With the trend for street food and diverse offers from Argentine barbeque to Vietnamese curry, there has been an upsurge in the number and variety of mobile food trucks at village fetes, street markets, events and even in lay-bys and car parks across the country. Independent consumer research in the UK shows that almost three-quarters of consumers buy food to go at least once a week. A high percentage of these are from specialist mobile food outlets with very limited, specific menus, which they have in many cases honed to a fine art of speed and quality of delivery.
The advantages of the food truck for a start-up business is of course the relatively low cost of set-up and running compared with opening even a pop-up restaurant. This of course means it carries less risk and is a fast track route to start trading, compared with finding premises, applying for any planning permissions such as Change of Use, Permission to Display an Advertisement or even a full application for structural work such as a new shop front or installing a new extract system. You also avoid the cost and time needed for a building refurbishment, including applying for Building Regulations & Fire Regulations approval and liaising with the local Environmental Health department.
While much of the above is avoided or made simpler with the food truck option, there is still the cost of buying either a ready converted vehicle or having one purpose-reconfigured for your unique offer. This can range from using a car or van you already own and doing the majority of the work in-house, through sourcing a vehicle that is already converted and rebranding it as necessary – eBay offer these from just over £4,000 for a trailer – to buying a fully converted vintage Citroën HY van from companies such as Vintage Food Trucks Ltd from approx. £45,000 complete with the kitchen and a special paint job.
The range of vehicles being used for mobile offers is also incredibly diverse. Vintage Food Trucks offer conversions from a stock of American school buses, Airstreams, and pick ups, English Bedfords, British Land Rovers, French 2Cvs, Citroen H, Estafette, Peugot J7 & J9 vans and Italian Piaggio Ape three-wheelers. They source the vehicle and carry out all the work to your requirements and can even put you in contact with an agent who will offer a door to door delivery – at a cost of course.
At the other extreme, Jacquie Hammersley of Minor Bites in Surrey, says she set up her mobile cafe from the back of her family’s Morris Traveller, “partly to help my daughter launch a business selling home-made cakes and also to regain control of where and when I chose to work after being made redundant”. She researched using ‘Millie’ as her mobile premises and found examples from complete mutilations to ones that retained the integrity and character of the vehicle. She invested £3,500 in having a dual gas and electric Fracino 2 group espresso coffee machine installed, which means she can be self-sufficient and can ‘pop-up’ anywhere. Her husband carried out the rest of the conversion work at minimal cost. Jacquie also chose to source a locally roasted coffee called Cupsmith, and approached the National Trust for permission to launch her offer from their picturesque Wharfe location next to the Wey Navigation in Godalming. They were very enthusiastic and supportive, particularly because the Morris Traveller is a classic British car. She started trading in July 2016 and has now moved on to also catering for weddings and parties, using social media to promote and inform her customers.
Marsha Hall and her partner Geoff of the Tiger Lily Bus Company based in Epsom took four years to realise their ambition of using a vintage bus as a mobile bar/café. Having initially come up with their unique offer of stocking only English wines and food products, their next task was to find the right vehicle. Their search ended when they saw an advert for a Burlingham bodied 1954 Leyland Royal Tiger single decker bus. Rescuing it from Cornwall, they handed it over to Mark Whistler of Qualiti Conversions in Botley, Southampton to carry out the restoration and conversion. Plans for the interior layout were meticulously detailed, as Marsha and Geoff were very clear about what they needed in terms of refrigeration, plumbing, storage and serving facilities. Marsha says “The engine is horizontally mounted which meant that we have less storage space. It was a case of sourcing refrigeration of the right height and playing around with positioning although we did have the problem of the wheel arches at the back so Qualiti needed to build an area to support the double fridge and keep it level.” They had the two rear windows remade as serving hatches and seating booths for up to 16 people reconfigured using the original seats and tables replicating the original destination blinds, which were still on the bus. Including the hand painted signs by Aristocrat Signs, the restoration took over 1,100 man-hours and was completed in March 2016. They now cater for weddings, birthday parties, fetes and any other outside event with space to accommodate them, with the advantage of being able to offer some shelter for their customers should the British weather prove inclement.
Starting out as a mobile offer creates the opportunity to experiment with an innovative food concept or menu without risking huge expenditure. It is often used as a springboard for an offer that then moves to permanent premises and can eventually become a High Street brand or even a franchise chain. What is obvious from the interviews above is that having a clear vision for your food offer and making it as original as possible is the first step to a successful venture. The combination of this with an interesting, well-converted vehicle and a clear brand is what will set you apart from the competition. David Kerfoot of Tangent commented “Personally I am drawn to the older and quirkier vehicles at an event, especially if they sport a chic paint job and beautiful graphics. It’s only then that I register what they are actually selling.” However, a carefully planned and well executed conversion, with a kitchen that is efficiently laid out and easy to work in is essential for the speed of delivery without compromising on the quality that is needed at a high pressure event or function. While it starts with the food, success is clearly linked to the design and execution.