Running a food truck in Minnesota takes more than a recipe and a few wheels

When Dan Docken’s employer talked about shutting down, he became his own boss. The all-boss.

For more than a decade, Docken has run a food truck in the colors of Tater Tot, serving hungry crowds at fairs, festivals and office complexes.

“I met great people. I participated in great events,” he says. “I love when people enjoy food, and that’s very rewarding.”

But he warns that customers — and future food truck operators — are only seeing a glimpse of a very complex business.

“There are a lot of things that come into play that a lot of people don’t realize,” Docken said. “You’re kind of a mechanic with the truck. Generators need oil changes constantly. You’re cleaning floors, fixing equipment. Payroll and taxes. There are more and more charges by cities and counties.”

Not to mention the rising costs of food, equipment, labor and fuel. The patchwork of regulations. The food truck season cut short by the weather. Or that the once thriving downtown food truck business has yet to recover in Minneapolis or St. Paul.

“It’s not for the faint-hearted,” said Jess Jenkins, executive director of the Minnesota Food Truck Association.

Even so, Chameleon Concessions, a Minneapolis company that builds food trucks, has received more than 330 inquiries about food trucks and related concepts so far this year.

Here are some tips from those in the business:

Focus on the food, know the rules

Some start by buying a truck. Docken and others, however, recommended solidifying a signature menu item and business plan first.

When Docken contacted the Small Business Administration about opening a food truck, the agency connected him with a volunteer mentor from Score, the nonprofit that offers free advice on business start-up and expansion. Docken spent six months working on his business plan in order to secure a bank loan and launch his truck in 2012.

Docken thought of selling deli sandwiches. But many trucks were already making sandwiches, burgers and tacos, his mentor warned.

Instead, the mentor urged Docken “to think of one thing and when clients think of that thing, they think of you.” That’s how tater tots became the mainstay of his truck.

“That advice really went down well, just being ‘that guy,'” Docken said. “We Minnesotans love our tater tots. I have fond memories of my mom’s tater tot hot dish. There are so many different things you can do with them.”

Before buying a truck, someone who takes an organized approach to getting into the business should also know all applicable city, county and state requirements, said John C. Levy, an attorney for Minneapolis who founded the food truck association and is its chairman and president. board chair. These necessities include warrants for licensing, certifications and insurance, with fees that can run into the hundreds or thousands of dollars, and a variety of recurring inspections.

The “Start a Food Truck” section of the association’s website includes licensing information and links to Minnesota Department of Agriculture, Minnesota Department of Health, State Food Code and the seven city and county agencies that require separate or additional licenses.

Buy, equip a food truck

Those just starting out often search online marketplaces for used delivery vehicles.

Mike Kinnan, second-generation owner of the Lookout Bar & Grill in Maple Grove, recommended planning ahead. The used Ford F59 he bought took six months to refurbish.

Adding to that long wait, Kinnan — with grad parties and other events booked for April — was also sweating the long-delayed arrival of grills and other gear, which he ordered as soon as he purchased the vehicle.

Kinnan, thankfully, made all of his reservations, thanks to the quick work of Mark Palm, owner and CEO of Chameleon Concessions, the Minneapolis company that has built hundreds of food trucks for Minnesota and national customers. Palm, whose company moved to a larger 23,000 square foot warehouse this year, stockpiled Kinnan’s equipment as various parts arrived and completed construction in just a few weeks.

The truck, equipment and construction totaled $160,000, Kinnan said.

Kitchen equipment has doubled in price in the 2.5 years since Kinnan remodeled its old food truck. Refrigerators that used to cost $2,000, for example, now cost $4,300. Food costs have also increased, with Kinnan recently paying $161 for a case of chicken wings that cost $45 just 18 months ago.

For Docken, the cost of frying all those toddlers also adds up. The jar of oil that cost him $22 a year ago is now $54.

Ahman Laster enjoys taking his new Philly Station food truck to events, breweries and businesses after working in a tent for seven years. Laster saved up to buy a 2006 Freightliner food truck with 160,000 miles. The diesel truck cost $37,000, and Laster paid Palm $90,000 for equipment and construction.

Laster works full-time as a chef Monday through Thursday and operates his truck or tent Friday through Sunday. Last Friday, his 13-year-old son, Cash, joined him in the truck, taking orders and preparing Italian frozen treats while he prepared cheesesteaks, for workers at the Renewal by Andersen factory in Cottage Grove.

“It works great,” Laster said of his new truck. “I’m ready to quit my full-time job, but not quite yet. I know the potential of what I can do.”

The food truck economy

Understanding the economic potential and limitations of operating a food truck is crucial, according to Levy, president of the food truck association.

“There’s a cap on how much you can earn in any given meal, but it can vary widely,” Levy said. “If you’re selling to the public, a good day would be, like, 100 sales and maybe like $1,500 in revenue, so those aren’t big numbers. It might change what you’re going to serve.”

Food costs should be as low as possible, Levy said. It’s a lesson he learned with AZ Canteen, food truck Levy and another partner launched with celebrity chef Andrew Zimmern. With a menu featuring “alternative proteins” such as lamb and goat, food costs sometimes accounted for 35% of income. It was too much, he says, even though the AZ Canteen truck ran profitably for a few years.

“Pizza trucks, ice cream trucks, grilled cheese trucks all had very low overhead and were very successful compared to us,” Levy said.

Try before you buy

Laster recommended getting experience in the food industry before buying a truck.

“I would advise people who don’t have the experience not to do it,” Laster said. “If you have the money to do it, that’s cool. But you’re not really going to make any money unless you know what you’re doing.”

Kinnan suggested working for a food truck for a month or a summer to find out if the passion for the business is there.

“It’s not an easy job,” Kinnan said. “If you have a (bad) day, you can throw away a lot of food. I have a buddy who bought a food truck two years ago and it didn’t survive the summer. He said: ‘ I had no idea.’ I’m like, ‘I told you so.'”

Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Lake Elmo. His email is [email protected]

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