While food trucks are synonymous with street food, there are actually many different ways to make money with your mobile kitchen. Private parties, corporate lunches and weddings are one of the most profitable formats for catering trucks if done right. Follow this guide to learn how to cater with a food truck.
Why Cater with a Food Truck
At its best, catering is a super efficient use of your time because it reduces uncertainty. When structured correctly, catering allows you to know exactly:
- How much money you’ll make during a food truck service
- How much food to buy for that service
- How many staff to hire for that service
But many food trucks don’t treat catering any differently than other types of food truck services such as street vending or events. Instead of charging the host upfront, food trucks often agree to collect from the host after all the food is served. Or even worse, they just allow individual party guests to pay for whatever they order. This is a huge, missed opportunity that increases your risk and leaves money on the table.
If you’re making any of these mistakes, don’t respond to another food truck lead before reading this article! Follow these steps to start booking super-profitable private party catering with your food truck today.
1. Negotiate with the Party Host
If a host has asked you to cater their party or corporate gathering, you have some leverage. Things you can and should negotiate with the host in advance are:
- A smaller, streamlined menu for guests to choose from so you can serve people faster (2 – 5 menu items max)
- The price per serving (or per guest)
- The maximum number of servings you’ll provide (ie. up to 100)
- The maximum amount of time your truck will be serving guests at the party (up to 2 hours is standard, but the time may depend on how quickly your food truck can make the required number of servings)
- The exact truck arrival, service start, service end, and departure times
- Whether guests will be allowed to order more than one menu item and risk other guests not receiving any food
- Whether the host wants you to cut service when the maximum number of servings is hit or continue to serve guests knowing they will owe you more money for the extra servings
- Any mileage charge, service fee and/or gratuity
- How, when, and by whom you will be paid
- Whether bathrooms, power, or any other infrastructure will be provided by the host
Don’t be afraid to set clear expectations that ensure the event is profitable for your business. And remember, if the host is asking you to go above and beyond what is standard, you can always charge them extra. Just make sure you’re able to explain why if they ask.
Once everything is negotiated, make sure to get it in writing. A quote or contract signed by both parties is best.
2. Enforce a Catering Minimum for Your Food Truck
Many hosts will ask you to cater a small party with only a few dozen guests. For these situations, it’s important to consider the minimum amount you need to charge to make a small event profitable for your truck.
For instance, your ice cream truck may normally charge $7 per person for a single scoop of ice cream. If the guest count is only 20 people, the host may expect you to come serve at their event for only $140. But $140 probably won’t cover your cost for ingredients, staffing, gas, and overhead, let alone allow you to turn a profit. Instead, your ice cream truck’s catering minimum might be $500 or more.
Since the most important thing to the host is that you will 100% show up when they need you, it’s important that you charge enough to make it worth your while to commit to be at their party.
The most important factor in determining the right catering minimum amount should be your opportunity cost. How much could you reasonably expect to make during that same day and time if you were serving somewhere else? This is the absolute minimum you should charge for any catering.
Also, catering minimums fluctuate. Is your truck in higher demand during the summer than in the winter? Do you need to charge more on weekends vs weekdays? Did your truck get some good press and is suddenly really popular? Your minimum should take into consideration any factor that affects demand for your truck.
The trick in these situations is to help small party hosts feel like they’re getting more value for their money to avoid sticker shock. Tactics may include offering the hosts’ guests “all you can eat” (within a two hour service window), extra menu choices, serving more premium items, adding an extra hour of service time, or some other bonus. Ideal options add minimal cost to you, but create value for your host.
3. Take a Deposit
Remember, the host is asking you to pass up all other opportunities and guarantee that you will be at their event. Don’t settle for trying to collect from the client .
Paying a deposit ensures you won’t be out of pocket on hard costs like food and fuel. But it’s also a sign of good faith and helps ensure that your customer is serious. It’s unreasonable for a host to demand that you commit to their catering date and not be willing to pay a deposit to secure that date. If the host refuses to pay a deposit, it may be a red flag that they won’t be willing, or able, to pay you in full for your services.
So how much should you charge for a deposit? A good rule of thumb is to require a deposit at the time of booking equal to 50% of the total value of the catering.
Should the deposit be refundable? One way to think about refunds is to consider how long it would take you to book another event for that same time slot if the host canceled.
If you can afford to be generous, you may want to consider making the deposit partially refundable if the catering is canceled, say, one month or more before the event, then non refundable if canceled after that date. If the host does cancel one month before, that still gives you plenty of time to book a comparable event AND you still get to keep part of the deposit.
4. Show Up on Time and Ready to Cater with a Food Truck
If you were hosting a party, which would be most important to you? A truck that serves the best food, but is one hour late or a truck that serves pretty good food, but actually shows up on time?
Of course, events like weddings are on a schedule. Most hosts prefer the truck that shows up on time.
The world is full of food trucks that talk a big game, but don’t follow through. Being on time, prepared for the service, and delivering what has been agreed upon will drive positive reviews of your business. In no time, you’ll build a reputation as the reliable food truck in your town. This will give you a leg up on your no-show competition.
Once you’ve perfected catering regular parties like birthdays and corporate lunches, try expanding to wedding catering. At $2,000 to $8,000 for a single 2-3 hour entree service, food truck catering is more lucrative than a standard service. And from the hosts point of view, food truck catering is still cheaper than traditional plated catering. It’s a win-win!
Ready to book more private catering?
Luckily there are lots of ways to get more private catering leads:
- Advertise that your truck is available to cater private parties on your food truck wrap, website, and social media channels.
- Set up a referral relationship with other food truckers that you know and trust. You can recommend them for caterings that you’re not available for and vice versa.
- Become a preferred vendor for local event venues
- Join your local food truck association. They regularly send catering and event requests to their members.
- If ads are too complicated, create a catering vendor profile on sites like The Knot, WeddingWire, Zola, Roaming Hunger, and Thumbtack that connect food vendors to party hosts.
- Run local Google Ads, Facebook Ads or Instagram Ads using keywords like “food truck catering” or “food truck party”.
First, start with the free or cheap marketing options. Once you’ve nailed down how to profitably cater every event and still need more events to fill your calendar, start investing in the paid marketing options.
So should you cater with a food truck?
Yes! If you’ve run a food truck for more than a couple months, you’ll know that it can be hard to predict whether a street service or event will be profitable. Many food truck owners simply make their best guess and hope that enough people show up to buy enough food to be profitable that day.
But, everything about a private party catering a party can be negotiated in advance with the host. This all but guarantees that every catering will make you a boatload of cash… as long as you show up and deliver.
And, the cherry on top? You get to use the customer’s deposit to buy supplies so you’re never out of pocket!
Ready to invest in a custom food truck or food trailer that will be a catering cash cow? Firefly manufactures the world’s best custom food trucks, food trailers and carts. Located in Los Angeles, California, our fabrication facility is a one-stop shop to design, build, wrap, and repair your mobile business. Contact Firefly today at (323) 524-0078 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for a free quote.