Getting a food truck rolling in Minnesota takes more than a recipe and some wheels

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When talk of closing hit Dan Docken’s employer, he became his own boss. The Tot Boss.

For more than a decade, Docken has run a tater tot-emblazoned food truck, serving hungry crowds at fairs, festivals and office complexes.

“I’ve gotten to meet some great people. I’ve gotten to do some great events,” he says. “I love that people enjoy the food, and it’s very rewarding.”

But he cautions that customers — and would-be food truck operators — see just a glimpse of a very complex business.

“There is a lot that goes into it that a lot of people don’t realize,” Docken said. “You’re kind of a mechanic with the truck. The generators need oil changes constantly. You’re mopping the floors, fixing the equipment. The payroll and the taxes. There are more and more fees by cities and counties.”

That’s not to mention the rising costs of food, equipment, labor and fuel. The patchwork of regulations. The weather-shortened food truck season. Or that the once-thriving downtown food truck business has yet to recover in Minneapolis or St. Paul.

“It’s not for the faint of heart,” 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 pointers from those in the business:

Focus on food, know the rules

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

When Docken contacted the Small Business Administration about opening a food truck, the agency put him in touch with a volunteer mentor from Score, the nonprofit that offers free advice on starting and expanding businesses. Docken spent six months working on his business plan in order to get a bank loan and launch his truck in 2012.

Docken thought of selling deli sandwiches. But plenty of trucks already were doing sandwiches, hamburgers and tacos, his mentor cautioned.

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

“That advice really panned out great, about 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 getting a truck, someone taking an organized approach to getting into the business also should get to know all the applicable city, county and state requirements, said John C. Levy, a Minneapolis attorney who founded the food truck association and serves as president and board chair. Those necessities include mandates for licensing, certifications and insurance, with fees that can run into hundreds or thousands of dollars, and a variety of recurring inspections.

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

Buying, equipping a food truck

Those getting started often will 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 get refurbished.

On top of that long wait, Kinnan — with grad parties and other events booked for April — also was sweating out the long-delayed arrival of grills and other equipment, which he had ordered as soon as he bought the vehicle.

Kinnan, fortunately, made all his bookings, thanks to the quick work of Mark Palm, owner and CEO of Chameleon Concessions, the Minneapolis company that’s built hundreds of food trucks for Minnesota and national clients. Palm, whose company this year moved to a larger, 23,000-square-foot warehouse, stored Kinnan’s equipment as various pieces arrived and completed the buildout in just a couple of weeks.

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

Kitchen equipment has doubled in price in the 2 1/2 years since Kinnan redid his older food truck. Refrigerators that were $2,000, for example, now are $4,300. Food costs are up too, with Kinnan recently paying $161 for a case of chicken wings that was $45 just 18 months ago.

For Docken, the cost of frying all those tots is adding up, too. The jug of oil that cost him $22 a year ago now is $54.

Ahman Laster is enjoying taking his new Philly Station food truck to events, breweries and businesses after operating 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 buildout.

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 dishing up Italian ice treats while he made cheesesteaks, for workers at the Renewal by Andersen plant in Cottage Grove.

“It’s working 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 make.”

Food truck economics

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

“There is a ceiling to the amount that you can earn in any given meal but that can range quite a bit,” Levy said. “If you’re vending to the public, a good day would be, like, 100 sales and maybe like $1,500 in revenue, so it’s not big numbers. That could change what you’re going to serve.”

Food costs need to be as low as possible, Levy said. That was a lesson he learned with AZ Canteen, the food truck Levy and another partner launched with celebrity chef Andrew Zimmern. With a menu featuring “alternative proteins” like lamb and goat, food costs accounted at times for 35% of revenue. That was too much, he said, even though the AZ Canteen truck operated profitably for a couple of years.

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

Try before you buy

Laster recommended getting food industry experience before buying a truck.

“I’d 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 money unless you know what you’re doing.”

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

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

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

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