By Rich Mintzer | Entrepreneur.com
Even when you don’t have a lot of money or time, you still want a tasty meal, and mobile food businesses are uniquely positioned to provide it. Whether serving crepes from a splashily painted food truck, a bacon-wrapped hotdog from a push cart, or Baskin-Robbins ice cream from a franchised kiosk, food is going where consumers are.
Even though street food is enjoying a resurgence, this is a tried-and-true business model that’s fed generations of eaters. Today, there are approximately 3 million food trucks operating in the U.S., more than 5 million food carts, and an unknown number of kiosks.
If you multiply the following six mobile options with the myriad cuisines and foods you can serve, possible locations, and the time of day you are open, your options for a mobile food business are endless.
1. Food kiosks
Food kiosks are temporary booths or stands used to prepare and sell foods like pretzels, ice cream and hot dogs. The low overhead, flexibility and ease by which a kiosk can be opened and closed are among the reasons why they’re so popular. Because they are usually operating indoors, kiosk owners typically sign licensing agreements at malls, stadiums, movie theaters or other locations. Many major food businesses such as Ben & Jerry’s franchise express kiosks.
2. Food carts and concession trailers
This style of mobile food business has been around for decades and is a multibillion-dollar industry. Cart owners prepare food in advance or purchase ready-made food like ice cream bars. Then, the food is heated up or pulled from the freezer. Food carts used to focus on simple fare like ice cream and hot dogs, but have expanded their menus in recent years to include dishes like kebobs, gyros, salads, and fish and chips.
Food carts usually either have room for the vendor to be inside and serve food through a window, or they utilize all the cart space for food storage and cooking equipment. Concession trailers, on the other hand, are often found at fairs, sporting events, or other places where they can be unhitched and sit for awhile. Unlike most carts, trailers allow for cooking and have room for two or three people inside.
Carts are less expensive than food trucks, and are usually pulled by a vehicle or pushed by hand. They’re fairly easy to maintain and, in many areas, require less licensing than the full-sized food trucks.
3. Food trucks
Larger than carts, trucks can carry more food and handle more business. However, food trucks need more space to park both when doing business and when off-duty.
A food truck can carry more sophisticated equipment for storing, serving, cooking and preparing foods. Food trucks can serve traditional quick lunch fare, be stocked with food from concessionaires, be run by a chain restaurant like In-n-Out or California Pizza Kitchen, or serve gourmet fare by an up-and-coming chef. They can do big business in corporate parks and places that have limited access to restaurants.
There are two types of food trucks: the mobile food preparation vehicle (MFPV), where food is prepared as customers wait, and the industrial catering vehicle (ICV), which sells only prepackaged foods. An MFPV costs more than an ICV, and both cost more than a food cart. A used hotdog cart may cost under $2,500, while a retro-fitted used food truck typically costs $30,000 or more. A new MFPV could cost upwards of $100,000. Complying with additional health department rules and regulations can also drive up food truck costs.
4. Gourmet food trucks
Basically the same as a food truck, the gourmet food truck takes food quality to a higher level. Of the 4,000 food trucks licensed to do business in the Los Angeles area, only about 115 are considered gourmet. They are run by ambitious young chefs who offer cuisine not typically found in food trucks, such as specialty crepes, Korean-Mexican fusion, osso buco or velvet cupcakes. Many gourmet trucks have specialties and themes. In addition, they let their clientele know where they’ll be parked through their websites and social media sites like Twitter. While food trucks need not have kitchens, gourmet trucks are more likely to have food prepared on the spot — and high-end food at that.
5. Mobile catering businesses
Mobile catering trucks are similar to mobile food trucks, but are hired for specific events. The client chooses food from a catering menu, and the truck then serves the food at the event.
The differences between catering trucks and food trucks are primarily in the manner of doing business. One particular advantage of a mobile catering business is you’re not risking as much in inventory because you are cooking and bringing food as ordered for the party. You also have a specific destination, so you need not worry whether your favorite destinations will be busy or not.
As the name implies, a bustaurant is not a truck but a bus, often a double-decker with the lower level for the kitchen and the upper level for customers to sit and eat. This is a new concept and hasn’t really been proven yet, especially since the idea tests a rash of licensing issues. They also require more room to park, and are more costly to start because the buses need to be fully refurbished.