During the 2020 pandemic, mobile food has nimbly filled the gap left by an ailing hospitality sector. And fed up with home-cooked lockdown fare, the public has responded hungrily to perfectly prepared, accessible and affordable dishes.
Restaurateur Mark Hix MBE summed it up: “A lot of restaurants won’t reopen… much hospitality is sadly on the ventilator.” Including his own. His empire, including four restaurants in London and two in Lyme Regis, may have collapsed but it takes a lot to keep a great chef down: Hix started all over again with a converted Chevrolet ambulance. Currently, the Hix Oyster & Fish Truck is doing a roaring trade near his hometown of Bridport in Dorset.
But what does it take to get a first-class food truck up and running?
Hitting the road in style
It may be easier to get start-up capital for a van than a restaurant but converting it can cost anywhere from £20,000–£80,000, according to the Nationwide Caterers Association (NCASS). Done well, it’s money well spent — after all, it’s the billboard for the business. London-based Utter Waffle, the brainchild of 20-somethings James Timmins and Julia Jeffries, operates from a vintage 1975 Ford Transit so recognisable it even has a name: Reggie. In fact, Reggie picked up a gong in its own right at the 2019 Best Street Food Awards: ‘Best Looking Mobiler’, one of three out of seven available accolades that the duo snatched from 4,000 competing vendors.
It costs money to look this good — in Reggie’s case, £30,000 in equipment and cosmetic surgery. But it paid off in spades. In the 18 months since launching, Utter Waffle has gone stratospheric, such is the clamour for its pockets of hot deliciousness stuffed with savoury fillings and fresh toppings. Flexibility is key: they soldiered through lockdown by switching to DIY kits delivered to doorsteps and developing their own range of condiments.
Figuring that eventually people would be desperate to eat out, in July they started a bricks-and-mortar restaurant in West Brompton, London, on an astute commission-based rent.
The timing of Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ couldn’t have been better.
Getting the truck on track
Food trucks often fail due to lack of critical business planning and not having an alternative source of revenue, such as catering. Owners also need a strong brand identity and social media presence; the beauty of this marketing approach is that it’s free and can be managed during quiet time. After that, it’s the food that gets folk queuing round the block.
Dan Batchelor, 36, whose Flying Cows truck elevated the humble burger to a delicacy, has had first-hand experience of business planning (or not). His cooking betrays his Michelin-star restaurant roots, bagging him top honours in the British Food Awards of 2017 and 2019, plus the 2019 ITV Food & Drink Award. But 10 years ago, before his sleek Airstream became a fixture at the likes of Silverstone F1 and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra gigs, he had a restaurant that failed. It was a tough lesson well learned, because it led him to his food truck. It was a true ‘farm to fork’ operation that initially used only top-quality Dexter beef stock reared by his family in Princethorpe, Warwickshire. Flexibility has spared Flying Cows from the worst of the lockdown. “I had 300 booked events wiped out by Covid this year, so I pivoted to a click-and-collect service with a payment link. Every Monday I post 30-minute collection time slots for Friday and Saturday on social media. It’s been heaving.”
Beating the budget
Money management may be a headache for some, but not for Utter Waffle’s James Timmins. In addition to his Michelin-restaurant cheffing background he has a Business & Accounting degree. “I’ve seen chefs try to make magic on ridiculously low margins. Our costings are done to the last penny. This becomes really important when you scale up to bigger volumes.” Other overheads include insurance, which can top £300 a month for vehicle, damage, theft and public liability. Then there are permits, licences and hygiene certification; payroll; food and production costs; gas and electricity; laundry, and maintenance.
The pitch comes at a price, too. Timmins again: “We pay a percentage of turnover — not more than 10% as a rule, unless it’s a well-established event that generates good revenue, when we might go to 15%. But the upside is that food trucks pay nothing when they’re not trading, unlike restaurateurs.”
What we’re witnessing is the irreversible democratisation of eating out. As Richard Johnson, the man who founded the British Street Food Awards, said: “It’s flirty, low-commitment dining. We don’t want a starter–main course–dessert menu anymore — we want a bit of this and a bit of that. It’s inclusive. And in a world like ours, that’s a positive message right now.”