Advice and Experience from a Food Cart Owner

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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)
  • Insurance
  • Signage
  • 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.

Fun? Absolutely.

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.

Comments

  1. It’s also good if you have posted hours that you’re open during those hours, or at least tweet to let people know if you won’t be. Otherwise I can’t possibly recommend the cart to people since it may just not be open.

  2. I’m really glad Portland has been a place where many people want to work this hard. I’m also really glad this isn’t what I do for a living.

    Keep up the good work! I’ll visit your cart to help keep you in business :-)

  3. How difficult is it for a cart to be profitable? The turn over rate seems pretty high.
    Thanks for your perspective!

  4. michele says:

    I’m making a food cart from a camp trailer, not in Portland. You need to have a plan review before construction starts but your not provided info on what materials to use or the best way to set up. Craigslist is full of scams. There are postings of other peoples trailer,only an email, and a story about being out of the area. The biggest red flag is a promise of Ebay protection. Ebay never handles financial transaction nor do they offer their insurance on Craigslist! Thanks for posting your story! It appreciated information

  5. Awesome piece Lisa. I think it really gives great perspective. We should get a reality show going, the secret life of food cart owners. The love you guys have for the work really shows. I’m gonna send all the people who ask me what it takes to get started this as a primer.

  6. What a great post. Lisa and Brian, thanks for your advice and insights. It was really informative and well written. That’s why I love this website. Sure, we talk about food here, but the culture and business of running food carts is as equally important and interesting to folks.

  7. Very nice article. I agree with everything said. People really don’t know how much work goes into running a food cart every day.

    Thanks for the article.

  8. Amen to that! Wish I would have had this advice 6 months ago when
    preparin’ for the cart. Thanks for this Lisa, you and Brian rock and the love truly beams from your cart. Will be there soon to have one of your BIGass sandwhiches!

  9. Great piece! It really can’t be emphasized enough the hard work that goes into running your own business, and the total commitment required. I have literally heard the words “gee, I like to make pizza, I should open a cart, they’ll sell like hotcakes and I’ll make some easy money…”. Attitudes like that aren’t just foolish, they demean those of us who have chosen to devote our lives to food with the assumption that just anyone can do it. Thanks for shedding some light on the real life of a cart owner!

  10. Brooke Howes says:

    WORD!!!!!!!!

  11. Girrrrrl. You said it. Try Cintas, we switched. It costs a little but man, I’ll cut costs at home in order not to wash those damn dirty towels.

  12. As a new cart owner, thank you! Very well put.

  13. Great post! It’s a hectic life but we love what we do :)

  14. Great piece. I would like to add that most of Portlands’ cart owners are very kind to newbys and are willing to help with information. If you have questions for owners, please be conciderate, never take up their time when they are serving customers or needing to prep. If need be, schedule an appointment. Of course it’s always kind to a least order something when at the window. Which reminds me, Brian and Lisa, I believe I owe you a meal for your time. But with your schedule, I just may have to have it delivered.

  15. Great article. It is sooooo true! You really have to be a little crazy to do this full time and I love it!! We use New Systems Laundry for our towels and mats, they switch out the mats once every week with fresh ones. It really helps cut down cleaning time and they help the back! They are also a local company with good enviornmental practices. We are rolling out our second mobile kitchen in July, with more trips to the North and South planned. Good luck to all starting your carts! We are happy to help if you have questions!

  16. hi I have been trying to get food cart portlands phone # and e-mail address to send pics of the mobile class 3 street vending push carts that I am making.. these are adorable,affordable and profitable,, not a camp trailer but a sidewalk push cart,, e- mail me at yourguyfriday@hotmail.com,,,,, thanks I do fairs,festivals farmers markets and events,,, it also takes alot of time booking the gigs rather having a pod or a regular location going to the bank is our favorite task, we do hot dogs,sausages,pulled pork and meatball sandwiches grilled shrimp,hawaiian shave ice, specialty coffee and teas and cheesecake on a stick,,ALOHA…

  17. Hi, I just want to add one usefull cleaning tip here. For more effective dishwashing, add a few tablespoons of vinegar along with the dishwashing detergent when washing dishes. The vinegar cuts the grease and leaves dishes sparkling. Happy Cleaning )

  18. What great insight into a world I know nothing about. I eat from carts most days and will definitely up my tip knowing what you do and how hard you work.

  19. Wow very interesting post. Who know how much work is involved in owning a food cart? Either way, keep up the great work, and thanks for the street side convenience!

  20. Meghann says:

    Thanks for the great post! Are there any vendors out there who can provide some insight into water delivery? Do you haul your own, or is there a service that you use/know of? If you bring your own, what is the approval process? How often do you have to refill? Anything on water disposal would be welcome too. Thanks!

  21. In taking a snapshot of how it is to lead the life of a hotdog concessionaire, you can provide future entrepreneurs a peek into the peaks and troughs of this kind of life. Here is some more information that your readers can use and it can be found here: http://www.uscarts.net/owners-guide/start-up-expense-list

  22. I read this before starting to work on my cart. Gave very good information about what is involved. I purchased an old travel trailer, gutted it, had two great guys rebuild it and now can’t find an electrician to come hook me up? I made some calls and they aren’t interested. Any resources you know of would be appreciated. p.s. Agree-tons of Craig’s List scams—be careful out there.

  23. VERY GOOD POSTS YOU ALL ,IT IS VERY HARD WORK AND GREATLY APPRECIATED DOING ALL THE WORK YOU DO DAILY, ON THE OTHER SIDE (BUILDING AND SELLING PARTS) I FEEL IT TO I AM ALWAYS ANSWERING QUESTIONS OR HELPING OUT ANYWAY I CAN AND ALWAYS GLAD TO HELP ANYWAY I CAN, WHEN I DO GET A FREE MOMENT I WILL COME BY AND INTRODUCE MY AND EVEN BRING MY WIFE AND KIDS WITH ME I HAVE BEEN HEAVILY INVOLVED FOR CLOSE TO THREE YEARS WITH MOST OF YOU, SEVEN IF YOU COUNT AYBLA’S AND HIS MANY CARTS IT IS A FUN LIFE AND THERE ARE GREAT PEOPLE OUT THERE LIKE YOU KEEP THE GOOD WORK UP I WILL SUPPORT YOU

  24. Hi, food cart pros! I’m looking to join the phenomenon, if not in PDX, then maybe in Bellingham, WA. Can anyone guide me toward information about laws and restrictions for outdoor seating in either of these areas?

  25. Hi Lisa, can you give me any sense of about how many customers you served per day, and how this varied with the weather and seasons? Do you have a sense of how other food carts fared, and/or how much traffic may vary in different parts of town? I would really appreciate this info, as I’m trying to work out a model of costs for a food cart business that would double as a job placement/training prgram for at-risk youth…
    Thanks!
    Matt

  26. Greetings lisa & Brian:

    Excellent piece to introduce people to the demands (warnings) and joy of operating a mobile food service business.

    I’m in San Francisco and I’m working on a business plan for my upcoming food cart business (3 to 6 months in the making) focused on a unique culinary field and mode of mobility not yet exploited.

    I’m extremely handy so I’ll be able to cut cost in building the mobile cart, but here in SF the permits and local operating costs are steep. Gasoline is also always a buck higher than the national average. In other words, everything in the SF Bay Area is more expensive so the profit margin is seriously squeezed.

    I’m glad I discovered this site and will stay connected.

    Thanks again

  27. I am opening my mobile food business in a couple weeks, but am wondering how people cook chicken for sandwiches–are they using breasts or thighs and are they pre cooked or what?

    thanks.

  28. Does anyone out here know where the codes or requirements might be found for reto-fitting a travel trailer to a food cart? I have been to several web sites trying to find electrical/ventalating requirements etc… and have only noticed that bloggers seem to know more than the city/state websites.

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