Food trucks like Van Leeuwen Ice Cream have seen exponential growth in the past five years. Data from IBIS World shows revenue growth of 7.9 percent to nearly $870 million from 2011 through 2016, with some 4,000 food trucks nationwide. The National Restaurant Association data shows that over the past decade on a unit basis, eating and drinking places posted a 1.6 percent compound annual growth rate versus 1.7 percent for quick-service establishments, while mobile caterers grew 10.2 percent.
But that growth is projected to slow through 2021 to a rate of just 3 percent annually, IBIS World forecasts, due to regulatory hurdles. It's something Van Leeuwen is considering as the brand grows.
"Right now we keep the trucks out because we love them, but it's very challenging to make them work financially in New York City. In other markets it's much better. In Los Angeles it's very truck-friendly," Ben said.
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While start-up costs and monthly overhead are far less for operating a restaurant on wheels, the business can be very labor intensive — something former litigator Eric Silverstein, 34, learned when launching his truck, The Peached Tortilla, in Austin in 2010. Silverstein wanted to raise capital to open a restaurant but couldn't get the backing. He put up $30,000 of his own cash and raised about $9,000 from outside investors to launch the business featuring southern and Asian influenced tacos, burritos and bowls.
"We had some shifts where we were making $150 or $200. We didn't know where we were going; operationally, food trucks are very rough. It took a big toll on me personally and mentally. But if you're doing it, you need to be ready for an all-out war on the street, basically, for a few years."
Silverstein eventually won that war, doing about $200,000 in business in year one and seeing 100 percent growth year-over-year since then. The brand is projecting revenue of more than $3 million this year, thanks to the opening of The Peached Tortilla restaurant in 2014, along with catering events and running his two trucks.