Starting a catering van business is a more expensive option than a catering trailer based business but a great option if manoeuvrability is an important factor.

Food Trucks are ideal for a working at the side of a road, in a lay-by, at a market or a car boot. The cheaper options are standard vans that are converted, but they have one major disadvantage and that is the counter height, which is usually very high. The ideal piece of equipment for this type of operation is a lowered chassis unit, this brings the counter height to the norm, rather than chin level, but they come at a price.

Be very careful about the weight of the unit and also tachograph and operators. 

For traders in London it is also essential that you don’t buy a van that falls foul of the ‘Low Emission Zone’ as you will be charged £100 a day or a £500 fine just to drive it within the M25. Furthermore, if you leave the van over-night in London and drive out again this will cost you £200.

To find out if your van or prospective van is exempt from the low emission zone charges follow the link below. (These rules can also apply to towing vehicles and some refrigerated vans.)

Visit the low emissions zone website

Vintage Catering Vans

In many ways the Citroen H & HV Vans have become the vehicle of choice for many on London’s street food scene. While in the states, large trucks similar to UPS vans are the preferred option.

The London street food traders have opted for smaller units that better suit street markets and private work.

These quirky little vans were pretty cheap a few years back but as their popularity has grown the scarcity has also increased, forcing up prices. It can cost a significant amount to get one of these set ups running, they can also be expensive to maintain. Many event caterers now use trailers to take their H Vans to events rather than rely on them to make it to the show.

The more prevalent H Vans become on the streets the less quirky they are likely to seem to the public thus affecting their perceived uniqueness. It’s also worth considering the height of the vehicles, if you are quite tall you may find them uncomfortable to work in. Despite their issues they are still great looking units that will still draw a crowd and help you get both pitches and customers.

While H Vans are currently popular it is worth keeping a look out for other types of vintage vehicles which may not currently have the H Van price tag but which may be the next big thing. The bowlers converted ice cream van covered in fake grass is a great example of a non H van that is quirky fun and practical.

Food Trucks

Many traders, especially those influenced by the American Food Truck scene have shown an interest in American Food trucks. 

While they are great looking vehicles and almost certainly better suited to street food than what we have over here, they can be a bit of a mine field and are probably worth avoiding. All catering equipment used in the UK must be CE marked and accredited; in the states they have a separate accreditation scheme and for this reason EU catering equipment can’t be used in America and most American equipment can’t be used here – even if it’s perfectly suited to the job and well made.

American cars, vehicles and trucks are famously inefficient when it comes to miles to the gallon and this is no different for food trucks, it could cost you significantly more to get to markets, shows or events in an American vehicle than one designed to EU standards. It is unlikely that an American food truck would pass the low emission zone standards making it extremely costly to run within the M25/ London. 

Getting replacement parts for American equipment can also be time consuming and costly as they are far less likely to be stocked in the UK, you may have to wait weeks for replacements which could affect your ability to trade.

Finally, American trucks are designed for American roads, wide and straight rather than the network of one way systems, rat runs and cobblestones that street food traders have to put up with in the UK. While they look great and are perfectly designed for use in the ‘States’, they probably pose too many problems for traders in the UK to be viable. That said, there is certainly a gap in the market for a standardised UK or European food truck design, but none that we are aware of at the moment.

The Pros and Cons

Pros 

  • Manoeuvrability – if you need to get around five villages a night to do a fish and chip or fast food operation then this is the ideal tool for the job
  • No Towing or need of a towing vehicle
  • No towing speed restriction
  • Easier to park and store than a trailer

Cons

  • Cost – A new van conversion can cost from twenty thousand to eighty thousand pounds
  • Limit to the amount of staff you can take without taking another vehicle as you’ll only have 2 seats
  • Limit to the amount of stock you can carry if you are going to do large events
  • Access can be difficult on some of the larger units
  • Need to be very careful about the weight of the vehicle, tachograph requirements and licensing etc
  • A breakdown or accident can be catastrophic on the way to an event, as you have no other options, with a trailer you may be able to get another towing vehicle, you won’t be able to get another motorised unit; unless of course you own two of them

The key to a successful motorised unit operation like all others is down to where you are going to trade, your first decisions have to be based on just that;

Get FREE start up guides, sent directly to your inbox

Where to Trade

Shows / events

There are thousands around the UK every year and if you want the contacts we can help.

NCASS publish The Events Guide every year, currently in it’s 27th Edition (2016), we have a good knowledge of who does what in the events industry, when the events are on, attendance, and event organiser contact details.

Be aware that some shows / event organisers don’t like motorised units at their event. This is often down to a health and safety matter as you have live fuel tanks, but sometimes its just because traditionally they aren’t as pleasing to the eye, however vehicle wrapping is changing that and theres no reason these days why a vehicle with a bit of money spent on it can’t look as good as, if not better than a trailer.

Licensed pitch

A motorised unit would be my first choice if I was committed to taking it home every night to re-stock or chill the fridges down. Most neighbours can’t object to a van parked on the drive as long as it’s clean and doesn’t obscure any views, but most will object to a trailer and if you’re in a leasehold or rented property you might even be infringing your lease or tenancy agreement.

Licensed pitches can be anything from a pitch in the town centre licensed by the local authority to a local factory on their forecourt or car park. There are also site concessionaires that operate for some of the larger retail groups who license sites in their car parks, many of these jobs are advertised direct to NCASS members.

Roadside

Similar in essence to licensed pitches and a popular choice for a daily operation. Once the choice of all operators, why? No rent, no contracts and you come and go as you please, together with fantastic profit margins (in the right spot). In the past around 10 units operated on the A34 along the stretch from the M42 to Oxford, open 24/7 they were reported to be taking thousands each week.

Sadly the council had a campaign to have them closed down claiming they were a traffic hazard, using a piece of legislation called the Miscellaneous Provisions Act, which empowered the council to make trading on all the roads in the Borough illegal. Sadly many councils have followed suit, albeit some have also licensed back certain roads as designated trading areas which has given traders greater financial security.

Due to recent legislation at European level, the LG Miscellaneous Provisions Act and the Pedlars Act are currently under review by the UK Government. NCASS are petitioning the government for changes favourable to road side caterers and licensed pitches; hopefully this will enable more catering businesses to start up and run profitably.

Markets / car boots

The general opinion is motorised vehicles are not as good as a trailer for this kind of work, where you often need more staff and flexibility. Market and Carboot pitches are regularly cited as first choice for newcomers to the industry, they saw a guy with a queue on the car boot last Sunday morning and assume they can do the same, but its highly likely that the pitch has been bought from a previous trader, and to get a new pitch opened on a car boot or market is highly unusual.

Good market pitches are highly sought after and often change hands between traders for thousands and sometimes tens of thousands of pounds.

Franchise

There are several companies offering franchises from motorised units selling everything from fish and chips to coffee in units ranging from a £7000 Piaggio to a £80,000 fully kitted out 22 foot long mobile kitchen.

Once you have your pitch

So once you have found a pitch you need something to trade out of, where do you go to purchase your motorised
vehicle, Ebay? The local paper?

This vehicle is going to be the main tool of your new business, your livelihood and safety is going to rely on it, do you really think that a few hundred pounds is going to buy you that?

A lot of second hand vehicles are being sold for a reason, buyer beware. There are legal requirements for catering vehicles and for the way they are kitted out with equipment, you need to be sure that it will pass a gas and electrical inspection as well as meeting other recognised standards, and unfortunately the majority of second hand catering vehicles won’t.

It could cost you thousands to get the faults put right and legal equipment installed.
 
Our advice is to go to an NCASS authorised trailer manufacturer, who cannot sell you something that is illegal or unsafe and will make sure that it comes with all the correct documentation. 

Alternatively if you use a buy or sell service such as the one on our website and have any doubts or need advice on a vehicle / trailer feel free to contact us, we are here to help. 

If you are interested in getting started in the catering business with a motorised catering unit we strongly suggest that you invest in our publication Profitable Mobile catering, this will give you valuable information and an insight into the industry

How to start up a catering business in tough times

MEMBERSHIP

We're here to help make your catering business a success. Whether that be starting up or getting on top of your compliance and marketing. We're here to help you succeed.

Find out more Request a call back