Starting a BBQ Concession
Q: Hello Dr. BBQ,
My wife and I love BBQ and would like to start our own bbq concessions trailer business. We've considered it carefully, and are ready to give it everything we've got. We're having a heck of a time finding a spot to set up on, though. We've spoken with many commercial realtors in a three-county area, just trying to find a vacant lot for lease in a high traffic area. We've also talked to a long list of non-food business owners in attempt to sublease ground space from them to operate the trailer on. After 300+ phone calls, and many miles traveled, we've come up empty. Would you be willing to offer any advice on finding a location? Should we focus on finding a roadside vacant lot, or do you think it is better to share space with another business owner? Also, if you don't mind answering the question, what is an average number of customers per day for a bbq trailer in a good location (that serves quality bbq). I know it will vary, but what do you think is a ballpark estimate for # of customers per day for a quality product at a reasonable price? Thanks very much for any tips you might be able to offer.
A: Hi PJ,
Loving BBQ is a great place to start but there is so much more involved with something like this. You are starting a business like any other and you will need a good business plan and enough money to ride it out for a while. Instant success is a pipe dream, so be prepared to spend some money staying open and advertising. You"ll probably be giving a lot of food away to a soup kitchen in the early days too.
First thing you need to do (and maybe you have done this) is call the governing agencies that oversee your area for a food service license, a business license and the zoning. You will need to deal with all these folks at some point so why not start right off on the right foot. Some of them will even help you if you are nice to them and ask for a little guidance. It may not be what you want to hear but they are in charge.
Most health departments will require you to have a commissary to store goods, clean up, fill your fresh water tank and dump your gray water tank. This is an obstacle that kills many deals. It"s a big expense to set up a permanent inspected facility for these things. They will tell you that a restaurant or VFW can be your commissary but those deals rarely work out.
A good friend might let you use their place as your commissary but it's a big favor, and then you'll be competing with them.
My trailer is completely self-sufficient so I was able to use a septic dumping place as my commissary ONLY for fresh and gray water.
Keeping anything at home or in your garage in Florida is illegal unless you set up a commercial facility at home and have it regularly inspected. Matter of fact it says right on the paperwork that "Your home can not be your commissary."
So now that you've got that covered it's time to find a location. The whole point of a trailer is the ability to move so I don"t think I"d be looking to commit to anything long term. The other hope in buying a trailer is to keep overhead down as low as possible so leasing a high traffic high dollar lot is probably not a good place to start. Heck if you want to do that you might consider a storefront and a permanent restaurant.
I have been able to find a couple good spots just by going in and talking to the manager. You"ll need to pick a place that will not obstruct his business in any way and convince him that you might even enhance his business. I try to keep it on a week-to-week deal. That way you can leave here and there to do a special event and not have to pay. I"d plan on a couple months straight to start so you can establish that you are not fly by night, both to your landlord and your customers. I have many customers now that want to know how I did when I am gone for a week at a contest.
You"re probably also going to need a power source so it will need to be a spot where that is doable. I have paid half the price of a few 50 amp outlets around town that are now idle. It"s just part of the business to me.
You will want to negotiate for the use of his dumpster.
You will also want to promise to clean up the lot.
I’ve had good luck at a hardware store and bad luck at a produce stand. I am currently in a lot adjacent to a convenience store and that is good, but I"d like to be a little closer to them.
Signs, signs and more signs. Unfortunately they are usually not legal. I bought a nice $50 sign and stuck it in the grass by the road. The code enforcement lady just took it without even telling me. When I called they told me to look at the dump. I had placed it on county property.
Pass out menu flyers every day you are open. Pick a few businesses and drop in to say high in the morning. I have planned on doing the group fax thing in the morning too, but haven't gotten around to that yet.
Set hours and be there religiously. It really sucks sitting there that last half hour some days, but if you get a reputation for closing early people will know that and stay away that last hour. I like a reputation for staying open a little late to serve a customer.
There are some folks who just won't stop to eat at a trailer. Then there are others who prefer a nasty smoke bellowing pit operating illegally to a nice clean shiny BBQ kitchen.
Average numbers are not something anyone could predict. It"s a gypsy type business and you better be ready to fly by the seat of your pants. My experience as a brand new guy a couple years ago tells me that it will be less than you are hoping for. So be prepared to hold food.
It"s very hard work and long hours. It"s not nearly as glamorous as it seems. Often I think a small restaurant would be much easier and more rewarding.
I hope this helps. It’s kind of negative but it is what I have learned in three years. Doing it this way has allowed me to pursue other ventures, so it has been a good choice. If I were doing it 50 weeks a year I might not think it was such a good choice.
Best of luck to you,