From acai bowls to zeppole, nothing says hip, local, fresh, and convenient like the tasty fare of a food truck at your event. These mini-kitchens on wheels tap into today’s trends for authenticity and experiences, as well as the age-old trend of appreciating delicious, thoughtfully prepared food. In short, food trucks get people excited.
And the food truck business has been booming for more than a decade; it’s now a $2 billion industry and growing. Despite their popularity, they don’t break the bank for event organizers. In fact, food truck catering can be significantly less expensive than traditional catering.
These 5 key questions can help guide your decision making and event planning process. You’ll find the answers vary widely by event, because no two food truck events are the same—that’s part of their fun. But once you know the basics and the variables to consider, you’ll be able to book food trucks for all of your events—no muss, no fuss.
1. Learn the cost to rent a food truck for an event and set your budget.
Food truck catering costs range from $10 to $35 per guest. So the cost of catering 100 people will range from approximately $1,000 to $3,500. (There is usually a minimum cost, which may range from $800 to $1,300.)
This is a wide range, so let’s take a closer look at what influences whether the cost is at the high or low end of that range.
The pricing structure
When booking a food truck for an event, the main pricing structures are catering, attendee-pay, and business guarantee.
- Catering is the most common structure for private events. In this structure, the food truck acts as the caterer, and provides an agreed-upon menu for an agreed-upon number of people.
- Attendee-pay is common at large events that will host several trucks. Attendees simply order and pay for their own meals, as they would at any other food truck location. Food trucks aim for about 40-60 sales per hour at this type of event. Sometimes the food truck pays a fixed amount (often about 10 percent of projected revenue) or a percentage of its event revenue to the event organizer.
- Under an attendee-pay pricing structure, food trucks may ask for a business guarantee—a minimum amount of business the organizer will guarantee. The organizer is on the hook for any shortfall between actual business and the guarantee.
In busy metro areas where it seems like everything is more expensive, food trucks are no exception. Labor, ingredients, and permits are typically more expensive in these areas and food trucks charge more to maintain their profit margins. NYC and LA lead the pack in food truck costs.
Conversely, in less populated areas, the home base of your ideal food truck may be a significant distance away. Expect to pay a premium to get food truck operators to travel beyond their customer range.
Small to mid-sized cities and towns with food truck options are in the low-cost location sweet spot.
The meal and food types
A dessert truck will cost less than a food truck providing mains, sides, and drinks for lunch or dinner. A food truck catering an event like an evening wedding reception, with its complex logistics and full dinner, will probably top out the price range. (Note that the approximately $35 per eater at the top end of food truck catering is still likely to be cheaper than the average of $70 per eater for traditional wedding catering.)
Some trucks come in at the end of a catered reception or other late-night affairs, specializing in dessert and coffee. (Belgian waffles, anyone?) This is a cost-effective option that still makes a big impact.
Tacos, hot dogs, and BBQ tend to be inexpensive food truck fare. Costly ingredients like lobster, or on-trend trucks that serve fusion or organic creations may be more expensive.
2. Decide how many food trucks you’ll need for your event.
A reasonable starting estimate is one food truck per 200-300 attendees.
You will need several trucks if eating a meal is one of the central draws of the event, such as a lunchtime employee appreciation picnic. And you will need to book several trucks if everyone is going to eat at once, such as during a wedding reception.
You can consider one food truck per 400 attendees or so if there are several other attractions during the event, and no set time when everybody eats—guests will visit the food truck when the lines are lower.
Talk with the food truck owners about your attendee estimates and how many customers they are capable of serving per hour. Provide the truck owners with attendee estimates a week before the event so they can factor that into their ordering and prep.
3. Pick your food truck menu for the event.
Food trucks provide a mind-boggling array of mouthwatering choices: hot dogs and fries; chicken and waffles; Dal-and-egg breakfast bowls; street tacos; pizza; Korean-Mexican fusion; Indian food; BBQ (one of the most popular food truck types). The list goes on and on.
Of course, discuss the options with your clients. They may be crystal clear about the type of food they want and even have a few favorite trucks in mind. Or, they may need a long list of suggestions.
By their nature, most food trucks have streamlined menus. But for catered events, it’s smart to narrow the offerings even further. Fewer choices make service faster so event attendees don’t get hungry waiting in line. Food truck owners have been around the block—ask them which of their items are most popular and you’ve got the basics of your menu.
Also take a look at the proposed menu through the lens of dietary restrictions: does your guest list include people who need a vegetarian or vegan option? If you’re not sure, better safe than sorry. The food truck operator should have an idea of what is popular with the animal-free crowd.
Here are a few ideas about how food trucks might vary by event type:
Industry networking event – For an event during a national professional conference, consider contracting with several food trucks with varied cuisines—street tacos, Indian, and burgers, for example. The options your guests choose are great conversation starters while standing in line. And the Indian fare will include options for vegetarians.
Wedding – Have a dessert-focused food truck outside towards the end of your wedding. Crepes, ice cream, donuts, churros. No matter the treat, guests will make one more sweet memory before the night ends.
Youth organization (i.e. athletic league, club, school) – Whether it’s an end-of-season celebration or a fundraising event, kids come ready to eat. Fast-prep fare is your best bet, such as burritos, empanadas, and wood-fired individual pizzas.
4. Find the best food trucks for your event.
Once you’ve narrowed down the cuisine, use Roaming Hunger, FoodTrucksIn, Yelp, or a city-specific site or app to explore all the options in your region. Spend some time exploring reviews from catering clients to see how operations handle the high-volume, short-turnaround involved in a scheduled event.
Submit and lock down your dates early—food trucks are in demand. Roaming Hunger will even take information about your event and budget, find suitable food trucks in your area, and handle the booking for you.
Many food trucks also have their own websites with options to request bookings online and available dates. If a client has a dream food truck in mind for an event, this can help you settle on an event date and get the contract signed before they’re booked elsewhere.
Use your event planning software to store the contact information and pricing for trucks that are popular, reliable, and offer outstanding service so you have a go-to list of suggestions for your clients.
5. Ensure you meet food truck regulations.
Municipal regulations may place constraints on food trucks for your event. For example, in some areas, food trucks can’t operate within a certain distance of a brick-and-mortar restaurant. There may also be restrictions about operating in a commercial versus a non-commercial zone, noise ordinances to consider (an issue because of loud generators used by some food trucks), and special permit requirements to operate food trucks on the street or in a municipal park.
Visit the town or city manager’s office and ask for guidance. They will inform you of any special requirements related to food trucks. In larger cities, the permit office may be in another building, so factor that into your schedule. This can be a time-consuming process, so be sure to ask how long the permit approval typically takes and start your research early. You don’t want to face any issues that result in your food trucks driving away on the day of the event.
6. Station the food truck (or trucks) in the right place.
After deciding on the type of food truck or trucks you want, a thoughtful layout of your outdoor event space impacts its success. Here are top tips for setting up an inviting and comfortable food truck event:
- For events with many food trucks, they are usually either stationed around the perimeter of the event or clustered in an area that makes it easy for attendees to see their choices.
- If there’s just one truck, put it close enough to the action that attendees don’t have to abandon the fun—but don’t forget to plan space for the line.
- Most food trucks can’t operate on an incline, so schedule a site visit to make sure the area is flat.
- Some food trucks come with additional breakout options, such as a cart for maneuvering into smaller spaces.
- Attendees will want somewhere to enjoy their meals, even if they come in cardboard trays, so consider providing tables. Picnic or folding tables allow people to sit together; high-tops encourage quick turnover.
- Place a station for cutlery and napkins halfway between the tables, so guests don’t have to interrupt the food truck cooks to ask for more.
- The truck operators will provide at least one garbage can, but you should provide more—and ensure they are emptied when almost full. You don’t want a lovely outdoor event tarnished by overflowing garbage.
The finalized price, timing of arrival, and service, number of event attendees, and responsibilities of the truck owners should be made clear within every contract. Don’t leave anything to chance any more than you would with a hotel banquet hall or traditional caterer.
Planners are finding that food trucks go with events like salsa with tacos. Or ice cream with waffles. Or curry dip with eggplant fries. For every event, the perfect food truck is ready to pull up and enhance the festivities in laid-back style.