Food Truck 101: How to get a business started

HOUSTON - Mobile businesses  are becoming the new startup but many people don't realize how hard it is, until it's too late.

First, make sure to contact your local health department to obtain the necessary licenses for operating a mobile food truck. Required licenses include food manager identification license, food manager's license, food handler's license and vending license.

Larry Goodman, with the Houston Health Department, says, "We've had a lot of people give up but not normally on the front end. Less than 2 percent give up on the front end before they even get permitted."

Billy Flanagan, with the Houston Food Truck Association, operates three different food trucks in the Houston area including D'Lish Curbside Bistro .

"For me it started as a hobby and it morphed into a business."

He says luck played a role in his success but has this advice, "You have to have a great concept, good employees, great customer service and a strong brand."

Obtain a list of acceptable foods you can prepare and sell from a mobile food truck from the health department.

"The key here is limited menu, work on the style and have a good sauce."

You'll also need to purchase a mobile food truck or truck that can be modified to fit all kitchen equipment. Zack Elbay, the owner of Texas Cart Builders has been building food trucks in the Bayou City for the past 15 years. He says,  "Back in the days, I would build a truck like every 2-3 months. Now, I'm averaging 2-3 trucks a month."

Plan on dropping some big bucks though. It's a six-figure investment and depending on how fancy you want your truck, prices can escalate to half a million dollars.

Elbay says, "It's one shop stop for pretty much everything. From starting the concept to giving advice on your menu, to build your food truck, to go over the layout design, to spend time inside the truck while we are building it to make sure we are getting the right equipment."

There are more than 1,500 food trucks and carts in the Houston area. The growth of the industry benefits consumers by giving them more choices but makes surviving the business more difficult.

"I think finding a network of trucks that help each other out is critical in this business. You can't go out as the Lone Ranger and expect to get a lot of jobs," advises Flanagan.

In addition to long hours and the expense of a truck, there's also the costs of running the business.

You'll have to apply for a business license through your local small business administration office or county clerk's office.

Those permits don't come free, plus there are the hidden costs like venues wanting a percentage of revenue for setting up at the venue, the cost of propane, and the maintenance costs for the truck.

Flanagan says, "Unfortunately, a lot of people do go out of business in the food truck business, which is a sad thing. There are a lot of great concepts that go out of business."

For those able to survive the nomadic lifestyle of being a food truck operator, they're just happy to keep serving up some good eats.

Here is a checklist to get started:

  • Contact your local health department to obtain the necessary licenses to operate a mobile food truck. Required licenses include food manager identification license, food manager's license, food handler's license and vending license. attend licensing classes, complete exam and pay licensing fees.
  • Obtain a list of acceptable foods you can prepare and sell from a mobile food truck from the health department. Create a food plan that includes a list of food items prepared in the truck and items prepared in your home or commercial kitchen. In most states, approval of this plan by the health department is necessary for you to sell food to the public.
  • Apply for a business license through your local small business administration office or county clerk's office. Apply for an employer identification number through the internal revenue service to use on tax forms and other business documents.
  • Purchase a mobile food truck or truck that can be modified to fit all kitchen equipment such as a small refrigerator, fryer, grill and storage space. Contact the health department to learn more about required truck dimensions, acceptable kitchen equipment and safety items, such as fire extinguishers or ventilation requirements.
  • Contact local restaurants, communal kitchen managers, schools and other public places that offer small businesses the use of commercial kitchen space for preparing food.
  • Complete a health inspection of your mobile food truck by contacting the health department to set up an appointment.

Click here for a list of fees related to getting permits and licenses from the city of Houston. Remember that you'll need to get additional permitting and licensing from different counties and cities. In other words, your license and permit from Houston will not allow you to operate in San Antonio or Austin. You'll need to get permitted and licensed in those municipalities.