Food trucks and lunch wagons have become increasingly popular alternatives to brick-and-mortar restaurants, and aspiring entrepreneurs can start mobile food businesses with fewer resources and less red tape. However, starting a food business in Hawaii still does have legal hurdles, business restrictions and opposition from traditional restaurants and other food vendors competing for parking spaces in contested areas. If possible and practical, arrange to park your truck on private property to avoid regulations in Hawaii that require moving your truck every 15 minutes in some areas.
The days of mobile food vendors offering limited choices have given way to gourmet food trucks, upscale coffee vehicles, and lunch wagons with themes or concepts. Competition for space and customers could prove intense, so study the market and find out what foods sell in the area and which foods are not available or not overly saturated. Finding potential vending locations proves enormously helpful when planning your business. Choose whether to focus on Hawaiian tourists, locals or both. Decide if you want to operate a lunch wagon with foods prepared in an approved kitchen, cook on site in a fully equipped truck, or cater foods using either method. You also can apply for a temporary permit to sell food at fairs and carnivals or to raise money for charities and special projects. Buy or lease an appropriate vehicle for the style of food you'll be preparing.
Get Up and Running
Hawaii has a number of restrictions and permits for mobile food businesses. If you prepare food elsewhere for sale from the truck, the food must be stored and cooked in a facility approved by the health department for the city or county where it is prepared. You will need to get a food services permit, pass a safety inspection of your vehicle, and take a food safety course at one of two offices on the Big Island. File for a business license at city or county offices, get a tax identification number from the federal government and secure a license to collect Hawaii's general sales tax from the state. Depending on the location, you might need to apply for city or county permits and environmental and/or health departments for each location where you plan to sell food. The business licensing authority at city or county headquarters will tell you specifically which permits you need for each locality.
Circling the Encampment with Lunch Wagons
Once the paperwork and licensing is completed, you can begin planning a menu, sourcing food, hiring staff and scouting for vending locations more seriously than when conducting preliminary research. Hire staff if needed, but remember that you must get mandatory workers' compensation insurance if you employ people outside of your family. Vehicle insurance and liability insurance also are essential for a Hawaiian business dealing with the public and tourists. If you use a fictitious business name, you can register it with the Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs to protect your rights, but this is not mandatory.
All Roads Lead to Hungry Customers
People on the mainland refer to plates as the items you eat food off of, but Hawaiians use the term to describe food. Hawaii offers tasty plates and lunches from food trucks and lunch wagons year-round due to the great weather for outdoor dining, burgeoning tourist industry and preferences of many residents for dining outdoors. Publicize your business by connecting through social media forums, decorating your truck with suggestive food photos and art, and finding several secure locations to sell your food. Print menus and fliers to deliver where people eat lunch.
Michael Elkins has worked in writing, advertising and publishing jobs for more than 40 years. Elkins has published several tabloid newspapers, sold advertising for metropolitan yellow page organizations and worked with state officials to promote tourism in Virginia. In addition to advertising experience, Elkins owned and operated a full-service restaurant for many years.