What It's Like to Start a Food Truck in the Bay Area

ByLauren Smith

“Wait, you do this every day?” asks the well-kept woman.

“Yup, this is what I do – this is my job,” responds one of our patient employees.

“Really? Every day? This is your job? You do this every day? How cute!” she responds.

This is not the first time I’ve heard this question in my tenure on a food truck. If I were walking by the truck and saw several twenty-somethings laughing in their grease-stained jeans and vintage t-shirts, I too would assume that theirs were not real jobs. However, behind this visage of fun, quirky energy exists a real business involving veritable strategy, skill, and passion.

Over the past year, my business partner, Zak Silverman, and I have built a restaurant on wheels, Doc’s of the Bay, with minimal capital investment and little-to-no formal business training. As two liberal arts college grads, we assumed that we could just figure it out, and, indeed, we’ve had no choice but to do so. We now have four employees and countless responsibilities ranging from cleaning out the deep fryer to speaking at City Council meetings. We pay payroll and sales taxes, rent on a commercial kitchen, and insurance premiums just like our immobile counterparts. Contrary to popular belief, we don’t roam aimlessly around the Bay Area seeking places to park and peddle our gourmet American comfort food, but have a consistent weekly schedule based on educated decisions that take environmental factors and economic principles into account.

Social media is crucial to ensuring that these decisions result in sales. We use Twitter to tell customers where we will be on a given day, receive feedback, and communicate with patrons and peers. Facebook serves as a comprehensive place for us to promote events and other local businesses as well as post press coverage. Yelp drives a lot of customers to our truck and we have been fortunate to receive very positive reviews there. Social media tethers members of our community to our mobile business wherever we may be.

Our customer base is both loyal and diverse. The vast majority of our business is conducted during the lunch hour Monday through Friday (we also serve the late-night bar crowd in the Mission once a week) and many customers come for lunch every week. Our lunchtime crowd includes construction workers, hip techies in skinny jeans, Zegna-clad hedge fund managers, and everyone in between. Food trucks appeal to a diverse clientele because they’re quirky, convenient, and reasonably priced. We enable people to have a new dining experience and feel like they’re “in the know” due to the industry’s nascence and heavy reliance on social media. We’re also more responsive than most brick-and-mortars: If demand changes, we’ll conform to supply it.

What hungry consumers demand is the high-quality, thoughtfully-sourced food that we provide. One reason for this push is exposure of the ills of agribusiness and industrial food processing in the early 2000’s by authors like Michael Pollan. However, eating organically and locally has been hip in the Bay Area for many decades. Thanks in part to Chez Panisse, the famous farm-to-table Berkeley restaurant started by Alice Waters, and its contemporaries, Berkeley has long been the nexus of conscientiousness about local sourcing, the use of pesticides, and seasonal eating. Americans have begun to care about where their food comes from, and now people of all ages and political stripes are beginning to demand to know what’s in the food that they’re eating.

Food trucks are no exception to this rule. The vast majority of Bay Area food trucks of the gourmet ilk use only high-quality ingredients because consumers and owners alike demand it. Once considered unclean, low-brow and known only for serving tacos, food trucks have become widely accepted as a viable (and often preferred) alternative to sit-down restaurants. One reason for this is increased publicity of the legal processes through which food trucks must go in order to operate; we must be inspected and permitted by municipal authorities according to the same standards as any brick-and-mortar restaurant. Assimilation is most important contributor to the shift: A person feels adventurous and tries one food truck, she has a great meal, tells her friends, and then patronizes more trucks. With so many talented young chefs and/or entrepreneurs using food trucks as the conduit for executing their culinary visions, the former “roach coach” reputation of food trucks has all but disappeared.

The food truck world is fun, yet surprisingly complex, replete with bureaucratic hurdles, competition, and great people. Over the course of several years, it has transformed from its lonchera (or lunch truck) roots to become one of the hottest trends in the food industry. Though it hasn’t always been easy, we’ve been thrilled to contribute to this movement, one locally-made, organic dill pickle chip at a time.

Yes, this really is my job.

Facebook: Doc’s of the Bay

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