This story was written for WRAL TechWire Innovator partner Wake Technical Community College.

Whether you’re hungry for gourmet grilled cheese, a chocolate-drizzled Belgian waffle, or a Greek chicken gyro, there’s a food truck that’s serving the meal you crave.

You’d be hard-pressed to find an event, festival or farmer’s market that doesn’t call in a cavalry of food trucks to feed the masses. They’re little restaurants on wheels, and these mobile food units are multiplying like bunnies.

According to a report from The Economist, there are more 4,000 registered food trucks in the U.S. IBISWorld, an international market research firm, reported that food truck industry revenue grew at an annual rate of 7.9 percent from 2011 to 2016. It’s a trend that’s being mirrored right here in the Triangle.

“[The Triangle] is a huge melting pot,” said Sameer Pawa, the coordinator of Hospitality Programs and Service Occupations at Wake Technical Community College. “I have seen dim sum trucks, to Korean BBQ, to lobster trucks. There are so many palates that are being catered to in this [area], it’s just phenomenal.”

Pawa is the director of the “How To Start a Food Truck Business” course at Wake Tech. He had the idea for the course three years ago when he realized how much the food truck business market was expanding.

“I’ve been an entrepreneur myself, and that inspired me to do something,” he said. “I had opportunities when I started a business. There was someone who told me, ‘Do this, don’t do this,’ who put things into perspective.”

Pawa wanted to be that person for food truck entrepreneurs in the area.

“The demand was there, but the structure was not there for an entrepreneur,” he explained.

Getting Your Food Truck Rolling

Wake Tech’s “How To Start a Food Truck Business” course is a 33-hour workforce continuing-education class that teaches the different facets of running a food truck business. It’s held once a week from 6 p.m. until 9 p.m. Last year, the course served 75 students. Pawa said that each of the classes was “really full,” with students ranging from 18-year-old high school graduates to retirees.

“You’re looking at a one-stop-shop for an entrepreneur who wants to start a food truck business,” Pawa said. “[Previously] they had to go from the county to the city to figure out how to build a truck and the requirements of zoning laws. So, what we did was create an environment for an entrepreneur where you don’t have to go anywhere else.”

The course, Pawa said, gives students the information they need to move forward and decide if this line of work is something they want to actively pursue.

“We made it a very seamless process,” he added.

In the course, students learn about:

  • Wake County compliance requirements
  • City zoning laws
  • Health and safety concerns
  • Sanitation certification requirements
  • Taxes
  • How to create a business plan
  • Securing business loans
  • Budgets and costs

The course also introduces students to vendors and builders, introduces them to free resources through Corporate & Business Solutions at Wake Tech, and brings in guest speakers who run successful food trucks. At the end of the course, students take the ServSafe Manager Certification Exam, which is mandatory for all food truck operators.

Students are also encouraged to take advantage of the free, confidential, one-on-one business counseling available from the Wake Tech Small Business Center for ongoing support after they leave the class.

Rebecca Robbins helps teach the course.

“I teach more about the application, permitting and the rules that are required to obtain a permit. Every county [in North Carolina] has the same rules that we enforce,” she explained. “A lot of my presentation is explaining the rule requirements on construction, showing a lot of pictures of how things should or should not look.”

Additionally, as part of the course, a permitted Wake County food truck is brought in for students to walk through to see what it’s like.

“We have a builder come out and talk about the part they play,” Robbins said. “We have a hands-on activity where [students] get to design their own truck on a poster board. That gives them an idea of how they can fit equipment into a very small kitchen.”

Robbins said the course has been instrumental in helping people through the process of getting a food truck permit in Wake County. The owner of Filipino food truck Adobo Joe, for example, is a graduate of the Wake Tech course.

“Each of [these students] comes with a dream,” Pawa said. “Either they have a secret recipe or a sauce; dreaming of opening a restaurant or [sharing a family] recipe. Our goal is also to let them know the reality of the business, which is, just because you have a sauce or a recipe, that doesn’t make you a successful entrepreneur.”

Managing Expectations

There’s no doubt that the Triangle area is a smorgasbord area for foodies, where budding chefs get to test the palettes of people aplenty. But, Pawa said there’s a difference between loving food and wanting to be in the food industry.

“You have to be realistic with the lifestyle that you are going to be choosing,” he cautioned. “If you want to have the weekends off, then this is not the right business for you. These are long hours, you are standing on your feet in a small, confined area and you’re dealing with people all day long. You have to be prepared for going into this business.”

Robbins said that entrepreneurs should really “go out and research” the industry, and Pawa encourages “patience, perseverance, and quality.” He also advises future food truck owners to be mindful of what they plan to sell and where they plan to serve it

“There might be two other burger joints in close proximity, for example,” Pawa said. “So you also have to develop a marketing strategy to attract people and choose venues wisely. The keyword is patience; the results will come gradually.”

All of these considerations are definitely thoughts to keep in mind, but for people looking to break into the restaurant scene, the food truck industry is a great option for people who want to start smaller scale.

“I think people see it as a great opportunity for a lower investment cost upfront to test the waters,” Robbins said. “We have such a mix of cultures and people that are coming into this area. Everyone is so interested in trying different types of foods. There are a lot of creative people who want to take advantage and to open up an opportunity like this, instead of opening up a big restaurant.”

MOFU Shoppe in downtown Raleigh, for example, was born from the owners’ original Pho Nomenal Dumplings truck. The restaurant boasts four out of five stars on Yelp and goes to show that if the food is good, people will come — whether they’re eating at a brick and mortar restaurant or from paper plates handed to them from a food truck window.

“I keep expecting the food truck industry to almost peak and slow down, but at this point, it has not,” Robbins said.

It’s a sentiment Pawa echoes.

“I thought it would be a phase, but it’s still holding strong where people are coming to the class, and they want to learn about the business.”

The next course begins May 17, and registration is open now. Visit Wake Tech’s Workforce Continuing Education website to register.

This story was written for WRAL TechWire Innovator partner Wake Technical Community College.