If a cheap food truck looks too good to be true, it probably is. Unfortunately, there are lots of food truck scams selling a mobile kitchen on sites like Craigslist, Ebay and Alibaba. And even reputable custom food truck manufacturers can accidentally (or intentionally!) screw you.
Firefly hates to see food truck entrepreneurs get taken advantage of. We’ve put together a breakdown of the ways we’ve seen people get scammed plus how you can avoid them.
Used food truck scams
The first group of scammers are people trying to sell used food trucks. While not all used food sellers are scammers, there are many ways that sellers can exploit inexperienced buyers.
First, let’s look at the condition of a food truck. Just like buying a used car, it’s easy to buy a used food truck that has hidden mechanical issues. Also, unless you have experience working in a kitchen, it may be difficult to spot whether appliances are good quality or are in good condition.
But, maybe you found that unicorn food truck that’s in perfect, used condition. Unfortunately, it’s still possible to end up with a food truck or food trailer that you can’t actually use.
Why? Well, food truck regulations are complex and confusing. There are no federal standards for food trucks. This means that states and cities get to determine the laws governing building and operating a food truck. And, unfortunately, those laws are different everywhere.
For instance, food truck buyers probably don’t know that 2010 and older, medium duty diesel trucks can’t be registered in California. Or that food trucks in Washington DC can’t be longer than 18.5 feet. Or that Denver will reject any mobile food facility with more than 40 lbs of propane storage. Vast areas of the American South have almost no food truck building code regulations. Meanwhile, Los Angeles food trucks must undergo an intense application and inspection process before being permitted to serve.
Scammers capitalize on all this confusion to unload used food trucks and concession trailers that won’t work onto unsuspecting buyers.
New custom food truck scams
The second group of people who might try to scam you is, sadly, food truck manufacturers.
It might surprise you to learn that there are absolutely no certifications, minimum education, or training required to build mobile kitchens. Anyone can legally call themselves a food truck manufacturer.
The first scam you should avoid is buying a new food truck or food trailer manufactured in another country, especially China. These are often sold on sites like Ebay and Alibaba. While cute and cheap, these food trucks and trailers are scams. They are rarely built to NHTSA and DOT standards (even if they claim to be) and probably won’t have a VIN. That means you won’t be able to register your new food truck at the DMV, drive it on public roads, or get auto insurance. Also, imported food trucks and food trailers frequently exclude hidden freight, customs, and port fees, come with missing parts, and are poorly made.
But, let’s assume that the food truck is made in America by a custom food truck manufacturer using a vehicle with a VIN. You can still get scammed. Because there are no national standards, a food truck builder in one area may not know the building code or permit requirements for a mobile kitchen in another area.
For instance, Firefly often receives requests to “fix” brand new food trucks built by competitors that failed inspection. And it’s not limited to cheap, used food trucks either. We’ve seen expensive, competitor food trucks that cost $250,000 fail!
Sometimes it makes financial sense for Firefly to make the repairs needed to pass inspection for these customers. But usually we have to break terrible news to these new food truck owners: It would be cheaper for them to sell the food truck they just bought and start over again.
Sure, some food truck manufacturers may be genuinely ignorant of the rules surrounding food trucks. But most probably aren’t.
And even if your food truck or trailer passes inspection, is it safe? Food trucks can be dangerous to you and the public if built incorrectly.
Finally, what about repairability? Will the food truck be cheap and easy to fix when things break? Does the food truck manufacturer offer a warranty that shows they stand behind their work?
Make sure you don’t get scammed. If you’re thinking about building a custom food truck, choose a custom food truck builder that you trust.
Food Truck Scams to Avoid
Some ways people get scammed are specific to food trucks while others are just plain old fraud. Here are 7 ways that Firefly has seen people get scammed when buying a food truck:
- Fails Inspection. You were guaranteed that the food truck will pass inspection, pay up to $250,000 for it, and it still fails. Your kitchen must meet hundreds of local codes. Even if the builder is willing to repair it, they may be thousands of miles away which costs you time and money. Firefly hasn’t had a truck fail inspection since 2019.
- Your Money is Stolen. You paid for a mobile kitchen, but you never received it. Whether it’s an Ebay scammer based in China or a “backyard builder” here in the States, it’s surprisingly common.
- Bait and Switch. You get a substantially different food truck than expected. This can include receiving lower quality equipment, inferior materials or a completely empty shell with no cooking or refrigeration equipment at all.
- Not Street Legal. This is almost 100% true of international sellers on Ebay and Alibaba. If the food truck doesn’t meet the USA’s DOT and NHTSA requirements, you won’t be able to register it at your DMV, legally drive or tow it on public roads, or get auto insurance.
- The Kitchen Doesn’t Turn On. Maybe it’s a leaking plumbing fixture in the wall shorting out the electrical system. The cost of removing everything from the food truck to open up the walls and find out, then fixing and reinstalling everything is more expensive than what you paid to build the food truck in the first place.
- It’s Straight Up Dangerous. Your safety is not optional. People have died in food truck fires and explosions due to unsafe building practices. Look for builders that include a fire suppression system (ANSUL), two fire exits, undermount propane tanks, tempered safety glass, and propane hoses designed for vehicles.
- No Warranty. Most food truck fabricators don’t offer a warranty let alone include it for free with every build. Why aren’t they willing to stand behind their product?
Every new build comes with a Firefly Warranty
Your success is our success. We stand behind our work with an industry-leading, 2-year warranty on every new build so you can spend more time connecting with customers and less time in the shop.
Why do food truck scams work?
There are a few things that make food truck buyers more likely targets for a scam.
- People who buy food trucks are often ready to invest their life savings into a new food truck or food trailer business. This attracts scammers looking for a big payout.
- Food trucks make a great entry-level business which means that the industry naturally attracts people who have no experience buying a food truck or food trailer.
- The regulations surrounding building and operating a mobile kitchen are complex and vary wildly from place to place. Scammers capitalize on the confusion around food trucks and often sell a food truck to a buyer that they know won’t work.
- Food trucks are inherently mobile. They can cross both national and state borders. This means food truck buyers can unwittingly buy a food truck that won’t be allowed to operate in their area.
- Customers think food trucks or food trailers are interchangeable commodities that they can price shop online. But big differences in safety, condition, equipment, layout, age, quality, repairability, warranties, ability to permit, etc make them impossible to compare on cost alone.
How can you avoid being a target of food truck scams?
Do your research
Look up the local food truck permit regulations in your area. Reach out to the authority that permits food trucks in your area (often your local health department) to ask questions and get more info. Learn if there is a plan check process to get your food truck pre-approved before the final inspection.
Get a vehicle inspection
Bring a mechanic friend with you when buying or pay a truck mechanic shop to inspect the condition of the vehicle.
If you’re looking at a used food truck, have the seller turn on all the equipment in the mobile kitchen. Are they commercial grade and UL listed or NSF approved? Do they function? Are they clean and well maintained? Do all appliances get to the required temperature? Ask the seller for any appliance receipts, and get brand names, model numbers and serial numbers of the kitchen equipment. You’ll want to research the reputation and quality of the equipment and find out whether any equipment is still under warranty.
What is the interior build quality, repairability and durability like? Are there sharp edges? Does the electrical work? Are there gaps anywhere behind, between, or under surfaces that will be hard to clean? Can you reach all the fittings in case of leaks?
Also, check out the generator as it’s often the most expensive piece of equipment on a food truck. Does it even come with a generator? How many kilowatts of power is it supposed to generate? Does it run? How many generator hours does it have? When was the last time the oil was changed? Is it loud? Will it need to be replaced soon?
And of course, take lots of pictures of everything! While it might be tempting to buy on the spot, hold off until you’ve spoken with a food truck builder.
Get a quote for repairs or changes before you buy
Next, talk to a reputable food truck manufacturer for a second opinion on any used food truck before you buy. If you have good photos, a knowledgeable food truck builder can point out any issues and put together a quote to fix them.
You also might want to get a comparison quote while you’re at it. A custom food truck may not be as expensive as you think. For instance, Firefly offers a fully-loaded, 14’ food trailer for only $57,000… we call it our “Workhorse Trailer” since it’s built to last 30+ years.
Find a food truck manufacturer that you trust
A used or new food truck or trailer is the single biggest investment you will make in your mobile food business. Choosing the wrong food truck manufacturer might mean you don’t get a working mobile kitchen at all.
So how do you find a trusted food truck manufacturer?
Only seek out food truck manufacturers that stand behind their work with a warranty. After you do your own research, make sure the food truck builder can answer all of your questions knowledgeably. Tour their facility to review that quality of the food trucks being built there. Finally, they should include a guarantee that your food truck will pass local inspection (and what happens if it doesn’t) in a written contract signed by both parties.
How Firefly can help you buy a food truck
It’s always heartbreaking for the team at Firefly to hear about a new food truck owner who spent their life savings on a food truck that they can’t use. So, whether you’re considering a used food truck or a new custom build, get a second opinion on any food truck or food trailer from Firefly before you buy.
Working with Firefly could mean the difference between getting a great food truck and not getting a food truck at all.
Want to get a second opinion on your catering truck or concession trailer purchase? Firefly is more than the world’s best custom food truck manufacturer. We’ll help you make the best choice for your business… even if that means you don’t buy a mobile kitchen from us. Contact Firefly today at (323) 524-0078 to talk to a food truck or food trailer expert.