temporary food concessions
You may have noticed the food cart craze sweeping the nation. I gotta say, it’s been a long time coming and I’m thrilled.
About 25 years ago I, and several other food concessionaires created, what might have been, the first “food pod” in the state. We found a vacant lot with easy access and visibility and arranged our booths so customers could easily pull into the lot, select a meal from one of several menus, and be back on the road within minutes. Unfortunately, our food pod failed miserably. Maybe our menus and booths were wrong for the venue. Maybe our market’s preference for corporate fast food was too entrenched. Or, perhaps it was a good idea whose time had not yet come.
But, on the bright side; the experience taught me the real difference between a food cart and a food concession.
In my mind, whether we are talking about food stands, food carts, food trucks, food booths, food trailers, or food concessions, they all fall into one of two categories; stationary or temporary.
A stationary food cart, trailer, truck, or kiosk is essentially a conventional “storefront” operating full-time at a single location. Though they are usually hard-wired to utilities, they are on wheels and are considered mobile food units by the health department. Some food trucks and light-weight carts are not hard-wired and may follow a daily routine or route. These are also licensed on a yearly basis as a mobile food unit. A food stand or tent that is not on wheels cannot be licensed as a mobile food unit. All of these are usually referred to as food carts or food trucks.
A temporary food booth sells food at short term venues, such as; fairs, festivals and special events. Any style of booth, whether it is a cart, trailer, tent, truck, or wooden stand can be licensed by the health department on a temporary basis as a temporary restaurant. These are usually referred to as food concessions or food booths.
There are major operational differences also. Over the years I have run both temporary and stationary food booths, and am partial to temporary booths selling at short-term special events. My bias is purely personal. Both types of booths have serious advantages and disadvantages. Perhaps your experience can contribute to this list.
stationary food carts
Stationary Food Stand Pros:
- Stability. The daily and weekly routine of opening, closing, and shopping for supplies.
- A full-time income. Working full-time creates a consistent income.
- A full-time schedule. Working five or more days a week, year around, expands sales and creates a steady market base.
- Menu flexibility. A food cart can more easily experiment with a variety of unique menus and successfully develop a niche.
- Familiarity. Getting to know your steady customers can be very rewarding.
- Operational ease. Once the business is started, the daily operations are not difficult.
Stationary Food Cart Cons:
- Stability. The daily and weekly routine of opening, closing, and shopping for supplies can make you feel like a slave to your business.
- Managerial restraint. Lease contract obligations can restrict independent decision making.
- Time investment. Running a business full-time requires a tremendous investment of time.
- Commitment. The hours of operation must remain consistent or sales will suffer. Your customers depend on you to be open during your regular hours making it difficult to take personal time away from your business.
- Bureaucracy. The visibility of a stationary food cart requires a willingness to abide by all the governmental rules and red tape. Licensing requirements can be very involved.
- Large initial investment. It takes a relatively large amount of capital to start-up any stationary food cart, no matter how small.
- Boredom. When business is slow being cooped up within a small food cart can be boring, or become claustrophobic.
- Vulnerability. Uncontrollable and unforeseen events can greatly impact and jeopardize your investment. Lease conflicts, road construction, and unforeseen competition are just a few of the many uncontrollable hazards that can ruin a business. If a location does not work well for you it can be difficult to pick up and move your business to a new location.
Business location is a key component of a temporary concession as well. The difference is that whereas a stationary food cart has the same location week after week, with sales remaining somewhat constant over time, a temporary concession has a new location on a weekly basis, for good or bad. And, a temporary concession’s sales will vary as widely as does the quality of the events, and location within each event.
Temporary Concession Pros:
- The possibility of making a relatively large amount of money in a short period of time.
- Independence. Complete control over the management of your business.
- Limited time investment. Most temporary concessions operate seasonally, enabling owners to spend time doing other things during the off-season.
- Diluted risk. If for any reason an event bombs the next event provides new possibilities.
- Variety. Every event is different.
- Autonomy. The concession business is a cash business, has minimal licensing requirements, and is relatively unregulated.
- Family. Families who operate their concession together share the workload and spend time together experiencing different communities. Young people gain confidence by learning a work ethic, responsibility, cash handling, and public relations skills. This could be the perfect seasonal family business.
- Fun. What could be better than earning a living in a relaxed environment where people are there to have fun?
Temporary Concession Cons:
- Sale time limitations. Annual earnings potential is condensed into a very short season of opportunity. What’s worse, each event has a limited period of optimal selling time.
- Risk. Breakdowns, poor weather, poor health, low event turnout, faulty event organization, and employee no-shows are just some of the many things that can prevent an event from producing the way it should. This risk is magnified by the limited sale opportunities of the season.
- Uncertain income. High risk and event variability make it nearly impossible to calculate future income.
- Lack of control. Certain factors that greatly affect sales are uncontrollable. Most notable are weather, economy, and decisions made by the event coordinator, such as space location, duplication of menus, over abundance of competition, and poor planning.
- Physical demands. Stocking up, traveling to and from events, setting up, conducting business, and tearing down are physically and mentally stressful. Doing these tasks repeatedly over the course of the season can be mentally and physically exhausting.
- Menu restraint. A food concession cannot easily experiment with unique menus. It can be a challenge to develop a menu that is highly sale-able while at the same time be unusual enough to secure event contracts.
- Managerial complexity. The managerial tasks of a transient food business can be complicated. Booking events, securing multiple licenses, traveling, staff management, bulk quantity food product management and handling, and vehicle maintenance, are all time consuming, energy consuming, and costly.
Incidentally, in case you have ever wondered – that last point is the main reason you’ll pay twice as much for a corn dog at a fair.