Locked[FAQ]Starting a Hot Dog Cart Business, What Do I Do First?

Post
Matt Gleason
Health Inspector
2010/07/24 15:33:56
Welcome to Roadfood Professionals!
We’re glad you’re here.  You have just discovered one of the best resources on the web for restaurant professionals and those looking to start a food service business.  You will find people of all levels of experience here on Roadfood.  All are willing to help.  There is enough information on this site to keep you busy reading for a month.  We are anxious for you to begin posting and contributing to the forum.  But first, we have prepared some basic information for those just entering the business, with the hope that it will help you get started.  It will also help prevent the same questions from being asked over and over, thereby keeping the forum fresh with new commentary and making it a place for all to learn, both experienced and inexperienced.  The purpose here is not to recreate every post on the forums, but to briefly address some of the most common questions.
 
I am interested in the hot dog vending business.  What should I do first?

The first thing that you must know is that the hot dog/concession business may be simple, but it isn’t easy.  Many of the Get-Rich-Quick books and television shows would have you believe that you can buy a hot dog cart or concession trailer, work 3 hours per day, and profit $100,000 per year or more.  The reality is that it’s not that easy, and very few people, if any, operating a hot dog cart for 3 hours per day are going to make that kind of money.  You should also plan on spending a couple of hours each day on prep time and cleanup.  Working in the concession business also requires physical labor such as carrying ice, coolers, generators, cases of food, soda, etc…  You should also evaluate your personality to determine if you have the “right one” for food vending.  Most vendors are “characters”.  They are at least outgoing types who love people and love working with the public.  If you are overly shy, grumpy, or just plain mean, you might want to consider another business.  Now that you are grounded in reality, let’s answer the question. 

The first thing you MUST do is determine the legal constraints related to your new venture.  This means that you should contact your local Health dept. or Dept. of Environmental Services and learn about the regulations concerning push cart or concession trailer operation in your municipality.  In many areas of the country, food vending from a push cart is strictly prohibited.  These requirements vary by city, county and state.  It is for this reason that members of the Roadfood community cannot answer specific questions about what is required to operate a cart or trailer in your specific community.
 
What specifically will the Health Dept. or Dept of Environmental Services specify or control?

Again, this will vary by city, county, and state.  But some of the most common items are:

 
  • Types of foods, including toppings that can be used and sold. It is very common for push carts to be limited to hot dogs.  They will also specify the manner in which food is handled, stored, thawed, cooked, and at what temperatures your food must be maintained.
  • Size, construction, materials used, and equipment used in the cart/trailer.
  • Commissary requirement-Most municipalities require that push cart/concession trailer operators operate from a commissary (licensed commercial kitchen).  More on commissaries later.
  • Number and type of hand washing/ware washing sinks to be installed on the cart/trailer.
  • Tobacco usage and other employee/operator hygiene policies.
  • Pre- approval inspection of the equipment.
  • Safe food handling course requirement for operators.
  • Fresh water and waste water holding capacity.
This is not meant to be an exhaustive list of health dept. requirements, but a short list of some of the more common requirements.  You can now see why it would be next to impossible for a forum member to answer specific questions regarding what is required to operate in your area, and why it is vital that you talk to your health dept. officials before investing any money in your proposed new business.  Make certain that you are 100% clear on what the requirements are in your area.  If you’re not clear about what is required, ask questions until you understand.  Demand clarification on vague ordinances.  DO NOT plan to cut corners or try to get away with anything illegal.  If you operate outside of the law, you will get caught, and it will be a costly mistake.  Roadfood members will not help you find ways around your regulations. 
 
My Health Dept. says I have to use a commissary.  What is a commissary, and how do I find one?

This is often the biggest barrier to entry for people who want to get into the push cart business.  As mentioned above, a commissary is a licensed and inspected commercial kitchen.  In other words, it’s not your house.  Most municipalities will not allow you to operate a food service business from a residential dwelling.  The general requirements are that you have to report to the commissary each day of operation to prepare any food that is to be served from the cart, and to wash your wares and your cart at the end of the day.  This means that if you are cutting onions, making chili, grating cheese, or whatever you are processing, that you must do it at the commissary. You will also be required to store your product in a specified manner at the commissary.  Examples of commissaries are restaurants, churches with kitchens, kitchen incubators, Moose/Elks lodges, bowling alleys, homeless shelters, and any other commercial kitchen that is inspected by the health dept.  They don’t have to be open to the public as a restaurant to qualify.  Since opening your own commissary is more than likely cost prohibitive, you CAN find a commissary partner if you are willing to do the legwork and pound the pavement.  The cost of the commissary can run from nothing to several hundred dollars per month depending on your arrangements.  There is no universal specified usage fee. 
Are there other regulatory bodies that I will have to deal with?

Depending on your area, you may also have to contact your city’s Zoning dept., Planning and Development dept., and Business License dept.  You will be required to apply for a business license to operate your cart/trailer.  And don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because you obtain a business license that that alone gives you the right to operate a food cart in your area.  You will get an unpleasant surprise when the Health dept. pays you a visit.  If you plan on using signage on your cart, you will also want to check on your areas’ signage regulations.  Many municipalities limit the maximum amount of signage that you are allowed to use.  This is usually expressed in square feet.

 
I have decided that I can meet all of the regulatory requirements in my area.  What next?

The next recommendation would be to write a business plan.  Successful businesses begin with solid business plans.  Roadfood members can’t write your plan for you.  This is the document that helps YOU become acquainted with your proposed venture.  Put the necessary time into your business plan because it could be the difference between success and failure. Some of the topics that you will cover in your plan will be information about your company (legal structure, ownership, etc…), your product, your market, personnel plan, marketing plan, competitive analysis, cash flow analysis, and financial projections.  There are resources on the web to help you with a business plan.  Also, there are menu driven software programs available such as Business Plan Pro, to help make your job easier.  Where does this information for the plan come from you may ask?  It comes from your research and estimates.  It is not an exact science.  Obviously, you want to be as accurate as possible.  Your success depends on it.  Once your plan is complete, you may want to post some of the details on the forum and ask for opinions on content, accuracy, etc….

 
I’ve completed my business plan and want to take the next step.  What next?

At this point, if you haven’t already started scouting for locations, you should begin the location search.  Remember that the three biggest keys to success in this business are location, location, location.  You may also want to begin searching for your cart at this point as well.

 
What makes for a good location?

The short answer is the one with the most traffic.  You want to look for a location that has the greatest amount of foot traffic.  Generally speaking, foot traffic is better than drive-by traffic because it is easier for your customers to stop and buy from you if they are walking rather than driving.  Try to find a location that limits the number of ways that customers can get around you.  In other words, ideally your potential customers would have to walk right in front of your cart/trailer in order to get where they’re going.  Now obviously we are talking about a permanent location in this example.  But, you can apply similar logic if you are only working special events.  You want to work events with large crowds, and want a good placement within the event you are working.  Some possible locations are downtown business districts, Universities, parking lots, roadside locations, special events, outside bars, and industrial parks.  Whatever location you choose, be sure that you are there legally, and that you operate within all of the regulations.
 
Where can I buy a hot dog cart/concession trailer?

There are numerous manufacturers and suppliers of new equipment.  You can do an internet search using Google for “hot dog cart” or “concession trailer” and will come up with several options.  There is also quite a bit of used equipment sold on eBay, Craig’s List, and local classified across the country.  While Roadfood is not in a position to recommend any particular cart/trailer manufacturer, you can use the search function on Roadfood.com to search for particular threads pertaining to a specific cart in which you have an interest.  Be very careful when purchasing equipment.  You want to be certain that your Health dept. will approve your cart BEFORE you purchase it.  Don’t get stuck with a cart that you won’t be allowed to operate.
 
What items should I sell from my cart?

More than likely, your Health dept. is going to control what you can and cannot sell.  Regardless, keep your menu simple, at least in the beginning.  Fewer items are much easier to manage.  A simple menu is much easier and quicker to prepare, has less inventory to manage, and less waste of items that aren’t selling.  Many hot dog vendors simply offer hot dogs, chips, and a few drink choices.  Cookies can also be successful on a cart.  Many vendors also find success specializing in only one item, such as a Chicago style hot dog.
 
Where can I purchase hot dogs, buns, etc…?

Depending on your location, you may have several options.  Many times, local wholesale clubs like Sam’s Club, BJ’s Wholesale, or Costco are viable options.  You may also want to consider establishing a relationship with a wholesale food supplier like US Foodservice, Sysco, GFS, etc…  Generally speaking, the food brokers are going to be more expensive than the wholesale clubs.  However, be careful not to limit yourself to the items carried by your local Sam’s Club just because of a pricing issue.  Your goal is to be the best and to serve the best.  If the best isn’t available at Sam’s, you should look elsewhere.
 
What are the best hot dogs to buy?

Taste is very subjective.  What hot dogs taste good to you?  What is your family’s favorite brand?  When deciding on which brand of hot dog to carry, you should carefully consider regional favorites.  Conduct blind taste tests with friends, neighbors, relatives, etc…  See what everyone likes.  If you want to be known for quality (and you do), buy premium hot dogs.  Be the best.  Serve the best.  A few of the top selling brands are Vienna Beef, Sabrett’s, and Nathans Famous.  Using the search function, you can enter your chosen brand and more than likely find opinions on that brand.
 
What is the best way to cook hot dogs?

The best way to cook a hot dog is the way your customers like them.  Hot dogs are boiled, simmered, grilled, fried, and steamed.  Boiled hot dogs are very popular in the south.  Fried hot dogs are popular in parts of the northeast.  In Chicago, hot dogs are simmered.  Of course, these are generalizations and you can certainly find all of these methods in use all over the country.  You may want to take your regions preferences into account when choosing your cooking method. 
 
How should I serve the bun?

Most places served a steamed bun.  Steamed buns are nice and soft, and really compliment a hot dog.  You will find places that toast their buns as well.  Many carts do not have grills, so toasting buns can be a problem. Regional tastes come into play with the buns as well. Serve your customers what they want.  Whatever you do, don’t serve it right out of the bag.
 
What condiments and toppings should I offer?

Again, strong regional preferences come into play here.  Many people are passionate about what belongs on a hot dog, and sometimes more passionate about what doesn’t belong on a hot dog.  The more common toppings are mustard, ketchup (if they insist), relish, mayo, chili, sauerkraut, cheese, onion, and jalapenos.  If you are serving a Chicago style dog, don’t forget the neon green relish, sport peppers, tomato slices, pickle spear, and celery salt.  Oh yeah, and serve it on a steamed poppy seed bun! 
 
Should I use premade toppings or homemade?

This is entirely up to you.  If you can prepare homemade items that are good and you can do it economically and efficiently, it may be worthwhile.  If you have a chili recipe that has been handed down through generations of your family, and people rave about it, this could just be the thing that sets you apart from your competition.  You should always check with your Health dept. to be certain that what you are producing is within the regulations.  You will also want to prepare any of these “homemade” items in an approved commissary.
 

If I want to work fairs/festivals/special events, where do I start?

An entire book could be written on this subject alone.  In fact, there have been books written on this topic.  There are some important points to bear in mind as you pursue events.  Be sure that you are professional in your dealings and appearance, and that you offer a quality product.  Consider differentiating yourself in terms of the menu you offer.  You will have an easier time securing an event if your menu is different from other vendors at the same event, many of whom may be preferred vendors and have been participating in this same event for years.

You will need to locate events that you may have an interest in attending.  In many cases, your local Chamber of Commerce or Dept. of Tourism will have a listing of upcoming special events.  You can obtain this list and then begin searching for contact information on the web if it is not provided on the list.  There are membership based organizations that you can join that have already compiled all of this information for you.  Some of these are as follows:
http://www.festivalnet.com/
http://www.fairsandfestivals.net/
http://www.nicainc.org/

Roadfood does not endorse any of these organizations in particular.  They are provided here for reference purposes only.  Many vendors consider membership in these organizations to be invaluable.  Others search the internet themselves for the information.  There are plenty of events available.  The key is persistence, professionalism, quality, and differentiation.  When applying for an event, be sure to have a cover letter, menu, and photos of your setup available for the promoter.  If you are turned down for an event, offer to sell a different food item.  At the very least, let the event promoter know that you are available at a moment’s notice should their operator of choice back out or no show for whatever reason.

 
Is this a good place to get specific recipes for items that I can add to my menu?
 
As a new person to roadfood you may have a million questions and there are many seasoned professionals here that will be more than happy to help. But a word of caution if you’re going to ask about exact recipes sometimes you’ll find some reluctance on the part of professionals to share. I think that is completely understandable considering most restaurateurs’ or vendors work extremely hard and over a long period of time to perfect their recipes and their craft. Just as we have all heard about the recipe for a certain cookie, pie, chili, or dry rub, being sold for large amounts of money, some recipes are old family guarded secrets that just can’t be posted on the internet nor passed out to friends. With that thought in mind please don’t be offended if when asked some of our pros just reply sorry I’m unable to share that at this time.