Sure, everyone has a budget when deciding which food truck or food trailer to buy. And it’s exciting to think (falsely) that you can buy a used food truck today and be on the road tomorrow.
In reality, buying a used food truck can cost way more time and money to get it up and running than you might expect.
And talk to any food trucker in the business: repairs don’t stop once you get on the road. An unreliable food truck will cost you more every year… year after year. And if you choose not to make those repairs, it can be unsafe for you, your employees, and your customers.
To figure out if a used food truck will be cheaper for you than building a new, custom food truck, it’s important to look past the initial purchase price.
Here are 5 pitfalls to avoid when buying a used food truck:
- It won’t pass a health inspection in your area
- Weird, old or high mileage vehicle
- Kitchen equipment is old or not NSF certified
- Layout or equipment doesn’t work for your menu
- Not manufactured by a reputable builder
1. Will it pass a health inspection in your area?
Did you know that most places in the United States require all food trucks or food trailers to pass a health inspection to legally serve?
Regulations can feel like an extra burden, but these inspections are important. From propane explosions to food poisoning, they help ensure that you, your employees, and your customers stay safe.
Unfortunately, there is no uniform, national code that guarantees your food truck or food trailer will pass inspection everywhere. Specific requirements vary not only from state to state, but town to town.
For instance, the South has some of the most relaxed code requirements in the United States. It might be completely legal to put a smoker on the back of your trailer, use linoleum floors instead of aluminum diamond plate, mount a propane tank to your bumper, or install a residential range.
But what if you take that same food truck or trailer to Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, Denver, New York or thousands of other American cities? Inspectors there won’t lose sleep over failing your truck for any one of these.
While some violations (like replacing a stove) can be corrected with a little time and money, many repairs (like using the wrong flooring) won’t make financial sense. To change out a floor, the entire truck has to be taken apart and put back together. Often these repairs cost so much money that it makes more sense to sell the used food truck and start from scratch.
Think you’re safe because the food truck already has a health department permit? Think again.
If the food truck changes owners, you may need to have it reinspected. And just because a used food truck has passed inspection before, doesn’t guarantee that it will again.
Here’s a list of the most common health department inspection violations:
- Adding or changing kitchen equipment so that it doesn’t match the existing food truck plans on file
- Refrigerators don’t hold temperature at 41 degrees
- Freezers don’t hold temperature at 0 degrees
- No fire suppression system
- No emergency door or escape hatch
- Non-food safe materials (like wood or melamine) were used to finish surfaces.
- Kitchen appliances are not NSF approved
- Aisle width doesn’t meet code minimums
- Ceiling height doesn’t meet code minimums
- There’s no 3-compartment sink
- 3-compartment sink isn’t the right size
- 3-compartment sink doesn’t have the correct drain boards
- Generator isn’t permanently installed
- There’s no hood
- Ventilation system is underpowered
- Entrance and serving doors are poorly sealed
- Incorrect fresh water tank and/or wastewater tank
- Water heater doesn’t meet code
- Not enough dry storage space (ie. storage with latching doors)
- Not enough linear feet of counter space
And this list is just the beginning. There could be hundreds of items on your local inspector’s list.
You can see why some new food truck owners would opt to continue serving without a valid permit. But this comes with risks too if you’re caught. For instance, the Los Angeles Health Department has the authority to revoke any and all health permits your business already possesses and bar you from applying for any new permits for one year… effectively shutting down your business.
Don’t get suckered by a Craigslist or Ebay ad that’s too good to be true. Talk to your local government about their food truck requirements before buying. Still confused? Contact a reputable food truck builder for guidance. Any reputable food truck manufacturer will be able to advise what you will need to pass your local health department inspection.
- What is the vehicle type, age and mileage?
It may sound obvious, but your mobile kitchen is built on the back of a vehicle chassis. Unless you’re planning to leave your food truck in the same place or have it towed (in which case you should buy a food trailer) the fate of your business is tied to the reliability of your vehicle.
The best option is a food truck built on a brand new vehicle. New vehicles come with 3-year to 5-year factory warranties and are way less likely to break down than older, used vehicles. They can also be easily financed.
But if a new vehicle chassis is out of your budget, there are a few things to consider before buying a used vehicle.
First up, vehicle type. Food trucks can be built on a wide variety of vehicles. The most popular type is the FedEx style “stepvan”. It has that boxy, angular look that food trucks are famous for. Other types you might see are sprinter vans, trolleys, ambulances, or buses.
Stepvans are common. Some of the others, like trolleys, are not. This means that even basic trolley parts may not be stocked or available at all. And it may be harder or more expensive to find a mechanic to keep a trolley in running order. What does this boil down to?
The weirder the vehicle, the more it will probably cost to repair.
Let’s talk about age next. Even if your food truck model was common back in the day, you might have the same problems with an old vehicle. No reputable food truck builder will recommend buying a stepvan that’s more than 20 years old. But, what about that cool vintage vehicle you’ve got your eye on? While vintage food trucks might get a little more attention that boosts sales, the increased mechanical trouble you’ll likely encounter probably won’t be worth it.
Last thing to consider is mileage. Stepvans are meant to be driven into the ground and often last 250,000 miles or more. Even so, the likelihood of an engine rebuild or transmission replacement goes up exponentially as the vehicle ages. And once a big ticket item like this has been replaced, breakdowns become even more common, not less.
So how much do food truck repairs cost? A major repair for a late model stepvan may cost you $4,000 – $12,000. Double this estimate for a very weird or very old vehicle. And while this cost hurts, it pales in comparison to the $7,000 – $35,000 in lost revenue for every week your truck is in the shop.
Our recommendation is to spend a little more now (maybe $10,000 – $30,000) for a food truck with a newer chassis. Look for options that are:
- Built on a common step van chassis
- Less than 10 years old
- Less than 120,000 miles
Once you’ve narrowed down the best options you can afford, have a mechanic do a bumper to bumper inspection before you buy.
As you can see, budgeting for just the initial cost of repairs to get a truck up and running isn’t enough. You have to be realistic about the extra recurring costs built into choosing a weird, old, or high mileage food truck.
[Update] California has effectively outlawed medium duty diesel trucks that are 2010 or older. The CA DMV will not issue registration for these vehicles without a new CARB compliant engine. If you plan to operate a food truck in California , do not buy a diesel truck 2010 or older.
Warning: that there are many people trying to offload their old diesel food trucks to unsuspecting customers in California! If a deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Right now, diesel trucks that are 2011 or newer can 100% be registered in California. But that may not be true forever as California cracks down on polluting emissions. To protect your business and the resale value of your truck from future legislation, consider going with a gas fueled truck no matter the year.
- Is the kitchen equipment quality?
You’ve determined that the vehicle chassis of the used food truck is in good repair – great! Let’s move onto the kitchen. Can you tell from videochat or an in person inspection if:
- The kitchen looks clean overall? Just like buying a used car, attention to cleanliness is a good sign that the food truck was properly maintained.
- Equipment works as expected when the food truck has power? Ie. fridges cool, burners light, fryer oil heats, etc
- There’s any major damage or rusting on the exterior or interior of the appliances?
- Rubber seals and gaskets are missing or damaged?
- The generator has less than 5000 hours of run time?
- There’s no sign of water leaks from any of the visible plumbing
If everything looks okay so far, the next step is to get a list of all the equipment model numbers and serial numbers. There are a few ways to get this info:
- Ask the owner. They might have kept the health department applications, equipment manuals, or equipment invoices. The owner should also maintain a log sheet of the maintenance done on the generator, vehicle and kitchen equipment.
- Ask a food truck builder or restaurant equipment supply company. Pros are so familiar with food truck equipment that they can often rattle off model numbers from photos. If you can talk to the original builder, even better.
- Physically look for equipment tags – Tags with model and serial number information are usually attached to commercial equipment. Some or all numbers might be accessible.
- Research it yourself – Try to find at least a manufacturer name or logo. Then use the internet to search for models that match the look of the equipment in question. Double check details like dimensions against published specification sheets to help you narrow down options.
So why are we going to all this trouble? Well, let’s talk about serial numbers first.
If you can find serial number info, you can reach out to the manufacturer to see if the equipment is still under manufacturer’s warranty. Good quality equipment will often come with a 1-year to 5-year warranty. Even good quality equipment breaks often on a food truck. An equipment warranty can add up to significant savings when the manufacturer assumes the cost of repairs.
Next up, model numbers. Model numbers will tell you whether the used appliances you’re about to buy are NSF certified.
All NSF listed equipment goes through rigorous testing to determine that it meets quality, safety and sanitation standards. In many places, some or all equipment on the food truck must be NSF certified to pass a health inspection.
Does your local health department require and enforce NSF certification? If so, factor in the cost of replacing any needed equipment into the cost of your used truck purchase. Equipment swaps can be cheap and fast, expensive and time-consuming, or downright impossible depending on the work needed. Avoid nasty surprises by getting a quote from a professional food truck builder before you buy.
For instance, here’s cost of swapping out an NSF model fridge for the exact same NSF model fridge:
- $2000 – 8000 for the fridge model
- $150 – $750 for fridge installation by a pro food truck manufacturer
- $1000 – $5000 for one day of lost revenue caused by downtime.
But what if that fridge has a six week manufacturing lead time before it arrives? Surprise! Suddenly you’re looking at:
- $2000 – 8000 for the fridge model
- $150 – $750 for fridge installation by a pro food truck manufacturer
- $42,000 – $210,000 in lost revenue caused by that 6 week delay
Also, not all appliances are created equal (even if they are NSF listed). A cheap refrigerator now will lead to spoiled food and expensive repair bills later.
Bottom Line? Invest the time to know exactly what equipment you’re getting for your money so it doesn’t cost way more in the long run.
- Does the kitchen layout work for your menu?
This is yet another invaluable ingredient when it comes to choosing the right options for your food truck. After all, this is where you’re going to put in a lot of work. You want a setup that facilitates a sensible workflow, and tools that fit your cuisine.
Take some time to think through the steps to cook all the different items you want to make. Which appliances do you need to make your food? Which would make sense next to one another? If you need to put food under a warmer directly after removing it from the grill, chances are you don’t want the warmer at the front of your truck and the grill in back.
A poor layout might have dozens of these small inefficiencies. Over the course of the day, they add up to tons of wasted time and energy. If you’ve never worked in a commercial kitchen, you might be asking yourself “Who cares if I’m a little inefficient at cooking if I can save $15,000 now?”
The most profitable trucks aren’t the ones that have a line. They’re the ones that don’t have a line because they can feed people fast.
Let’s say that the correct layout and equipment helps you serve every order in less than one minute, you can make five times more revenue than a food truck that spends five minutes per order. Five times more! The cost of a bad mobile kitchen layout vs a good one are very real.
Don’t buy a food truck where the layout and the type of appliances don’t make sense for your menu. Instead, consider spending the extra $15,000 to buy that higher quality used burger truck if you’re planning to make burgers… if it will pass health inspection.
How is $100,000 for a custom food truck designed to make you more money, cost less in repairs, and pass health inspection sounding now? Well hold on, because there’s one more used food truck question. And it might be the most important.
- Was it built by a reputable food truck manufacturer?
Building, selling, or importing a vehicle into the US requires a license. However, adding a food truck kitchen to an existing vehicle does not require any special license or certification. This means that anybody can call themselves a food truck manufacturer.
Without any required certification or federally standardized codes, food truck quality and safety varies wildly across our great nation!
That leaves you, your local health department, and the food truck builder to make important decisions about whether the food truck is safe and built to last. Buying a food truck built by a reputable company can mean the difference between an unprofitable food truck or worse… a truck that can injure yourself and others.
Here’s our short list of features that some builders and your health department might consider “optional” that shouldn’t be.
Fire Safety – If built properly, food trucks are very safe. However, food trucks can and do explode. Don’t compromise on keeping you and others safe.
- Is there a hooded exhaust system over all hot equipment?
- Is an overhead fire suppression system (ANSUL) installed?
- Are propane tanks mounted securely to either the underside of the truck or on the tongue of the trailer?
- Is there a gas safety valve at the propane tank?
- Was the correct gauge electrical wire used?
- Are there two emergency exits?
Food Safety – Even if your local health department doesn’t require it, you likely want to avoid cooking in a kitchen that stinks, breeds bacteria, and makes your customers sick.
- Are appliances commercial grade (not residential)?
- Are all exterior openings sealed or screened off to prevent rats, cockroaches and flies from entering?
- Are finished surfaces made from food safe materials like stainless steel that can be sanitized?
- Are all gaps between or behind counters and equipment sealed to prevent spills that can’t be reached?
- Does the flooring curve up to become the toe kick eliminating hard to clean under cabinets and equipment?
Durability – A mobile kitchen should last for thirty years if properly built.
- How are the materials holding up to wear and cleaning products?
- Are parts that need replacement over time, like leaky plumbing fittings, easy and cheap to replace. Or are they inside of walls and impossible to get to?
- Do fridges have exterior vents to extend their life?
- Is the generator power load balanced (half on one side of the truck and half on the other) to extend the generator’s life?
- Were enough fasteners used to keep the truck together as it flexes and vibrates on the road?
Hopefully this guide has revealed that used food trucks suffer from many costly problems that new, custom food trucks don’t.
The question is, what will you do with this information? Will you use these hidden costs to create a better budget for your mobile business? Will you use the checklists to help you purchase the best quality used food truck or new food truck you can afford?
Whether you buy a used food truck or a new, custom food truck from a manufacturer, choose wisely. Buying a food truck is a big decision. Making a smart investment now will affect how profitable your business will be later.
Ready to talk to a reputable food truck builder about buying a used food truck or new food truck? Firefly Fabrication is a nationwide manufacturer of custom food trucks, food trailers and food carts. We also offer full service repairs on used food trucks. Call Firefly today at (323) 524-0078 for a free quote.