Paulina Perez says Mobile Vending University helped prepare her for hot tamales truck. Photo courtesy of Paulina Perez.
Paulina Perez had an idea for a food truck. With the help of her mother, the stay-at-home mom had already created a business selling tamales online. She used the Pasco Specialty Kitchen in Pasco, Washington to cook tamales, which she delivers once a week in a Ford van. But making the leap to a food truck seemed a bit of a stretch.
Fortunately for Perez, the Pasco Specialty Kitchen offered a course in starting a food truck, Mobile Vending University (MVU), a certificated business series for entrepreneurs to start and grow their businesses. She was able to take the course before investing $50,000 in her food truck.Perez plans to have the food truck ready in six months. She will continue the tamale delivery service after she launches her food truck.
"It's been awesome," she said of the course. "I'm really happy that I took it."
"I was sure I wanted to do a trailer, but after I took the class, I feel like I want to do a truck," she said. "After taking the class, we got to know the pros and cons of each one." She learned that trailers can be more difficult to navigate.
Perez has already spent $30,000 for insurance, advertising, her delivery van, a wrap for the van, stickers, supplies and the website. She expects she will spend an additional $50,000 on the vehicle itself.
She has already met with the health department where she learned about cooking requirements and safety practices.
"They are super helpful," she said for all the course instructors. "They have really good communication with their customers."
Perez is one of 23 graduates who have received certificates. The four five-week sessions have each drawn 10 to 15 students.
Food truck event spawns course
The course was an outgrowth of an event called Food Truck Fridays that began in 2015, said Marilou Shea, director of the Pasco Specialty Kitchen, a commercial kitchen and incubator for small food businesses.
"I came up with the idea of an educational program to help grow the food truck niche in our community," she said.
Shea first organized Food Truck Fridays, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., as a way to help the trucks offset the business slowdown in the winter months. "They didn't have a set location in which to operate," she said. "It was feast or famine for them."
"The industry is growing at a pretty fast rate," she said. "We have a lot of untold opportunities for foodies and food entrepreneurs and people who want to highlight or honor their culture to get into the food truck business."
Event proves exceptionally popular
Food trucks gathered in one downtown location and drew lines that were 30 to 50 minutes long. After the event began, Shea said she was "deluged" with requests for food trucks for events such as weddings, family reunions and various public and private events.
At the first Food Truck Friday in March 2015, there were four food trucks serving between 2,000 and 4,000 people.
Shea — who holds a master's degree in teaching and a marketing background — saw a need for educating food truck operators.
Hands-on, interactive training
The program's goal is to provide hands-on education in an interactive way. Shea approached subject matter experts to provide the education, including successful food truck operators. She sought experts who knew about operations, licensing, permits, financial management, financing, vehicle construction and marketing. She found people who worked with food truck owners in the five core areas.
After she came up with a list of topics, she asked successful truck operators if they agreed that the topic list was inclusive of the kinds of subjects aspiring food truck owners would need to know to avoid some of the rough patches and early problems they had experienced when starting their businesses.
"We came up with a magic formula," she said. "At least based on the attendee feedback, we seem to be on the right track."
Finding the experts
There are seven to 10 subject matter experts that teach the courses, including CPAs and insurance brokers covering financial aspects, and city code enforcement and permitting officials providing instruction on those areas of operation. Shea was referred to an RV dealer that retrofits trucks with kitchen equipment for expertise in constructing food trucks, and a variety of experts and food truck owners educate students in operational concerns.
One of the operations instructors is Ron Swanby, a caterer who also has a barbecue trailer. He reviews menu planning, product costing, product sourcing and accounting software. Shea has a marketing background and worked at Microsoft and MSN.com, so she has provided the marketing instruction, while a social media expert provides expert guidance in that multi-faceted area of operations.
College's support crucial
Shea relies on Columbia Basin College, the certification partner, for getting the word out about the program. She also uses social media and has garnered some coverage from area newspapers.
The class meets on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. for five weeks. Each meeting is devoted to one core topic and all attendees receive a copy of the Food Truck Handbook by David Weber, while all graduates receive a certificate at the end of the course.
The local restaurant industry has not been involved with the course to date.
"I think that there's a perception that it competes with them for customers and revenue," she said.
Shea is aware that restaurants nationally are investing in food trucks, but the trend has not yet spread to her area.
"I would say that 60 percent of the attendees would love to back into a bricks-and-mortar footprint, and some want to have a fleet of trucks and never be bricks and mortar," she said.
Graduates laud the training
Kurt Beiswenger took the class to get a better idea of the costs involved. He recently lost his job in the recruiting industry and became interested in New Orleans cuisine after visiting the city and learning how to prepare the distinctive Creole dishes.
He found out about the class from the Internet, and for Beiswenger the opportunity it provided to meet other veteran food truck operators has been one of the greatest assets of becoming involved in the program. He said the veterans have shared their mistakes, providing invaluable insights into issues he might be able to avoid.
Beiswenger expects to have his truck ready in late summer. He hopes to begin on a part-time basis since he is also looking for a full-time marketing job. As for the university itself, it appears to have filled a niche in this business community. Going forward, online instruction is in the works.