What food truck owners can teach any small business

Editorial Team

6 min read
Rollin' Smoke BBQ owner with ribs and mac and cheese

Americans love food trucks, and for good reason. Aside from being quick and convenient, food trucks offer customers a novel and casual way to try some pretty amazing cuisine–including top-tier culinary experiences.

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According to market analysis, food trucks are so well beloved that they represent a $1.1 billion industry in the U.S. and a $4 billion industry globally, and are projected for steady growth in the coming decade despite any pandemic setbacks.[1]

For chefs and entrepreneurs looking to enter the restaurant world, food trucks represent opportunity and often serve as a launch pad for building their restaurant empires. Thanks to minimal overhead expenses, food trucks provide the flexibility for owners to express themselves, test and learn, all while learning valuable skills through on-the-ground marketing.

The fact is, small business owners can learn a ton from food trucks about how to start a small business or take it to the next level. And, their lessons apply whether your business is on wheels or not.

Lesson 1: If you’re in, be all in

Anyone who’s considering starting a small business should know that there are no half measures. The time, energy, and money it takes to start a brand and build a business means that you’re either in or you’re out, and you need to truly believe in what you’re doing.

Before starting Holy Rolly— a truck serving made-from-scratch rolled ice cream in Charleston, South Carolina — LaToya Gardner and her husband were working in corporate America. “He worked in retail management and I worked in financial services,” she explained to Clover. “After we had our kids, we were both looking for something that allowed us to have more flexibility.” The two self-professed “ice cream fanatics” decided to make a bold move into the ice cream game, knowing that they could offer something truly unique in their area.

“We decided to go all in and we both quit our jobs,” says Gardner. “We decided to focus all of our energy, time, and attention into building our business, because we truly believed and saw the potential in our idea. In fact, it was a full-time job just getting a custom truck fabricated, developing our branding, and of course, tasting and developing all of our flavors!”

The bet paid off, as Holy Rolly is now a local favorite. During the COVID-19 pandemic, when most restaurants were shut down, Holy Rolly was able to remain open and take advantage of the unique mobility offered by a food truck.

“We decided to focus solely on visiting neighborhoods,” said Gardner. “This was when all the restaurants were shut down or only available for takeout. During that period, we did very well. We saw our business almost double and we saw a huge spike in sales because so many restaurants were closed.”

Lesson 2: Be community-minded and rooted in generosity

Small businesses are also local businesses, and have deep roots in the communities in which they operate. Many small businesses have found unique and powerful ways to give back to their local communities, and food trucks are no different.

“For about 10 years, I had a soup kitchen and a food pantry, and I would feed about a thousand people a month,” said Jeanette Lopez Georgiti, founder of the Salty Sistas food truck in Sneads Ferry, North Carolina. “I was constantly trying to raise money to be able to provide for the people in need in our area.”

After years of fundraising, Georgiti got the idea to start a for-profit business with the intention of funding her charitable efforts. “I love cooking,” said Georgiti. “Any time I’m upset or stressed out, I just spend so much time in the kitchen. So, I got a food truck. I thought it was going to be a great way to get out there and then pick a local charity each month that I could give back to. And it was!”

The venture was so successful that after only three months Georgiti was able to expand her mobile venture to a brick-and-mortar store without losing focus on giving back.

“One of my passions—and I did this when I had the soup kitchen—was meals-to-go,” she said. “In order to raise money at the nonprofit, I would do it once a month where people could have a choice of all these different meals. We do all the work and they just pop it in the oven. I wanted to be able to do the same thing here and it quickly turned into people wanting to come in and order food. So I ended up with a little bit of an eatery here.”

Lesson 3: Don’t be afraid to start small

Before it was a popular Georgia-based food truck and catering company, Rollin’ Smoke BBQ was just three men on a competitive mission.

“When I was younger, my uncle, a family friend, and I started out as a backyard BBQ competition team,” said owner Dejuan Smith. “We competed locally and traveled around to different states. Our skills and our name grew from there.”

In 2010, Smith and his partner Taneesha Thomas decided to pursue a barbecue business more seriously. They started out in a backyard, without even a truck, serving prepared food to locals.

“We call it our ‘prime real estate’ because we’ve built our brand in this location,” explained Thomas. “When Dejuan started out, with no truck or anything, he would bring already cooked food here; now, our food truck lives here most of the time.”

Today, that yard serves as the Rollin’ BBQ truck’s main location. “It’s a whole backyard experience,” explained Smith. “We have a couple of tents set up and a couple of tables under the tents. People grab their sandwich, their lawn chair, and hang out listening to some old, down-home blues or jazz while they’re waiting on their food. This is where we love to be.”

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[1] Grand View Research: Food Trucks Market Size, Share & Trends Analysis Report By Type (Customized Trucks, Buses & Vans), By Food Type (Fast Food, Vegan & Meat Plant), By Size (Small, Medium), By Region, And Segment Forecasts, 2021 – 2028