Operating a food truck in Cincinnati may look like fun, but it's exhausting work, owners say

CINCINNATI -- Food trucks -- a metropolitan mainstay -- may look like a fun and easy business with plenty of curb appeal. But the chefs behind the mobile kitchens say it's demanding work. In a market like Cincinnati, the demands can be steep.

Owners of food trucks in Cincinnati said their rolling eateries are like any other small business: Start-up costs are high, hours never end and rewards are far and few between. Additionally, the food truck business may be more difficult here than larger markets because of the smaller scale.

“You have to think outside the box in this industry,” said Emily Frank, founder of C’est Cheese and president of the Cincinnati Food Truck Association (FTA). “Yes, it’s fun and everyday is different but it’s hard work. I can’t say it enough.”

Frank, 39, operates her own specialty grilled cheese and soup truck and sits on the board of the FTA. She has seen both advantages and disappointments in her days and she says the only way to be successful is to make sacrifices.

“I’m single and I have no kids. I sold my condo in Chicago to do this. I made some sacrifices, you know, I don’t have the life I did when I was in corporate America but that doesn’t matter to me,” said Frank.

On the other hand, the owner of Cincinnati’s first up-and-running food truck, Cafe de Wheels , is now selling due to family obligations.

"It's not the direction I want to go anymore," Tom Acito, owner of Cafe de Wheels, said. Balancing the unavoidable long hours and a home life with his 5-year-old child just aren't conducive, he said. 

“I’m trying to sell it as a business, not just a truck,” said Acito, who declined to say the price he's looking for.  “It’s not a dead pony. It has a ways to go.”

The gourmet burger joint on wheels wasn't what he had anticipated it to be -- partly because of the city, he said.

Staying afloat in a city like Cincinnati is another problem that vendors face. The ongoing costs associated with operating a truck including gas, food, taxes, insurance and city fees, makes it hard for a low-cost operation to make a sizeable profit.

“I wish it was better here, it may have inclined me to stay,” said Acito. “I thought it would be better – thought there would be a rush – but Cincinnati doesn’t come close to other cities.”

Acito, originally from Los Angeles, said Cincinnati doesn’t have the “street culture” to maintain the type of success he had envisioned. Frank says there are only eight viable months for food trucks to operate in the city, unlike other big and booming cities in the U.S.

“If we were in a bigger city like Atlanta or San Francisco, it could be a different story and you could certainly support yourself and make a good living,” said Frank.

Owners in the FTA said the cost of a truck runs $25,000 to $120,000, plus renovations. A mobile food-vending license is $1,000 per year for the use of the six city-allocated spots in the downtown business district. Insurance will cost “a couple hundred” and it’ll run you about $300 to have the Health Department inspect the vehicle each year. The cost of food, gas, staff and event bookings adds up quickly, Frank said. Neither vendor provided profit or sale details.

The result from operating in a city with minimum vending locations is that owners shell out big bucks with little return. Of the six locations, “the only real place to make money is Fountain Square.” Frank said she avoids downtown Monday through Friday due to the little business her truck receives. Instead, she heads out to the suburbs and parks in office complexes.

Acito agreed that there aren’t enough locations. Because of the limited space provided by the city, many vendors resort to private party bookings to earn a viable profit. Booking these events, also, costs the owners money.

“I’d say 10 to 12 percent of your income goes to paying percentages to events,” Acito said. Whether or not the vendor has a “good” or “bad” day, they are responsible for paying a certain percentage to the venue where the event was held. Acito declined to disclose what his daily revenues have been.

“If you’re the sole breadwinner, you can make a living but it’s a hustle,” Frank said. The job is filled with long and tiring hours, constant outreach and at times, little reward. 

“I make a living but it’s nothing compared to when I was an editor,” Acito said. He describes the job as a challenge, constantly “juggling skills needed.” When he sells Café de Wheels, he plans on venturing back into the advertising world as an editor in Cincinnati.

In the last year, 30 vendors have registered with the Cincinnati Food Truck Association. Area vendors held their second street food festival in October with high turnout rates.

“We’re just Cincinnati, Ohio, with a million people here,” said Frank. “You have to want it.”

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Follow Jane Andreasik on Twitter @jandreasik.

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