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New show idea: Food truck financials

August 16, 2012

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Lunchtime's popular at this food truck in Civic Center Park in San Francisco. Photo by Aaron Anderer

I wouldn’t make a habit of basing financial stories on pop culture, but sometimes a peg comes along that is hard to resist.

This coming weekend, a new season of the Food Network’s “The Great Food Truck Race” will premiere, and the cross-country competition among eight roadside food stands seems like a good time for a fun feature about the state of mobile cuisine in your market.

Americans spend an ever-growing amount of their food dollars on out-of-home dining. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, food away from  home as a share of food expenditures has grown from 17.2 percent in 1929 to 47.9 percent in 2010 (which was down a bit from a pre-recession peak of 48.4 percent in 2007.)

This USDA Economic Research Service page on food expenditures includes that data and a number of other fascinating tables (no pun intended) about food spending and food costs. Here’s a new Gallup poll, too, about who eats out and how often.

Food trucks aren’t a new phenomenon, of course, but their compact kitchens, interesting marketing approaches – social media being an important tool for this niche, with Pinterest being the latest in the food-truck arsenal – and specialty menu offerings keep the concept fresh. For those who dream of zipping around preparing high and low cuisine, what are the start-up and operating costs, typical working hours, supply issues, local regulations and other conditions affecting would-be chefs-on-the-go?

Exploring the tension between food trucks and non-mobile restaurants might be an interesting angle; this FoodTruckFreak blog discusses a new ordinance in Chicago that requires trucks stay 200 feet from existing restaurants.

Food Truck Story Ideas
Keeping track of popular food trucks is key to enjoying their food. There’s an app for that.

If food trucks aren’t your thing, you can pick up on another aspect of eats-on-the-go, from hot-dog stands to carnival concessionaires to open-air food courts.  Here’s a recent New York Times report about the excess in fair foods; deep-fried butter makes the corn dogs of yore look like carrot sticks by comparison.

As state and county fairs help wind down summer, why not profile some of these nomadic food stand operators; what’s the business model, what’s the profit margin on a $5 hot dog or a bale of cotton candy; why would anyone choose a lifestyle that involves deep-frying in a carnival stand on hot days and how do they obtain fresh supplies on the road?   This commercial site aimed at food stand operators promises 70-80 percent margins, for example, and six-figure take-home pay for 25 weeks of work each year.  Is that the experience of the carnies passing through your region?

Don’t rule out a tech story; someone is manufacturing all of this food-on-the-fly equipment; what are the latest tech and attention-grabbing trends in hot-dog stands or doughnut kiosks?

The Mobile Food Vendors Association website seems a bit bare-bones but you might get some leads from the discussion forum.  AmusementTrader.com lists a variety of used equipment including food trucks and trailers; from a giant fiberglass lemon-shaped lemonade stand to a “fully loaded” french fry trailer; it might be interesting to contact some of these sellers, or similar ones near you, to find out why they’re getting out of the business.

Open-air food truck courts are popping up, with semi-mobile carts featuring items ranging from grilled cheese to grilled tilapia; that’s another angle to pursue via your city planning commission.

This market report from the Small Business Development Center Network offers some demographic data about food vendor patrons, and also a number of helpful links to trade groups like the National Association of Concessionaires and the Convenience Caterers and Food Manufacturers Association.


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