In addition to vehicle and equipment costs, there are other costs associated with a mobile food business that some don’t think about. The City of Topeka wants to make sure food trucks are licensed and inspected before allowing them to legally roam the city and disperse their goods. The Kansas Department of Agriculture takes care of the licensing (all licenses expire December 31) at a cost of $300 for a full calendar year. While there is no zoning restriction, which means you can set up shop wherever you want, you are required to let the City know where you will be located so they can inspect the truck at their discretion.
To pass inspection, each food truck must have running water, wastewater disposal, a handwashing sink and somewhere to wash dirty dishes. The equipment inside the truck will also have to pass inspection, depending on the type of food that is being sold. Just like a brick-and-mortar restaurant, food trucks have to take precautions and follow specific rules in order to ensure the food being sold there is safe. So the bottom line is that food trucks basically have to be a fully functional, mobile kitchen that can pass inspection at any time. Usually, at street fairs the city will inspect every truck before allowing the festival to even open.
JLG BBQ Jeremy Guerrero, owner of JLG BBQ said he wants a brick-and-mortar location, but the food truck is much less costly and easier to maintain while he is still working a full-time job. Guerrero said he’d probably have to raise the cost of his food items in order to afford having a permanent location.
“Right now my food is affordably priced, and we make a reasonable profit,” said Guerrero. “[People] tell me I should charge more money. I don’t want to, but eventually I’m gonna have to.”
Guerrero said raising food prices happens with rising food costs, but if he moved to a permanent location, prices would have to go even higher to cover the costs of the building. Also, he says if he opened a brick and mortar location, he would have to quit his full-time job running the kitchen at Barnabas Cafe. That full-time job pays his bills, so he uses his free-time to run his food truck.
“For us right now it’s a hobby. If it leads to a storefront—great. But right now, to be honest, Topeka is hard,” said Guerrero. “I lived in Kansas City for 20 years and BBQ goes around well in Kansas City but in Topeka, it’s a little harder.”
JLG BBQ can be found at Happy Basset Brewing Company on weekends and sometimes other nights. Guerrero said he makes a lot of money when he does festivals and street fairs and tries to attend as many as his schedule will allow.
JLG BBQ is a large trailer-type food truck that can be pulled from place-to-place. These types of trailers are less expensive than a standalone truck, but you also need a vehicle to pull it. However, Topeka zoning laws require any type of trailer without an engine attached to be parked in a commercial space. That means the trailer can’t just be parked behind a home in a residential area; it needs to be parked somewhere that is zoned as commercial.
4 GUYS Stand-alone food trucks have their advantages as well. Brothers, Viet and Tuam Lam, owners of 4 Guys Food Truck, can attest to those stand-alone perks. Because they had very specific needs for their truck, they enlisted the service of Extreme Bus Builders, a company out of Lawrence that custom builds food trucks and other commercial vehicles. They converted an existing bus and customized it to meet their needs, so the Lams had complete control over the design of the truck.
“We came up with the idea last year in July, and after that I looked online,” said Viet Lam. “The company got a transportation bus and converted it, then we picked what we wanted in it, and they were done around November. Then we got our license and paperwork done and came out on January 9 of this year.”
Viet Lam says they paid around $50,000 for their setup, but that is only because they purchased a used truck and sourced used equipment. Purchasing a truck that is already outfitted and ready to go will cost significantly more money, but will also take less time. Lam said that with some planning and patience, it easy to save some money.
Most food truck owners in Topeka agree that in order to have a successful food truck one must have another avenue of income—whether it be an extension of that food truck business or a job elsewhere.
The Lam brothers both work full-time jobs and operate the truck on the side for fun. However, they both hope to someday quit their jobs and do just the food truck. They hope that since they have a unique concept—Asian-Mexican fusion—they can grow their clientele and their business.
“The first time we came to a party for coworkers and friends they liked [our food] and said maybe you should go out and sell it,” said Lam.
4 Guys Food Truck can be found on 10th and Jackson when they are out for lunch. Usually the food truck is available on Thursdays in that location, but not always, so customers should check their Facebook page for hours and locations. Also, the Happy Basset Brewing Company doesn’t have their own food kitchen, so 4 Guys Food Truck sets up outside and sells food on Fridays. If there is a festival in town on weekends, the Lams are sure to be there because that is where they find the majority of their customers.
FRONT DOOR CATERING Similarly to the Lam brothers, partners Nicole DeGennaro and Mike Weibel operate a food truck business as a complement to their catering business, Front Door Catering.
They had the grand opening of their catering shop in the North Topeka Arts District in June and began using that location to not only prepare their food for the truck, but also for their catering company that they operate full time. While they don’t really have a true storefront setup where people can buy lunch yet, that is the plan for the future. Right now it’s just a great place to get large amounts of prep-work done and to meet clients to talk about catering events.
“Am I selling as many boxed lunches here as I was on the food truck? No, not yet,” DeGennaro said. “Is it helping me get established? Yes.”
DeGennaro said the food truck came about because of a whim. She had a trailer that was just sitting in her backyard that wasn’t doing anything, so she decided to fix it up and use it for on site catering and as a food truck.
DeGennaro admits that after setting up their truck regularly for almost a year, when they ran the books, they found they were only barely breaking even. She said it makes more sense to have the truck set up somewhere only once a month and then attend street fairs and festivals—that is where the profits can be found.
“If you have good quality food people will come, and I think if you cater to people’s specific likes and needs they will come,” DeGennaro said.
DeGennaro said she thinks Topeka needs a food truck court, a place where food trucks can all set up shop together on a regular basis. This way people don’t have to follow single trucks daily but could just show up to one location where multiple trucks always are no matter what day or time.
“If Topeka initiated a food truck court, I think you could make a living running a food truck. To be honest this would make your vending license even worth having,” DeGennaro said.
She also thinks the community would benefit from having a food truck court as well.
“If you and a group of friends were at work and you wanna go out to eat, but you can’t agree what to eat, you go there to the food truck court because you can get your Mexican, your barbecue, the street tacos and your Asian flair,” DeGennaro said. “You can all go sit at a picnic table and eat whatever you want, together.”
Despite all of the challenges food truck owners face, they all have a few things in common— mobility, delicious food and “togetherness.”
NOTABLE FOOD TRUCKS
Taco El Guitarron—Located on the corner of 20th and California, this food truck serves authentic Mexican cuisine.
Drew B Que—This local favorite serves serious BBQ, from ribs to sandwiches.
Mr. Nice Guys Hot Box—opened in 2012, serving Philly Steaks, Cheese Whiz and grilled veggies. They also serve hot dogs, cheeseburgers, pulled pork sandwiches and Frito pies.
Taqueria Mexico Lindo—This food truck can be found on 8th and Harrison every weekday during the lunch hour. The food includes street tacos, quesadillas and other authentic Mexican street food items.
Pacha’s By The Pound—This award winning food truck business has been in the area for over 15 years. It’s owned by Kody and Jennifer Pacha.
Noble House Hawaiian Plate Lunch— The owner of Noble House is from Hawaii and always wanted to cook his food for others, and what better way than having a food truck? Chef Akamu Noble has cooked all around the world and still returns for street fairs and occasionally to set up shop for lunch in Topeka.