Mobile takeaways serve a range of food in different locations, with some catering for festivals and events while others serve the after pub market. Our guide will help you start up and run your own mobile takeaway business.
Research your target market
When you plan your mobile catering business it's important to identify potential pitch locations, and to establish how much competition there is out there already. Doing some market research will help you with this. You should also think about what types of food your customers will want to eat.
Which locations are best
As a mobile vendor, you have the advantage that you can move your outlet to wherever your customers are. This might be different places at different times - for example at the local car boot sale on Saturday mornings.
Bear in mind that many local councils are clamping down on mobile take-aways like burger vans and designating certain areas as 'no-go' zones. For example, mobilers are prohibited from selling outside schools in many parts of the country. It's best to check with your local authority at an early stage in your planning to avoid any nasty surprises.
Try to identify sites (pitches) where you think business will be good. If you are planning to sell at local shows and events try to find out a long time in advance which events are taking place and try to secure your pitch. Ways of finding out which events are taking place include:
- looking in specialist publications, such as the online Outdoor Events Directory
- contacting your tourist information office and local council. Local councils should be able to give you details of available pitches which they own, and they may engage you to attend events that they run
- contacting local clubs, such as pony clubs or cycling clubs to see if they are holding any events. Even if they are not organising anything, they may be able to give you contact names for people who are
- contacting universities and schools to see whether you could sell at summer balls, sports days and other events
- looking at advertisements in local newspapers and shops for forthcoming local events
You will have to decide how far you are prepared to travel to an event. For example, you may be able to secure an agreement to cover all of a series of 10 cycle races taking place over a number of months which would be well worth making the effort to travel long distances to.
If you are planning to have a pitch on an industrial estate you should first check with your local council to see whether you can legally do so and whether you will need a street trader's licence. Alternatively, you could try to secure a pitch outside one of the outlets on the trading estate on land owned by the outlet. You could either do this yourself or through a site agent. Check out potential sites to see how busy they are at different times during the day.
Roadside lay-bys can provide you with a constant stream of potential customers but it is also quite likely that you will not be allowed to sell from them. Check with your local council to see if you can sell from them and, if they approve your request, monitor traffic levels so you can make an estimate of how much custom you could expect.
Wherever possible, look for promising sites where there are currently no other mobile catering units operating. However, you may have to accept that at certain shows and events you will inevitably face competition from other vendors.
Be sure to establish what the pitch costs are, including where applicable street trader licences and any pitch rental charges.
Establishing the level of local competition
Once you have identified some potential pitches, try to find out how well they are already supplied. Look for nearby establishments that sell the same type of food that you intend to. What are their opening hours - for example, would they still be open at pub closing times? Pay particular attention to the location of your competitors. You may be able to take advantage of your mobility by parking closer to your customers and becoming the most convenient outlet. Look out for other mobile vendors - do they park up for the day or do they just visit at a particular time?
Make a note of the range of products sold by other outlets. Which ones seem to be the most popular? Are there any products that are unavailable locally, such as more adventurous takeaway food? Note too the prices that are charged for certain key products - this will help you when it comes to setting your own prices.
Try to count how many customers one of your competitors attracts during a day - it is not practical to watch a van for a whole day but you could observe it for an hour at lunch time and an hour at a quieter time of day. If you can, try to gauge how much each customer buys so once you have gathered the necessary information you will be able to estimate a typical daily number of customers and also an average customer spend. Bear in mind when making your estimates that weekends tend to be busier than weekdays. Once you have estimated typical sales for weekdays and weekends you can estimate what your total sales for a month will be.
If you're planning on selling at events like shows, festivals and markets then you may well have to tender for a pitch in competition with other mobile food sellers. When you tender you'll need to compete on things like the amount you're proposing to pay the event organisers and the attractiveness of your menu to visitors. Many event organisers will make pitches available to several different food sellers, but will want to make sure that they're all offering something different.
Type of food
Give careful thought to the type of food that you're going to serve. Of course, your decision may be influenced by your own preferences, cooking experience and abilities, but you should try to match your menu as closely as possible to whatever people in the area actually want to eat. You might decide to vary your menu depending on where you're selling.
Research current trends, plus legal and tax issues
Where to sell
It is important that the location/s that you choose to trade from provide you with enough custom and also that you are allowed to trade from them. Possible locations include:
At the roadside
Roadside locations, such as lay-bys, can provide a large amount of trade as you will have people passing you constantly (if you pick a busy enough road) and you may also have custom from neighbouring houses and businesses. The downside of roadside locations is that often you are not legally allowed to trade from them. A parked van in a roadside lay-by is often deemed by the police and councils to be a traffic hazard and you may well be moved on if you try to trade from one. You will also have to obtain a street trader's licence from your local council.
Profitable roadside pitches may include:
- outside sports grounds. Make sure you know what time the kick-off is so you can be in place when fans are entering and leaving the ground
- outside pubs and night clubs in the evenings
- lay-bys on busy roads
- outside universities
- beside local beauty spots and tourist attractions
Industrial and retail estates
If you can secure a pitch on one, an industrial or retail estate can provide an excellent regular income. The size of many industrial estates means that there is a huge customer base, made up of people who work there, people who shop there and people who make deliveries to businesses there. You may find that in the early days of trading from a pitch that your sales are lower than you expected. It is likely that it will take a few weeks or months for word to get round about your business but when it does, you should be able to sustain a decent level of income from your regular customers.
Events and shows
There is likely to be a wide variety of events, festivals and shows in your area. These may range from large, nationally advertised events to very small, local affairs. However, the larger the show or event, the more you are likely to have to pay for your pitch and the greater the level of competition (for pitches and at the event itself), so it may sometimes be more profitable to target smaller shows which charge less but still attract a sufficient number of people. You will need to do a fair amount of work beforehand finding out which events are on and securing pitches at them. Many shows and events will take place on weekends and you will need to plan in advance which ones you will be attending.
According to the Nationwide Caterers Association (NCASS), markets are generally run by large companies that assign contracts for market catering on a seasonal basis, usually 10 - 12 weeks at a time. You would have to pay them a weekly rental. Again according to NCASS, market pitches generally change hands for between around £10,000 and £20,000, including the catering unit.
In some areas there are regular farmers' markets, while others play host to street food markets.
To be successful, you may find that you will work a combination of different pitches, for example working an industrial estate during the week and then supplementing your income with weekend work at shows or outside pubs and clubs.
Local rules and restrictions
Before selling at any roadside pitch, check with your local authority to make sure you're allowed to do so - and to find out about any special conditions and restrictions which apply.
Bear in mind that many local authorities have set up mobile takeaway exclusion zones, particularly around schools and shopping centres.
If you're going to be selling on private land you'll almost certainly need the permission of the land owner, who may well have their own set of rules and conditions.
What to sell
As a mobile vendor, you will only have a limited amount of space in your van or trailer so it is important that you sell food and drink that is popular with your customers. You may choose to sell traditional mobile takeaway food (such as burgers) or you may decide to offer something a little different. Traditional takeaway food and drink includes:
- burgers of all kinds, such as quarterpounders, cheeseburgers, veggieburgers, chickenburgers and so on
- hot dogs
- bacon sandwiches and breakfast rolls
- chocolate bars
Some slightly less commonly sold but still very popular takeaway foods include:
- jacket potatoes
- pancakes and crepes
- doughnuts, candyfloss and toffee apples
- specific types of cuisine. Some mobile vendors make a selling point of the fact that they offer 'gourmet' food from a van and may sell Italian or French cuisine, or ethnic street food. Others focus on healthy eating options
- Chinese, Thai or Indian food
- pork and apple rolls
- lamb burgers
Of course, the only limits on you being as adventurous as you like with what you serve are that you can produce it, and that someone will buy and eat it!
Think about whether it would be worth offering products that meet particular dietary requirements - for example vegetarian, vegan, dairy free and gluten free. These types of food might see stronger demand at some types of event than at others.
As well as offering food, you are very likely to sell a range of drinks, such as:
- fizzy drinks - have some low calorie options
- tea, coffee and hot chocolate
- fruit juices
- mineral water
- crushed ice drinks
You might also decide to sell ice creams, although refrigeration and dispensing equipment does usually take up quite a lot of space.
You are likely to find that the busiest season is the summer, followed by spring and autumn. Warm weather and long hours of daylight encourage people to go on holiday, visit tourist attractions and so on. There are also more shows and events organised during these months. You may decide to not trade at all for a month or two in the winter due to lack of demand. However, it is possible to keep trading profitably with a certain amount of forward planning. While the number of shows and events is lower in the winter months, there are still some held so you should try to get details of as many of these as far in advance as possible. Sporting events, such as football and rugby are played throughout the winter. If you can secure a pitch that has regular custom, such as on an industrial estate, you need not necessarily see a large fall in income during the winter.
How will you decide on your prices?
It's important that the prices you charge are enough to cover your overheads and make a profit. The advantage of being a mobile vendor is that, as it's likely you'll often be selling on a 'one-off' basis rather than to regular customers, you'll be able to set your prices to suit the occasion. You may need to raise your prices at a prestigious event like a county show to cover your pitch fees. On the other hand, you might sometimes need to reduce your prices if other mobilers at an event are substantially undercutting you.
This means that if you are the only catering van at an event, you can set your prices higher than if you have competitors around you. If you do have to compete with other caterers, it is worth checking what prices they are charging so you can decide whether to undercut them or offer deals (for example a lunch deal of a burger and any drink for £4.50) to make customers choose your business rather than your competitors.
If you have a regular pitch - on an industrial estate, for example - your customers will expect you to be consistent with your pricing from one day to the next. Your competitors will include other mobile takeaways, fast food outlets, burger chains, sandwich bars and so on. You may be able to exploit the fact that, as you are mobile you can get closer to your customers so may be able to charge a little more than your competitors.
If you sell at events like shows and fairs, you could consider offering a small discount to fellow stall holders and exhibitors to ensure their loyalty and regular custom. This is fairly common practice.
Buy an existing business
You might decide to buy an existing mobile takeaway business rather than start your own venture from scratch. Buying a going concern can mean that the products, customers, regular sales, staff and equipment are already in place. The pitch is also very important. Establish just what it is you are buying and whether the tenure of the pitch carries any guarantees. Are you really buying a business as a going concern, or are you just buying a catering van? Be sure that the use of any existing pitch (or pitches) is fully agreed and legal, and that there are no disputes or legal actions outstanding.
If the price you are paying is much higher than the value of the equipment and assets like a trailer or van, look carefully at what you're getting. If the price includes a substantial sum for a pitch then it's wise to establish what sort of tenure you have there - could the site owner end the agreement tomorrow?
But buying a business can be a hazardous, expensive process unless you have the right skills and experience on your team, including legal and financial know-how. Establish the genuine trading and financial position, so that the price you pay for the business is not too high.