Budding entrepreneurs may want to rethink plans to open a roaming artisanal condiment truck unless they don't care about making money. Despite the ubiquity of food trucks, most of them aren't selling enough fancy grilled cheese sandwiches and fusion tacos to break even, let alone make a profit. Crains takes a look inside the still booming mobile food business and discovers that many vendors and operators are forced to supplement their trucks with side gigs like catering or even abandon their trade altogether.
Long lunchtime lines help, but vendors face costly difficulties that aren't readily apparent to someone outside the business. The NYPD often orders trucks to move from prime locations or prohibits them from setting up in certain areas. Some vendors have found ways around that but others are at the whim of the city's traffic officers and competition from other trucks. "We leave at 4:30 a.m. to get a spot on the street," explains Gorilla Cheese owner James Klayman. "But now I can't get to the space where I've been parking for the past 18 months because others are leaving at 3:30 a.m."
Then there's the all-powerful DOH, who is responsible for those coveted permits that allow the vendors to operate in the first place. In the past five years, 110 food trucks have opened in the city according to AM New York; the city issues 5,100 mobile food vending permits to all eateries on wheels, including everything from hot dog carts to high end lobster trucks. Of those permits, only 100 belong to "artisanal trucks serving high-quality cuisine," says Crains. Supporters are calling on the DOH to change what they believe are antiquated permit issuing methods that encourage "black market" tactics by vendors who want to get up and running.
Truck owners are now opting to transition into more traditional brick-and-mortar operations or getting into the retail business to actually turn a profit. "We used the truck to build the brand," says David Schillace, co-founder of Mexicue, which will expand to three restaurants this year. "Our restaurants are going to make $3 million a year with $500,000 in profits. You can't do that kind of business on a truck."
Still, there's an undeniable charm involved in the food truck biz that's attracted not only new businesses but also TV producers and feature filmmakers. On the other hand, some, like the folks at Salon, have declared the idea of food trucks "so tired it's almost asleep," at least in major cities like New York. We hear there's big money in pop-up dinners.