Seen from the outside, two feet below the serving windows, the food truck life seems fun and glamorous. You see the shiny trucks, colorful branding, long lines, friendly staff, delicious food, and smiling customers. The view from the inside, though, can be quite the opposite. As a former food truck owner, I will happily talk for days about the stresses, messes, headaches, and long hours that are intertwined with all of that “fun.” What makes me even happier, though, is when I can impart any wisdom from those experiences to make someone a better business owner.
One such experience that still haunts me to this day is the dreaded crash I would hear in the back, while driving a fully stocked food truck to a lunch stop. The first thing you have to understand is that nothing that’s installed in the back of a food truck is meant to be in the back of a food truck. You’re taking commercial equipment that is meant for a restaurant, shoving it into the back of a truck, drilling some holes, making some cuts, and then bolting it into the floor. It looks solid but I can assure you, the intense shaking and rattling I heard and felt every time I drove my food truck on even the smoothest of roads said otherwise. To be honest, in those first couple trips, I was surprised things stayed in place more than a day. Getting back to the crashing sound from inside the truck, unlike most food trucks, we didn’t have a pass-through opening from the driver’s cab to the back. Thus, the surprises that awaited us from those dreaded crashes would only reveal themselves after we parked, smiled at the line of waiting customers telling them we would be open in a few minutes, and cracked open that back door.
First of all, if we were “lucky,” whatever fell was contained inside the truck and not several miles away on the side of the interstate or somewhere in the parking lot of the previous stop (yes, both have happened). The surprises we often found were things that had fallen off shelves or counters like containers, utensils, sauce bottles, tea brewing baskets, half pans, or sour cream tubs rolling around inside and out of fridges. In the earlier days, those surprises included bigger items like cases of Fritos, spilled lexans of prepped food, full cambros of tea, pans of chili, menu boards, window signs, and, yes, even our cash drawer and various other components of our point-of-sale machine.
It’s an indescribable feeling being on the way to the 2nd of 3 scheduled lunch stops in a 2 hour period, hearing a crash driving down the road, pulling up to a line of waiting people, and then opening the back door to a pan of chili spilled all over the floor. We would do anything to avoid those kinds of nightmares and we prevented them by using checklists. We had checklists for every process and those checklists covered literally everything. Secure this, bungee that, remove this, turn this off, latch this, etc. We had kitchen checklists, pre-stop checklists, post-stop checklists, and everything in between. We had checklists taped beside our speedometer gauge, beside the back door, and on windows. When something happened, we figured out what list it needed to be on, for it not to happen again. There are so many things to remember on a food truck and when you are staring at a line of hungry customers, you forget things. That’s why it was so critical to have standardized processes and checklists.
There is a second part of the lesson, too. Yes, we defined standard processes and made checklists that we utilized, added to, and adapted. As you can imagine, those checklists grew and grew. The second part, which is just as important, is putting equal time into taking things off of those checklists. We reviewed those checklists regularly to figure out what needed to be done to take things off. That means making time to work on your business not just in it as they say. For example, if a menu board had to be taken down and put back up before and after every stop, then we looked at how we could just mount it permanently.
So to summarize, my advice to you for starting a food truck, or really any business, is to create and implement standardized processes and make checklists. More importantly, make sure you’re actually checking off the boxes!
Henry Wong is the Program Director of the Food Business Resource Center (FBRC) at Business Impact NW helping to support current and aspiring food business entrepreneurs in starting and growing their businesses. His past experiences around food include growing up around a family restaurant and operating his own mobile food truck business, in addition to consulting other food truck owners and food business entrepreneurs.
On March 7, join Henry and the rest of our team at Food Biz Day, a daylong conference and marketplace for food entrepreneurs. Early-bird tickets are on sale through February 16!