Food truck festivals and events are perceived by many catering trucks and concession trailers as exciting, high value opportunities that should never be passed up. But not all events are profitable for a mobile food vendor. Are you starting a food truck business or are an existing food truck owner that thinks events are a waste of time? This comprehensive guide breaks down how to spot and book only the best food truck events.
First off, what is a food truck festival or event?
Food truck commissaries are abuzz every morning discussing which food trucks have events that day. But when food truck owners talk about “events”, what does that actually mean?
For the purposes of this article, an event is any gathering where people will be paying for their own food. These events can be ticketed, require RSVP, or be free to the public. Some food truckers also refer to private party catering as events, but food truck catering can and should be treated completely differently. Check out our article about food truck catering to learn more.
Some event types food trucks can book include:
- Music Festivals
- Sporting Events
- Food Festivals
- Food Truck Rallies
- Community Events
- Nonprofit Events
What do “good” food truck festivals or events look like?
Profitable ones for starters!
Maybe you’re willing to take a loss to participate in an event for marketing purposes or bragging rights… but probably not. Most food truck businesses can’t afford to work an event that doesn’t turn a profit. And experienced food truckers know that one of the hardest things to predict is whether a festival or event will be profitable or not. Why is that?
First off, many event organizers expect you to commit your valuable time, staff, and inventory with no guarantee that you will actually make any money. Secondly, many events require that you pay them a fee for the privilege of selling to the crowds they bring together. And third, it’s difficult to predict how many people will actually eat from your food truck at an event. This uncertainty makes events a riskier option than other types of services like pre-paid catering where a host pays in advance for their guests’ meals.
Luckily we’ve compiled seven key questions you can ask every event organizer to to figure out if attending their event will be good for your business. The goal of these questions is to help you accurately predict how many people will actually eat from your truck during the event. First up:
1. How many people will attend the event?
With the exception of food festivals, a good rule of thumb is to expect that only 10% of attendees will eat from food vendors at an event lasting a couple hours. That means for every 500 attendees, only about 50 people will eat anything at a non-food focused event.
Because this percentage is so low, it’s important to get to the bottom of how many attendees will actually show up.
So just ask the event organizer, right? Well, asking the organizer for an estimate is a good start. However, many event organizers provide a very optimistic number of attendees they’re hoping for, not an accurate number of how many will actually be there.
For this reason, asking the event organizer for the number of confirmed RSVPs or tickets sold can be a more powerful indicator of how many people will actually attend the event. If the event has been around for a while, you can also ask to see historical data of past attendance or ticket sales.
But what if it’s a first time event? First time events are the most risky for a couple of reasons:
- There’s no attendance history to go on. instead you’re relying only on the event organizer’s word
- People just haven’t heard about it yet. The “1st Annual Music Fest” is bound to have fewer attendees than the “20th Annual Music Fest” because it hasn’t had enough time to become a popular event that everyone knows and loves.
That’s not to say that first time events can’t be great for your business. They absolutely can! It can just be harder to identify profitable first time events in advance. Be wary and make sure to ask the event organizer even more questions.
2. Will attendees need to eat at the event?
A big “Yes” to this question can push that 10% rule of thumb up to 100%. There are several bonus questions you can ask that will help you get to the heart of whether this answer is a “Yes” or a “No”:
- How long will the average attendee stay? Even if the event lasts all day, if people are only expected to drop by for an hour then leave, it will be easy for them to eat before or after the event.
- Are attendees likely to be at the event during meal times? An all-day event that spans one or more meal times is the best bet.
- Does the event offer In and out privileges? A captive audience that can’t leave the event without giving up their ticket will be much more likely to eat from food vendors at the event.
3. How many food vendors will be at the event?
Even if 100% of attendees need to eat at the event, that doesn’t guarantee that they will eat from your food truck.
In an effort to reduce lines and wait time for guests, event organizers will often try to book way more food vendors than the event can support. While this may be great for the organizer and attendees, it makes for a very unprofitable event for you.
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4. What types of food will the other food vendors sell?
Both savvy event organizers and food truck operators know exactly which food sells best at certain types of events.
For instance, at a street carnival with a lot of families, food vendors selling kid-friendly food like chicken fingers, corn dogs, grilled cheese and ice cream cones might do well. At an upscale golf tournament, lobster rolls, protein bowls, coffee, and smoothies might be best sellers.
And even if there are only two vendors at an event, it’s important that there is no overlap in food type. (Ie. two taco trucks or two Greek food vendors). Attendees like variety so all food vendors will sell more if you aren’t selling the same type of food. The only exception to this rule might be an event where the draw is a specific cuisine type (ie. a Taco Festival or Greek Street Fair).
5. Do attendees have to pay to get into the event?
Attendees who pay for a ticket are usually more committed to going than if there is no ticketing process. This usually equates to higher attendance and more potential customers for you.
Also, the fact that attendees already shelled out for the cost of the ticket means they have some disposable income. Hopefully they splurge on eating from your food truck.
6. Is the event organizer charging you to be there?
This is a big one. It might surprise you to learn that many event organizers expect to be paid back a portion of the money you make at their event.
Event organizers charging 10% – 15% of sales is normal. 40% is extremely high and is only appropriate for the biggest and most profitable events.
Whatever the fees, you should absolutely plan to pass that cost on to your customers by temporarily increasing your menu prices. Most customers expect to pay higher food prices at events and won’t question your price increases.
Also, if the event organizer has taken a percentage of vendors’ profits at past events, they should have a record of how much money each vendor made. Many organizers will provide this info to food vendors if asked. This data can provide incredible insight into how much your food truck can expect to make at the event if you attend.
And finally, some event organizers simply charge a flat fee regardless of how much money you make. On the surface, this may look like a great deal. But be wary of this arrangement. While event organizers who take a percentage of your profits will be incentivised to help you sell more food, those who charge a flat fee won’t care whether you earn a cent. This apathy can lead to you and the event organizer being in conflict instead of everyone working together towards the common goal of increasing food sales.
7. What happens if there’s bad weather?
Food trucks are perfect for outdoor events under beautiful blue skies. But too much heat, humidity, rain or cold can drastically reduce event turnout.
Make sure to discuss if there are any contingencies for bad weather with the event organizer. Can they provide tents at the last minute? Or heaters? Will the organizer refund your fees if the event is canceled? Can you cancel without penalty if you can’t make it to the event due to weather?
Try your best to anticipate and protect yourself from foul weather literally raining on your parade. It can be the difference between a packed event full of customers and a packed fridge full of wasted food.
8. How long does your food truck have to stay at the event?
Food trucks usually need to serve about 40- 60 people per hour during a lunch or dinner service to be profitable. So how long the event organizer is requiring you to stay will impact your bottom line.
For instance, let’s say that attendees are gathering at a local park for a free Shakespeare performance. Can you simply drop by as people are arriving, serve for 30 minutes, then move on to a busier service location?
Compare this scenario to a golf tournament where the event organizer expects your food truck to stay parked inside the country club grounds serving lunch and dinner for three days straight. For the golf tournament, you can’t just leave for greener pastures when people stop ordering.
If make a commitment, ensure that the event will be worth the amount of time your business and employees will be trapped on site. The event organizer also has a responsibility to make sure you have what you need on site to be successful.
9. Is the event organizer providing any infrastructure?
If the event will be all day, the organizer may provide standby power (so you don’t have to run your generator). If it’s a multi-day event, the organizer may provide services like wastewater pumping, fresh water refills, free ice, or cold storage to resupply your food truck.
These are all valuable services that cost the organizer money and may save you some money. Make sure to ask about event infrastructure and factor it into your decision of whether or not to attend.
What else can a food truck do to protect itself from unprofitable events?
If you’re not sure about the quality of the event, but don’t want to say “no”, ask the event organizer to guarantee a minimum.
How much would you make if you served somewhere else on that same day for the same length of time? This is called your opportunity cost. You can ask the event organizer to guarantee this amount as your minimum to attend their event.
Event organizers are often overconfident that their event will be profitable for all food vendors. A minimum guarantee asks them to put their money where their mouth is.
So how does a minimum guarantee work in practice? You track your sales receipts and report them to the organizer at the end of the event. If you don’t sell enough food to meet your minimum, the event organizer guarantees to pay you the difference. If you sell more than the minimum, the organizer doesn’t need to pay anything or you potentially give them a percentage of the profit (depending on what you negotiate).
While this takes a little extra work on your end, like creating a contract and tracking your sales, it can make the difference between a profit and a loss for your business. This tactic is most effective for local events in your community that aren’t asking for your food truck to pay a big fee to attend.
Where do you find the best food truck festivals and events?
- Research events in your area on sites like Festivalnet, Eventbrite and Roaming Hunger and apply to be a vendor
- Advertise yourself! Try “Book our truck for your next event” on your food truck wrap, website, and social media channels.
- Become a preferred food vendor for local event venues. Event organizers will often go with the venue’s recommendations.
- Set up a referral relationship with other food truckers that you know and trust. You can recommend them for events that you’re not available for and vice versa. They might also share their good and bad experiences serving at various events.
- Join your local food truck association. They regularly send event requests to their members.
How can you book more food truck festivals and events?
If you want to participate in an event, making life easier for the event organizer is key. Here are some of the things that matter most to them:
- Make the event organizer a lot of money. Because many event organizers will be sharing in your profits, they are incentivized to choose the highest performing trucks. In their mind, there are only two questions that matter: Will people crave your food at the event? How fast can you make each dish? Do everything possible to maximize both.
- Be responsive and reliable. Return calls and show up when they expect you. It sounds simple, but many food trucks don’t take this aspect of their business seriously. Bailing on an event organizer a week before the event leaves them in a tough spot, especially if there are special permits they need to get. Not only will you not be invited back next time, but word may get around to other event organizers that you’re unreliable.
- Store digital copies of your business’ paperwork. When push comes to shove, event organizers will usually choose the vendors that are easiest to work with. Get ahead of your competition by storing digital copies of your current Certificate of Insurance (COI), Health Department Permit, Business License, Reseller’s Permit, food handling certificate, photos of your truck, etc. Offer to email them to the event organizer proactively. It’s also common to require names and even background checks on your staff for large ticketed events with more security.
- Maintain your food truck’s appearance. Of course, your truck’s appearance will affect sales. But event organizers are also concerned with how your food truck will look in event photos and video marketing. If you want to increase your chances to book quality events, keep your food truck wrap looking fresh and clean.
- Have a strong social media presence. Savvy event organizers may ask you to hype their event using your social media accounts. If you already have a strong following, your food truck might help to sell tickets or increase turnout. This can be valuable to everyone and put your truck at the top of an organizer’s list.
So which food truck festivals and events are best?
The ones that make your business money.
Be choosy about which events you book. Whether it’s knowingly or through ignorance, many event organizers overpromise and underdeliver to food vendors. It’s up to you to ask questions to try and ensure that every event will be profitable for your food truck business.
And remember, negotiation is always an option. If you think you have the upper hand, you should try to negotiate lower fees or a bigger minimum guarantee. Event organizers will make concessions for food vendors they really want to secure.
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