How to run a successful food truck

Food trucks may be rolling kitchens, but success isn’t as simple as just starting the engine.

food truck students

Almost a third of large operators have food trucks, and 6 percent say they plan to add them, FoodService Director’s Big Picture research shows. Still, mobile foodservice remains somewhat of a mystery machine.

“I think that was our biggest learning curve—not knowing that, on top of running a kitchen, you’re also combining the additional effort that comes along with a heavily used vehicle,” says David Henry, senior director of dining services at University of California, Riverside, which operates four trucks.

Beyond the basic rules of operating a truck safely (yes, food trucks can get speeding tickets, too), laws for mobile eateries vary, so check all local ordinances before proceeding. We asked operators to share more of the lessons they’ve learned along the way.

Target convenient areas for diners

North East Independent School District in San Antonio, Texas, operates breakfast carts outdoors at some of its schools to supplement indoor cafeterias and make it more convenient for students to grab a bite before class. “A lot of the campuses have courtyards with benches … [and] areas set up to let kids play and talk and socialize, and then when the bell rings, it’s too late for them to come to the cafeteria to eat breakfast,” says Sharon Glosson, the district’s executive director of school nutrition.

Popularity isn’t always a win

For UC Riverside’s Latin-inspired Culinary Chameleon, quesadillas seemed like an easy complement to burritos and tacos, says Moses Preciado, operations manager of food trucks, but proved too popular to execute to-order. “We would start melting the cheese, and we would have lines of 50 to 75 customers waiting to pay and get their quesadilla,” he says. So the decision was made to take the item off the menu.

Involve potential diners to build buzz

Steve Rall, general manager for Bon Appétit at Biola University in La Mirada, Calif., launched a naming contest for its food truck, Soaring Eagle, and awarded a $1,000 scholarship to the student who suggested the winning name.

A Lee High School student in Glosson’s district heard about the breakfast carts and spearheaded a campaign to bring one to Lee. “If you can get a student group to help with the marketing ... and promoting of the cart that can really boost the participation,” Glosson says. 

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