If you’re a budding chef who’s keen to set up shop on a budget, a mobile street food business could be your best bet.
From private catering at corporate events and weddings, to festivals, farmers’ markets and tourist hot spots – a mobile catering business could turn the world into your oyster (or burger or taco!).
But just how easy is it to convert a bog-standard van into a food outlet, and what work is involved?
Picking a van
Image courtesy of The Little Taquero
When it comes to choosing your vehicle, there are a few things to consider.
While retro vans may be all the rage, will they be easy to fix if they break down? And, if you plan on travelling long distances, will they be able to get there?
“Theoretically you can convert almost any van, but the older the van, the less reliable, and there’s more cost associated with changing parts,” explains Chris Hall, who runs The Little Taquero, a Mexican street food business, out of a 1978 Renault Estafette van.
“Because our van is 40 years old, we don’t travel more than 50 to 60 miles. The upside is that we probably get more bookings because we’re a vintage van and people like the look of us. But we can only go 50 miles per hour max and we do have to replace parts every so often.”
Image courtesy of The Little Taquero
Another practicality to consider is how much time you’re going to be spending in there.
“If you want to run your entire business from the van, including all the cooking, you need to be able to stand up straight inside it,” explains Barny Luxmoore, who runs toastie truck The Jabberwocky, a 2004 Transit ambulance conversion, with his wife, Flic.
“A lot of people try to convert vans with rear-wheel drive, so the floor is well above where the back wheels are. This means you’re talking down at your customers or you need to build a step for them to stand on. So that’s an important consideration when designing a van – where to put the serving hatch.”
Doing it yourself
The plus side of doing your own van conversion, rather than hiring a professional outfitter, is not only is it generally much cheaper, but you can also tailor it exactly to your needs.
“A lot of it you can do yourself. An electrician needs to check your electrics, but if you’re confident, you can install them yourself,” says Barny. “I think it’s worth getting a gas expert to install any gas appliances because then you know they’re 100% safe.
“The only other thing I couldn’t do myself was stainless-steel work units, so I found someone who could make them to my design. Some people just make units out of wood and old worktops but it’s a lot heavier and it’s not as good for food safety.”
In terms of other requirements for your van, there aren’t too many. You can choose which appliances to fit, such as cookers, grills, hobs and fryers. However, one thing that is essential is that you have at least one sink with hot and cold running water.
“To get a five-star hygiene rating, you’re supposed to have two sinks – one for hand washing and one for utensils,” says Chris. “Also, if you’re cooking with oil or frying, you need to have decent ventilation.”
Like any catering business, you must also have a valid gas safety certificate and PAT (portable appliance testing) certificates for electrical appliances. Your council’s environmental health department will come and assess your vehicle and let you know if you need to make any modifications.
Cost and time
Like any business, setting up a mobile street food van involves some initial investment. If you plan on having a van professionally converted, you can expect to pay between £15-25k. Doing it alone will be significantly cheaper at around £5-10k.
“After purchase of the van itself, it cost us about £8,000 to do the conversion – respraying it, putting the hatch in, all of the insides, the gas, the electrics and the insurance,” says Chris.
If you’re doing the conversion yourself, you can expect it to take a couple of months minimum; longer, if you’re juggling with other commitments.
Insurance and tax
Once your vehicle has been kitted out and is fit for operation, you’ll need to sort your insurance and tax before you hit the road.
“You have to go through a specialist broker for street food van insurance,” says Barny. “Most standard van insurers don’t cover any modifications or fixed items inside a catering van, so do a bit of research and shop around.”
A specialist street food van insurance policy should cover the vehicle for its use on the road, as well as any fixtures and fittings inside the van, like cookers, hobs and sinks.
You must also ensure you have public liability insurance and, if you’re hiring people, employers’ liability insurance.
When it comes to taxing a street food van, the DVLA class the vehicle as a standard van. The only thing to think about is if you’ve changed the use of the vehicle, as Barny explains: “When we bought our ambulance to convert, it was still taxed as an ambulance, so, we contacted the DVLA and filled in a change of use form.”
For retro van owners, a good tip to note is that if your van is over 40 years old, it becomes tax exempt so you won’t have to worry.