The appeal of a mobile catering business - with lower overheads than a traditional restaurant - can be enticing; however, the initial process of running a successful mobile catering business requires careful and precise planning, and you want to make sure you’ve crossed the T’s and dotted the I’s. You don’t want to get up and running, start making profits, and have your business yanked away for food safety violations. Plan for absolutely everything.
So whether you plan to run an ice-cream van, a mobile chippy, a taco truck, or a unique venture, here are some tips to get you started:
1. Set yourself up for success
Before you begin, plan, plan, plan, and plan some more. Assume that you’re considered a high-risk business when compared to an experienced catering business. As a result of your high-risk status, you may have a harder time at first when dealing with Environmental Health officers, Event Organisers, and Insurance Providers, but don’t be discouraged. Make sure that you’re trading legally, safely, and profitably by starting out the right way.
You may want to consider joining an association such as The National Association for Catering and Events (NACE) or The Nationwide Catering Association (NCASS) to offer support to your developing business - there are other organisations too! The NACE is free, offering certification, networking, education, and more, and is for event and catering professionals; the NCASS requires paid membership for around £21-91 per month (or £239-1099 per year), depending on membership level, and keeps you up to date of new legal requirements, provides training, and more.
2. Secure permits and licenses
Research applicable laws in your area for food and alcohol distribution at catering sites. Find out about catering trailer regulations before you shell out for expensive equipment. If you are found to be non-compliant with regulations, you may be subject to fines, which will damage your business’s reputation, and sink profits.
Find out what types of licenses you need, and purchase the right insurance.
Register the catering trailer:
Every mobile business has to be registered with your local branch of the Environmental Health Department, even a small hot dog stand.
Find out where you can operate:
Even though your business will be mobile, and it seems you can just set up shop whenever and wherever, you are not allowed just to park your trailer anywhere to prepare and sell food. You must get permission from your local council to gain permission to use a location, which may require a fee and waiting on permissions. You do want to try different locations to see which locations work best for your profits. For operating on private property (sporting venue, shopping center, etc), you must obtain permission from the landowner. Operating late at night - to get the pub crawlers - may require an entertainment license, so find out what is required for your specific needs.
Unhygienic food prep is the most common way people get sick from food - and you definitely don’t want to get a bad rep that way! Local government branches issue certificates ensuring that food service is prepared in a clean environment, so you need to make sure you get a Hygiene Certificate from your local council to guarantee your trailer has hygienic conditions for food prep.
Secure various types of insurance to protect against hazards and mishaps. When operating powerful cooking equipment in a small space, there are trip hazards, fire hazards, and more. It’s important to have liability insurance to protect both employees and the public from harm - as well as yourself. You should also insure your trailer against damage and theft.
You must secure the correct license to sell alcoholic drinks.
Keep detailed records of all business income and expenses to help you prepare accounts and complete your tax return. Record keeping will also help you run your business effectively. Keep all records for at least five years. HM Revenue & Customs, or an accountant can advise further. Keep all invoices and receipts for food that you purchase.
Work out all National Insurance contributions before you begin your business if you plan to have employees. The contributions come out of your employees wages. Keep a record of all that you pay employees such as wages, payments, and benefits. Follow all employment law on rights, working hours, minimum wages, and equal opportunities.
3. Set your prices
You may want to discuss your business with a financial advisor and work out the markup on food in order to make a profit, and pay your employees. Discuss what types of food you’d like to prepare, how much it’ll cost to produce that food, and what you need to charge to make profits after paying your expenses.
Wine, for example, is often sold at a 300% markup over supermarket and wine shop prices; customers often grumble at these prices because if they see a £10 bottle of merlot in store, and are charged £30 in a restaurant, then they feel slighted; however, restaurants - and mobile catering businesses - have more overhead. Most people don’t complain about the 65-75% markup on food since many are used to paying, say, £5-8 for a starter. When you’re figuring out your food costs, you want your ingredients in each dish to cost about 25-35% of the final price because that markup covers equipment, electricity, petrol, maintenance, employee wages, and more.
Consider a balance of luxury offerings with profit leaders. Fillet steak can cost nearly half of what is charged for it, but a bowl of soup may cost 70p to make, but you may charge £3.95. Tea and coffee make the best profits. A double espresso costs the same to make as a single - 25p - but the customer is charged more. For soft drinks too, if you have a fountain drinks - or even cans - the cost per cup of drink can be as little as 20p, and if you even charge £1, you have an 80% profit.
As for legal regulations on the food pricing, you must have clear pricing including vat. You must be VAT registered. Talk to HM Revenue and Customs for clarification if you need to charge and pay VAT. You must describe and depict your food accurately, declaring any of the 14 allergens (if your food contains them): cereals containing gluten e.g. wheat, rye, barley, oats, spelt, kamut; crustaceans, e.g. prawns, lobster, crab; eggs; fish; peanuts; soybeans; milk; nuts, e.g almond, hazelnut, walnut, pecan nuts; celery; mustard; sesame seeds; sulphur dioxide; lupin; and molluscs, e.g. clams, mussels, oysters. Download this food.gov pdf on allergens and correct staff training here for more information.
4. Buy a van and other equipment
When choosing a catering trailer, make sure you have an efficient layout, and something that’s eye-catching to those who drive by. Consider the condition of the trailer, the equipment that comes in it, and its health and safety features.
There are new and used options available for purchase. New trailers have flexibility of the type of equipment included as well as the look of the trailer. They might come with warranties, and fall in line with health and safety regulations. The drawback is the higher cost. For used catering trailers, you’ll have less control over the included equipment. The previous business owner may still have his or her catering logo on the outside, and you’ll have to pay to have the outside redone. Used equipment may also be worn, and have less curb appeal to potential customers. A used trailer may require refurbishments to meet health and safety code. The upfront cost may be appealing, but has to be weighed against other factors. For new business owners on a limited budget, the used option may be best at first with a view to upgrade at a later date.
Any quality catering trailer has the right equipment to prep the food you plan to make. Many trailers come with equipment already. Any food trailer should come with a griddle and a fridge. You can cook many types of food using a simple griddle. Most businesses also need a bain-marie (hot water bath) to keep food warm once it has been cooked. Make sure you know the food safety regulations on how long you can keep food warm without it going into the dangerous bacteria zone. Research what you need for your business and make sure that they are professionally installed. For example, if you want to have a taco truck, you’ll need a warming plate for tortillas, a bain-marie to keep your meats and beans hot, and an ice bath for salad, sour cream, guacamole, and cheese. The equipment you need depends on the food service you plan to deliver.
Also, equipment isn't just limited to the kitchen equipment; make sure your team are kitted out with safe, slip-resistant shoes. Slips and trips are the most common workplace accident, and the last thing you need is someone injuring themselves on the job.
Health and Safety features:
All trailers should keep health and safety issues at the forefront. Proper ventilation to allow smoke to escape when cooking is important. You need to keep a fire blanket and fire extinguisher on site, and have a switch to turn off the gas quickly if needed and in case of a gas leak. Every surface should be able to be disinfected and cleaned easily including floors, ceilings, doors, door handles, and so forth.
5. Hire staff
Once you’ve got the nuts and bolts of your business going, you’ll want to hire staff. Consider how many people you’ll need, their hourly or yearly wage, the benefits you’ll offer, the cost of National Insurance, and taxes and so forth. You’ll want to make sure you meet all regulations listed in the “Employee Pay” section such as following employment law. You may want to advertise via social media, via a job board, or hire locally. It’s up to you.
6. Apply for an account with food suppliers
Building a relationship with an affordable and reliable food supplier is important. You’ll want to apply for an account with a local supplier, which will help you further determine your markups and profit margins. There are a number of food suppliers in the UK, and you can apply for many online. Many suppliers offer discounts and rewards cards, rewarding your purchases and saving you more as time goes on.
7. Market your business
The right location will help your business become profitable. Roadside locations are often popular, and publicly owned space doesn’t require permission from a private landowner. You may want to use a licensed pitch like in a town center if the town grants permissions for catering trailers to operate, but competition may be fierce. You may also choose to get a place at local outdoor markets, industrial estates, festivals, and so forth. Labourers in industrial estates may be welcomed customers for a quick lunch rush.
Marketing yourself will allow for maximum profits as people cannot try your food - and spread the good word by word of mouth or on social media - if they don’t know about you. Create eye-catching catering trailer signs to attract passing motorists or pedestrians, and use appealing street signs to help sway potential customers to choose your particular food establishment. A website can also help drive business as well as social media presence. Set up a local Facebook page, for example, and ask friends and family to share.
Offer discounts (say 5-10% for those who show you that they were brought to you by your website or social media account). Distribute menus locally to generate business too. Make sure you have a website with a menu (preferably with pictures of your food) that links to your location on Google maps as well as a telephone number where customers can reach you. Publish your operating hours on your website and on social media to let customers know when they can enjoy your food. To generate regular custom, you may want to have promotions from time to time such as a free side with the purchase of a main, or a free drink and so forth.
Want to keep your employees safe in your new mobile catering business?
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