Lisa and Brian Wood own and operate Big-Ass Sandwiches off SW 3rd and Ash. Lisa graciously wrote the following as a guide to aspiring food cart owners. Thank you Lisa.
So you want to open a food cart.
In case you hadn’t noticed, there’s a food cart bonanza happening. High unemployment rates, difficulty finding work & a passionate, entrepreneurial spirit is bringing sidewalks in cities across the country an incredible array of culinary delights. Owning & operating a cart in downtown Portland, not a day goes by without someone asking what it takes to get their own cart opened. We’re here to help & to give you, at the very least, a snapshot of what it takes to live the cart life.
Make no mistake, owning and operating your own business, especially in the service industry, is hard, exhausting work. It is truly a labor of love & to do it right you have to give it everything you can. If getting your hands dirty bothers you, stop right now & pick something else, this is not a glamorous profession.
You’re gonna need $20k – $40K to get opened. If you’re a handyman/builder type you can save yourself a lot of money by finding yourself a trailer, building and outfitting it on your own. We’re pretty smart and sport a decent level of creativity, but decided to leave that one to the experts. You can find carts for sale on Craigslist, it’s just a matter of finding one that’s set up for what you need. You can also go the route of having your cart designed by people who know the cart business, specifically. Rich & Jason are a chef & an architect who run Northwest Mobile Kitchens & Rick of Rick’s Wild Seafood, built his own cart & builds for others. Like any business start up, best to have a business plan in place, make sure you have a viable idea, something that’s not already saturated or overdone and something that you are confident you can execute.
When you have a trailer & location, you will also need:
- Propane permit ($25)
- Health inspection (a few hundred bucks at least)
- Fresh water, if not on-site, a means to fill up (You’ll never appreciate running water more after running a cart)
- Grey water removal (the Willamette doesn’t need any more mung)
- Dumpster for garbage & cardboard disposal
- Means to fill propane tanks (whether driving them somewhere or getting someone to come to you)
- Marketing. Sure, it’s a food cart, but you still want to succeed, right? Like it or not, you need social networking and an official website. And it’s not enough just to have them…you have to use them. We’d highly recommend a smart phone so you can work mobile, otherwise you just pile onto a to-do list at home.
A Day in the life….Running your own cart
“How fun! You get to hang out in a cart and serve food”…“You’re open 11-4? That’s an awesome schedule!”
Not so fast.
Satisfying to create your own business and run it every day? Totally.
Creating food people love and come back for? No better feeling.
What people don’t see or realize a lot of the time is the work that goes into making a food cart operable on a day-to-day basis. Be ready for 80-100 hour weeks, sleep when you can get it & problem solving at a moment’s notice (a stocked cart losing electricity, pipes freezing in winter, equipment fixes…hope you own a toolbox.)
This is a typical day for us:
- 7:30am: Alarm
- 8:45am: Arrive at the cart
- 9am -11am: Divide & conquer. One of us stays at the cart to receive deliveries, prep meats for roasting, prepare all made from scratch items (for us, most of the menu), do the chopchop & stock the cart for the day. The other heads out on a supply/errand run. Supplies usually average about 300lbs of stuff. From the shelf to the store cart, from the store cart to the car, from the car to the cart. Really works the ol’ the muscles. Head to the bank, make sure we have enough change.
- 11am-4pm: Slingin’ the goods. Weather plays a big role in cart life. Some days are light, some days you will feel like you’ve been picked up, shaken, twisted, slammed against a wall & sucked dry of every ounce of energy you have.
- 4pm: Closing…ahhh, cleaning the cart. Storing what’s left, cleaning surfaces, shaking the greasy-ass dirty mats, sweeping (and sometimes degreasing) the floor, washing all of the dishes, digging food chunks out of and cleaning the sinks, scrubbing the grill, closing the biz side (order tickets/til), making grocery & to-do lists for the next day.
- 7pm-ish: Oh no, still not done, there’s the business side. Logging receipts, tracking your daily numbers however you see fit. If you want any hope of keeping yourself organized & being ready for taxes, I highly suggest you use quickbooks. You will also have to do a lot of towel laundry. They don’t clean themselves.
- On Friday & Saturday night, we do late night service. In the beginning, it was go home, sleep for a couple hours, go back & repeat most all of the above. The being & body can only take that for so long…that’s when bringing in people you can trust will come in handy.
Somewhere in the midst of all of that, you try to have a life, keep up with your personal finances & take care of your pets. Be sure to thank your friends & family profusely for understanding why they hardly ever get to see you ‘cause they’re the people who love and support you the most…it makes all the difference.