Become a Food Truck Entrepreneur?
By Jade Hu and KF Seetoh - Friday, Dec 27, 2013
Close your eyes and picture a scene where the parking lot of a residential estate transforms into a temporary food truck park. You would be greeted for a few hours a week by bright lights and the aroma of our favourite comfort foods emanating from colourful vans and friendly vendors. No need to cook, and just like the old pasar malam days, you just come out, meet your neighbours and catch up on the latest gossip over Indian Rojak, a handmade sandwich with Bandung Tarek. Go ahead, sit on the floor on a mat, or bring your little foldable picnic party tables and chairs. No need to huddle in your home and tuck into unfriendly styrofoam take out boxes. You can bring your enamel or steel tingkat (tiffin carriers) or use proper plates provided by the vendors.
Alas, this is nothing more than a pipe dream, for now at least. There is much talk about food trucks and very little walk so far, and this is one status quo we would like to see changed.
Makansutra has been studying the feasibility of operating new generation food trucks in Singapore over the last 6 years. The project has not taken off due to the prohibitive high cost of operation, especially with the prevailing upward trend of Certificate of Entitlement (COE) prices, as well as rigid transportation regulations that restrict the mobility of such vehicles. This is one key and compelling reason why no hawkers or even the new gen-x street food professionals will take this up. The Travelling C.O.W (Chef on Wheels), one of the two food trucks in Singapore, is modelled after the variety prevalent in the US (a mini school bus with a built-in kitchen within the vehicle itself), whereas, the Makansutra version bears in mind the vehicle and the kitchen as a separate entity, based on logic determined by the COE system here.
A basic motivating factor for people who toy with the idea of being their own food truck boss is revenue, of course. But the more important question is – determining the practicality, the costs and the realities behind such a venture. The minimal set-up and running costs can go as high as S$300,000, with nearly half of the costs going into the truck, building the custom made kitchen, regulation and licensing, the COE and the unique equipment of the kitchen itself.
In business, there is always competition. The F&B industry in Singapore is undoubtedly cutthroat, and the Travelling C.O.W sees itself on a level-playing field with establishments from cafes to bistros to restaurants alike, as long as they also provide food in that vein. While it took Karen Cheng (boss of C.O.W), six months to obtain her license to start her business, there are many who have tried and did not make it for various reasons – like the daunting procedure, lack of infrastructure support, and the sheer cost. “Passion and persistence, and the ability to adapt on the go”, according to Cheng, are some key traits to becoming a food truck owner. But does one need deep pockets to be their own food truck boss? That depends on how you define deep. While Cheng is grateful that she has the financial capability to explore this route, not a lot out there can cough out the kind of “affordable” moolah to get a makan truck off the yard. Every little thing on the build-up checklist adds up to a hefty bill.
The following infographic provides a holistic picture of what the estimated costs (at press time) of starting a food truck business in Singapore.
It’s an astronomical startup costs for a simple food truck business (which ironically should be cheaper and easy). The pragmatism of Singapore will tell you it is way cheaper to set up shop in a prime space foodcourt or café with a busy footfall and traffic. No complex licensing, gas, water and disposal problems to consider – not even the maintenance cost of the truck. You won’t have overly concerned officers from LTA, URA, NParks, SCDF, AVA etc, breathing down your neck on such new ventures (even to them) under their purview either.
Our craving for an iconic food truck scene in Singapore resonates with our long-standing love affair with street food culture. Various authorities and government agencies are still open to initiatives involving mobile food wagons, despite their previous failed attempts. Some privately-owned institutions do invite the food trucks to park on their premises for free, to provide an alternative choice for the office workers for alternative and convenient options – but it’s not a major carrot for the truck operators. Manpower, licensing fees, mobility costs, and maintenance are some of the key bugbears.
Moving forward, URA is putting up an experimental platform in early 2014 to seed food truck culture in Singapore. NParks has also been working on a feasibility study over the last few years, to re-examine allowing food wagons to operate in its parks. It remains to be seen whether this would be the game changer. This is an opportune moment to consider the role that government institutions can play in supporting the propagation of a bona fide food truck culture. Apart from dishing out land-use permits, which is the least of the concerns, they should also consider facilitating the necessary infrastructure for the food truck parks. Our wish-list includes plug-and-play electric, gas, and waste disposal facilities, and central kitchen facilities at subsidized rates, if at all they are serious about keeping food cost low by utilising and maximizing public land use. Full-fledged open-flame cooking in mobile vehicles already exists. A well-known Chinese catering restaurant Gim Tin has been operating mobile kitchens, cooking up mouthwatering storms for corporate and private events for years now, so it is not uncharted territory we are seeing here. It’s only a matter of reconfiguring it for public use with safety clauses.
Indeed, food trucks can lend much vibrancy and character to the culinary lifestyles in Singapore – imagine having a group of food trucks offering their best menu at your favourite outdoor space or park – for your birthday, a grand company party by the beach or even a marquee moonlight wedding. But now, the sheer high costs and lack of relevant infrastructure are prohibitive factors for any tipping point to kick start this. A deeper collaborative tripartite effort involving the government, the corporations and the people must happen, for this to seed properly – after all, Singapore was crowned by the World Street Food Congress (held in June 2013) as the “Best Street Food City in the World”.
This is the best time to set this food gear in motion.