spot turns out to not be right.
- Competition. Sometimes it's useful to have plenty of other food options around, such as a food truck pod off the beaten path that needs enough interesting options to draw customers. In other circumstances, competition can be a liability. Restaurant owners are sometimes averse to having food trucks parking near their establishments because the overhead costs for restaurants are so much higher than for food trucks and they feel disadvantaged at having to share their customer base. There are plenty of food truck horror stories about nearby restaurant owners launching publicity and even legal campaigns in response to the added competition.
In addition to the expense of leasing a spot for food truck vending, you may also have to pay for off-street parking when your truck is not in operation. Many cities don't allow you to park a food truck on the street when it isn't vending. Instead, you must either part it in your driveway or garage or you must rent an off-street parking spot from someone with an appropriate space such as a lot. Some commissary kitchens have dedicated parking lots for this purpose or you may be able to negotiate with anyone who has an available spot that is compliant with local regulations.