Take a stroll around any Farmer’s Market, Night Market, or festival in British Columbia, and you’ll immediately be struck by the variety of food trucks on-site.
But, it’s an industry that’s still finding its feet in BC, with regulations and licensing slowly shifting to suit the needs of vendors. The major breakthrough came in 2010, when the City of Vancouver changed the way they distributed permits. It’s aim: to bring Vancouver more in-step with the likes of Portland and Austin, cities well-known for their street food options.
Today, there are more than 300 food trucks operating in Metro Vancouver and Victoria. With the low start up costs, mobility and dynamic nature of the industry ensuring it attracts plenty of interest from entrepreneurs. But what many don’t realize is the often-challenging conditions food truck operators work under. According to a VanCity report, it’s a market that requires hard work to break into, and a set of unique challenges in remaining competitive.
To better understand the quirks of the industry, we spoke to Cliff Mytton of The Flying Fish ‘N’ Chipper, and Oz and Sheila Aviles of Taqueria del Pueblo – two food trucks operating in Metro Vancouver – to hear their stories.
How Did You Get Involved in The Food Truck Industry?
Cliff: I was basically working in an industry I had no passion for and wanted to make the most out of my working life. I was lucky that I had time to do the research and really get all my ducks in a row before starting, because once you hit the street it is all go.
Oz & Sheila: There was a time early in our marriage when one of us was working evenings at restaurants, and the other was working mornings at cafes. We were working opposite schedules and rarely saw each other for more than a few minutes at a time. We knew we needed to find a way to change our lifestyle to create a better environment for a family, but it was difficult to manage two schedules in the food industry. With Oz’s MBA and our combined hospitality experience we believed we had a fighting chance at starting our own business, so we did!
What is The Best Part of Working in This Industry?
Cliff: One of the special parts of the food truck industry is the ability to serve great food to people in a different environment each day. From business lunches to festivals and private events, there is always something different. But the common theme is putting a smile on people’s faces with great food.
Oz & Sheila: The best part of the food truck industry specifically is that it has allowed us to be very dynamic throughout our learning process. We’ve had the opportunity to dramatically change our product, our location, and our business strategy without the burdens of long term leases, or any large unmovable assets. Many of the changes we’ve made over the years would have been greatly limited had we been confined to a brick & mortar.
What Are the Biggest Challenges You Face Running a Food Truck?
Cliff: It’s great that the city is allowing more and more roaming permits for food trucks, but they haven’t adjusted the bylaws that restrict where we can go, and haven’t created an area for food trucks to park that will bring people to us (similar to Portland). The popular spots are hard to get and with little to no parking on the street it’s a struggle to book up your week.
Oz & Sheila: The biggest challenge is to break the food truck business stereotype, which is the idea that it is easy. The challenges are the same as any other business: define your market, create a product, have the right price and be there consistently. This can be a short process or long one that slowly puts you out of business. You also need to consider cost control, search engine optimization, social media, etc. The market is asking for, and expects, professional owners with qualifications and creativity. You must be very diverse in your skills and in your knowledge of different topics, or have a big budget to outsource all of these services. To be successful in the food truck industry, you must have food experience as well as the profile of a small business owner.
What Tips Would You Offer to Someone Looking to Get into The Food Truck Business?
Cliff: Do your research, talk to as many truck owners as you can. I was lucky and started my business in the winter, it gave me time to work out systems on the truck and employ new people as things got busier. Keep it simple! Good food on your menu doesn’t have to have lots of ingredients, it just needs to be done well at a reasonable price.
Oz & Sheila: First, be realistic about your knowledge and your personal profile. Although being successful in the food truck industry requires a passion for food, it’s not enough on its own. Just like all small businesses it requires a broad skill set, a willingness to constantly learn and adapt to changes, and very thick skin.
What Are the Main Differences Between Running a Food Truck and a Conventional Restaurant?
Cliff: The differences of a food truck over a brick and mortar restaurant are fairly simple but are the defining elements that bring people into the food truck industry. Cost of startup is obviously less for a food truck, then there’s location, location, location! A food truck can always find a better place if things are not good. But in the restaurant’s favor you can open longer hours. If your location is good people always know where you are and will travel for good food. Most of the people I talk to with food trucks have dreams of a restaurant one day and have started with food trucks. It’s a tough life with plenty of work behind a two-hour lunch rush.
Oz & Sheila: There are both positive and negative differences between a food truck and a conventional restaurant. On the positive side, food trucks can get exposed to high traffic locations without the high cost by going to large events, or getting a license in a downtown location. There is less start-up commitment for food trucks, and often (but not always) less start-up investment. On the negative side, food trucks are much more seasonal than restaurants and sales can be greatly affected by unpredictable weather. The market can also be unpredictable for food trucks, as you may find that at one event/location your product and pricing is well suited to the market, and at another it is not. Food trucks also face many limitations to production and sales due to space restrictions and must optimize the space available.
Where Do You See the Industry Going in the Next Few Years?
Cliff: Being an optimist, I hope the city rethinks its “toe in the water” mentality. The city is growing at a rapid pace, which means there’s more people enjoying the green spaces and looking for dining options. I will use Portland again as an example, they have created a fantastic food environment which brings locals and tourists alike to areas with a great mix of food and culture, mobile and fixed locations all together. If Vancouver wants to be a fun city, food is a great way to make people smile.
Oz & Sheila: We’ve noticed consumer attitudes are demanding lower pricing in street food, while the standards and regulations expected of us remain quite high. We anticipate more restaurants and chains opening food trucks, meaning competition will remain quite high.