Restaurant or Food Truck: Which Is Better for a Beginner?

Author: Adrian Cordiner

Adrian Cordiner

Adrian Cordiner

7 min. read

Updated November 13, 2023

The days when food trucks were associated with grungy building sites and fried food at the fair are long gone. These flexible small business ventures are recognized as an exciting and viable option for foodies wanting to follow their dreams.

Generally considered a more affordable entry for beginners, the unique marketing and legislative challenges in the food truck environment can come as a surprise. Initial setup costs aside, opting for the more traditional brick-and-mortar store has some comparatively attractive benefits.

Developing your concept

So, everyone raves about your signature dish, and the desire to start your own food business has been burning for a while. Before you get started, a strong sense of your unique concept is essential.

Generating ideas will help you to focus on why you are starting a business, and it pays to take in the bigger picture before narrowing back to your strengths. The process of refining your idea will help with deciding whether you opt for a food truck or a restaurant.

This is where you should be asking yourself the big questions—such as what you’re looking for in a business. Running a business is as much a lifestyle choice as it is a career path, and the lifestyle that comes with running a food truck is very different from the lifestyle that comes with running a restaurant.

Food trucks have the benefit of mobility and moving to where the customers are; however, that also means that a lot more time is going to be spent in transit, or updating social media and chasing new catering opportunities. Restaurants might offer less flexibility, but if what you’re looking for is something with known hours and a regular customer base, then it is potentially a better choice.

Another thing to consider is what type of food you want to be serving—and how you imagine it will be enjoyed. The most successful food trucks have created a menu that can be easily eaten while standing up, without the need for separate plates and fiddly cutlery. Some foods require a controlled environment, and don’t lend themselves to this style of eating—think noodle soups and meals with lots of dishes designed to be shared.

A successful concept all depends on what you want to create.

How much do you have to invest?

Starting a restaurant from scratch on a shoestring can be done, but when the reclaimed tables you want are difficult to source and extraction fans cost more than expected, expenses can quickly spiral out of control. Investing in an established business can be prohibitive as you’re paying for stock and the existing client base. There’s also the ongoing overheads such as rent and power to consider.

In comparison, the costs associated with investing in a food truck and kitting it out are much more contained. When your pizzeria is on wheels there’s no need for furniture, cutlery, or crockery—though working within a smaller space physically limits the equipment you can carry.

If your product requires a lot of different types or large pieces of equipment, many food trucks choose to prepare their food off site at commercial kitchens. This will be an ongoing cost to consider.

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How steep is your learning curve?

The lower entry costs of a food truck make them a popular starting point for new business owners. They offer the opportunity to perfect your product without the same level of financial risk. One of the pioneers of the LA street food scene, Chef Roy Choi, was an established chef when he started his iconic food truck. He’s since expanded into restaurant venues that build on his signature style.

Opening a restaurant is a steep learning curve. The fact that you’re operating on a larger scale means there is less flexibility to make adjustments to your product and style. Because there are large sums of money tied up in overheads, staffing, and stock, the pressure on beginners to learn fast can be immense.

In this regard, starting small and building up can be the best way to become a better business owner. Not only will you experience running a business on a smaller scale, but a successful food truck relies on creating a strong brand and customer base, which will make it easier to translate into a fixed-location in the future if you wish.

Branding and marketing your big dream

Marketing is central to the success of any new business, but for a food truck owner, it takes center stage.

That unique brand vision you teased out earlier? It is now the difference between whether people talk about you as a must have experience or walk right by.

The physical location of a restaurant makes it easier to market because the signage and menu are visible even when it is closed. The tangible benefit of a restaurant is that it’s always where customers expect it to be.

You can work around this challenge by setting up a regular routine for your food truck business. Create a loyal following by making the experience memorable and ensuring that people know where to find you. Use social media and food truck tracking sites to really put your brand on the map. Restaurant owners still fight hard to be noticed in a crowded market, so marketing is one of the key skills that beginners should focus on either way.

Finding the right location

Where to set up shop is an important consideration for food truck and restaurant owners. For a restaurant owner, it can be a make or break decision, and once chosen, you’re stuck there. Putting the research into finding the right site is one of the first steps for anyone opening a new food outlet. If there isn’t a perfect site accessible, maybe a food truck is the right choice to start with.

The freedom to choose your location is the obvious benefit of a food truck. Why stay put if the customers aren’t rolling in? However, the temptation to move on can also be a downfall in the early days of trying to establish yourself. Customers will have a hard time coming again if they can’t plan around you and don’t know what to expect.

Keep a note of any city regulations that might restrict where, when, and for how long you can stay in any set location. Try to mix things up with a combination of set weekly locations and attendance at events, and encourage customers to follow your social media accounts—which you should be updating regularly with your location.

Don’t let licensing and regulations take you by surprise

The differing levels of licensing and legislation are what really sets these two choices apart. The evolving nature of the food truck scene means that governing bodies are trying to keep up. You will need to be dedicated to staying informed in this area as any change could impact your business.

Running a business that involves mobile food preparation, storage, and service requires different insurance and licensing. These can vary depending on your country, state, and city, so if you’re unsure about the information online, get in contact with your local governing body.

The cost and waiting times of permits and licenses often take many new truck owners by surprise, so be sure to look into the requirements and check in with the relevant authorities before putting down the deposit on your truck.

Opening a restaurant stands out as the simpler option in terms of established legislation and food safety approvals. Once approved for the required licenses and permits, keeping them up to date is relatively easy compared to a food truck. For a beginner, it is still wise to consult a lawyer for advice in negotiating lease agreements and making sure all regulations and licensing is covered.

The verdict?

A food truck opens up a broad market with the ability to literally go to the customer. It’s a great way for a beginner to hone ideas and build confidence. Mistakes have a lot less impact on a smaller business model, making it a resilient starting place. The wide scope of potential and the importance of marketing and social media can be exciting for some, but for others can be overwhelming if they value a level of predictability.

For those people, a restaurant in the right location can be a more stable and reliable business to run. The initial investment may be larger and the contracts longer, but with set hours and less red tape, the lifestyle it offers is more settled.

The choice between starting a food truck or fitting out your own establishment comes down to your skill set, budget, and personal preferences. Both routes will require planning, determination, and a clear vision to succeed.

Now that you’ve compiled a realistic list of pros and cons, get stuck into researching your local scene and writing a solid business plan. You’ll be feeding the masses in no time.

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Content Author: Adrian Cordiner

Adrian is a writer for Nisbets Australia and recently created a guide on how to start a mobile catering business. He is passionate about entrepreneurship, and with a background in business, marketing, and technology, he gets a lot out of making new discoveries and sharing what he's learned with the world.