The guys behind Halal Guys rolled out their first hot dog cart in 1990. Not long after, the cart swapped that played-out menu for a Middle Eastern repertoire of rice platters and gyros. The halal menu attracted a cult-like following.
And, in the last couple of years, the Halal Guys have opened nearly three dozen brick-and-mortar units around the country, with hundreds more slated.
Every day, it seems, a new food truck announces plans to open a nonmobile concept. From Minneapolis’ O’Cheeze to House of Manchester Caribbean Grill in Las Vegas to expanding pizza concept Pupatella in Washington, D.C., opening permanent restaurants seems to be the natural evolution for many food trucks.
Here are some behind-the-scenes tips for four-wheel food peddlers considering the leap to brick-and-mortar.
1. Ask yourself: Why?
Have a clear goal in mind. In some markets, an operator can run a thriving business solely with one or more food trucks. In other cities, it makes more business sense to upgrade to a storefront. Detroit chef Omar Anani, for example, operates four food trucks. He has decided to turn his Fat Panda concept, however, into an actual restaurant for a variety of reasons: Detroit’s weather makes it hard to generate winter food-truck business, Anani says. He wants to have a consistent staff—one he doesn’t have to let go during the slow season. Plus, he says, city taxes and licensing requirements for food trucks are headache-inducing. “The food-truck scene in every city is a bit different,” Anani says.
2. Choose your location wisely
Finding a restaurant space with affordable rent is key. Off the Griddle, a veggie-burger-focused food truck in Portland, Ore., is launching a cafe location in a few weeks. It’s in an up-and-coming neighborhood. “It’s been really helpful to build our business and not have huge rent,” says Ashley Arthur, who co-owns the operation with her husband, Dan Harding.
Fat Panda Is opening soon on Detroit’s east side, in a revitalizing neighborhood where rents were significantly less than other areas.
3. Build up capital
You’ll need to build up a nest egg first. Anani was able to sell off his 1973 food truck to pay for his storefront. The couple behind Off the Griddle spent a few years operating a small breakfast cafe, all the while saving money and looking for the right location for their restaurant. “It takes a long time to save up the money,” Harding says.
4. Be true to your concept
“When you look at what a food truck is, we’re street food,” Anani says. “Too many people, when they take their concept to brick-and-mortar, they try to update it. If you’re a grilled cheese guy and you do grilled cheese really well, do that in your brick-and-mortar.”
5. Make a business plan and stick to it
It sounds simple, but the economics of scale of running a food truck and operating a “real” restaurant are quite different. Consult a local small business association or even an area culinary school for help, if needed. “Reference that business plan regularly,” Anani says.
6. Be prepared for setbacks
As anyone who has opened a restaurant knows, everything takes longer and costs more than expected. “Be your own general contractor,” Harding says. “In the end, as the project went long and the bills started rising, I started doing work myself … Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty.”