If you’re long of talent in the kitchen but short on cash, a food truck might be your game. Here’s a primer on how to get started in Memphis.

Concept Development: Do something unique and do it well

Take a look around at other food trucks in Memphis and other cities. See what’s working well in similar cities that’s not being done here. Make sure you can execute the concept better than anybody else: that means both from a food quality and speed perspective. Also – make sure you’ve got a concept that people can wrap their head around and remember you for… great examples include the Grilled Cheeserie from Nashville and Stickem locally. Here’s a great infographic about the process: http://dailyinfographic.com/food-trucks-infographic.

Building it out: “The Truck”

Selecting your vehicle is a lot like a restaurant picking a location. Your vehicle is what attracts customers to try your food for the first time. It’s how you establish your brand and is often what people are most apt to remember about you. Your imagine and pocketbook are your only limitations here. I’ve seen school buses, fire trucks, vintage roadsters and real log cabin trailers out there.

Here’s a baseline summary of costs to help you decide which type of vehicle to use for your concept. Here’s a summary:

  • A brand new, built-from-scratch custom food truck can easily cost $50,000+ by the time you buy the truck, a generator, equipment and build it out to code.

  • A brand new trailer will cost substantially less. Fully equipped and built out you will spend around $30,000. Of course, you also have to have a truck to pull it.

  • Used trucks and trailers are available online. As with anything used you generally get what you pay for and don’t have the advantage of full customization for your concept. On the other hand this is definitely fastest way to get rolling!

One of the first things you have to decide is whether to use a truck or a trailer (with a truck). The primary advantage of truck is its ease of mobility. You can parallel park, and get to places a trailer can’t. Plus you fit more closely everyone’s idea of what a “food truck” is supposed to be. The advantage of a trailer is that it’s usually less expensive, and if your engine breaks down you can still get out on the road, as long as you’ve a friend who will let you borrow his truck.

Another really important consideration is whether the vehicle has the space and structure to handle all the wiring and plumbing and ventilation systems that are going to have to be installed to meet code. This is one of the primary reasons the most common food trucks are large “bread box” style trucks or heavy-duty rectangular trailers.

Permitting: The Rules

The city council amended the health code to enable mobile food vending within the city limits in 2010 with this ordinance (a similar ordinance was later adopted by Shelby County for unincorporated areas). The council chose to place enforcement responsibility with the Shelby County Health Department, which promulgated a detailed set of rules of regulations. Here is a summary of the rules:

  • All trucks must apply for and obtain permit ($300 annual) and be open to unannounced inspection by the health department.

  • Can’t be “open-air” trailers, i.e. all windows must be of specified size and other openings have at least a mesh film.

  • Must have water heater that is 15% smaller than waste water tank.

  • Must have hand sink and separate three-compartment sink big enough to wash largest pot, pan, or utensil on board.

  • All units must have “servicing area” for cleaning and dumping

  • If any food is prepared prior to preparation and serving on board the unit then prep must be done in a certified commissary kitchen (basically, a restaurant or other commercial facility permitted by the Shelby County Health Department.

  • No parking within 300 feet of restaurant without the restaurant’s permission (downtown permitted distance is 50 feet).

  • If on private property, 300/50 rule does not apply but must have permission of “adjacent or abutting” restaurants.

  • No parking within 300 feet of a school without school’s permission.

  • No parking in the same spot for less than 30 minutes or more than 6 hours.

  • Must always be legally parked and have serving window facing sidewalk.

Other licenses, permits and taxes: Most of the other rules and regulations affecting food trucks are identical to those applying to other businesses in Tennessee. For a detailed look at small business taxes check out this blog.

Best Practices: Sell It!

One of the primary purposes for the formation of the MFTA is to share best practices. By joining the association you commit to the shared welfare of all food trucks in the city, sharing ideas, leads and practices so that we can all flourish. Joining the MFTA is simple: just complete this application and mail it along with a check for $100 payable to MFTA. This will enable us to get you hooked in to our email distribution list so you get leads, and added to our website so customers can more easily find you.

One of the first thing any food truck operator must do is establish an online presence. This is crucial in a mobile business; how else are your customers going to find you? Starting a Facebook page and Twitter account and then liking/following the MFTA should be first steps. This will get you linked into our database and will get your Twitter feed up on our website. Once you’ve started these accounts you should start a Foursquare account and then link it to Facebook and Twitter. Pinterest and other social media tools are quickly becoming useful as well.

Once you’ve got your social media accounts set up and linked together, you have to use them! Post your logo, pictures of your food, truck and yourself. Tell your story! This will help your customers fall in love with you and seek you out. It will also give news media valuable information that can get you featured in local, regional and even national media outlets.