More than a menu: Six tips for starting a successful food truck

From 20-hour days to intense physical labour, the workload of the food truck entrepreneurs profiled in YouTube series ‘We started the Food Truck Thing’ is not for the faint-hearted. Founder of GObai food truck Cara Davies reveals why – despite the worries, stresses and strains of the business – she wouldn’t have it any other way

It is these kinds of entrepreneurs that define Dubai. Fast-paced, with chatter as rapid as their chopping skills, Cara, Dana, Abrar and Taimoor are the poster children of the food truck scene in the city, proving with their eclectic backgrounds there’s no one special ingredient that makes for a successful food roadie.

Take Abrar Salama, the founder of Bio Bean. Not your typical apron-clad chef – in the video she is impeccably dressed in a wool blazer and oversized jade chain – she wryly admits that she was ‘not used to hard work’ before starting up her business. Yet over the course of just one episode, viewers see her lugging heavy palettes around a warehouse and coordinating logistics as well as taking care of her young son.

“You’re an Arab and you sell Mexican food? How did that happen?” is a common refrain heard by Dana Al Sharif, founder of Calle Tacos. “But my husband lived in California most of his life,” she says. Like Salama, over the course of the series we see her trying to balance the rigours of owning a business with taking care of her kids.

“I saw the movie Chef, which was a pretty romantic idea of how a food truck vendor makes it big,” says Taimur Khan, owner of three different truck concepts. Abandoning a 9-5 job, he found that this romanticism was quick to disappear, replaced by fraught conversations with event organisers and the organisational maze that is arranging three different trucks to appear at events all around the UAE.

Cara Davies also gave up a 9-5 career in recruitment to pursue her dream of owning a business, only to find herself grappling with the menial labour that comes with owning a 7-tonne vehicle. But despite the hardships (and 20-hour days), it seems none of them would change a thing. For them, the road is freedom – and the food that comes along with it? A bonus.

Six lessons to live by before starting a food truck business

By Cara Davies, Cofounder of GObai

Lesson One: If you don’t have business acumen, get some

I stumbled through a few careers trying to conform – I got kicked out of uni for being a bad attempt at a nursing student and ended up renting a house in Scotland at 17, working just to pay the bills. I realised I was never going to do what I wanted to in life without going back to university, so I managed to scrape my way into an access course for business, where I did a BA Hons in business management. When I was in Dubai working in recruitment, I got an opportunity to volunteer for redundancy, so used that money to fund a business MBA in Edinburgh. I flew back and forth between Dubai and Scotland doing a business plan with my cofounder, Kevin.

Lesson Two: Learn on the job

When Kevin first introduced his Goan/Dubai street food idea, I had never been to Goa – I’d never even been to India! It was really hard to do it from scratch. If you could’ve seen the original drawing of the truck’s design… it was not good. Design was not a strength of mine, but it became a passion and so I made it a strength. Now, I’m involved in every aspect of the truck’s aesthetic – right down to the plant pots on the picnic tables.

Lesson Three: It takes a village

We’re so lucky to have some amazing friends that have helped us with GObai. One friend works for Emirates but is amazing at Adobe Illustrator, so he helped us with our logo. Another friend sent her two kids here for work experience, where they helped us with menu tasting.  By day, Kevin is an HR director and I took on the role of being the face of the business, but that definitely didn’t go to plan! For the first year of business, he worked every day and on average we were doing minimum 12 hours, sometimes up to 19.

Lesson Four: Don’t just put out fires

For the first year, I acted as our finance manager, IT manager, business development, operations, and I was just pulled where I was needed rather than making a conscious decision. That was one of the things we did wrong in year one – letting the things that screamed the loudest take preference, when I should have taken a more critical, high-level role.

Lesson Five: Cherry-pick your events

The biggest events are definitely not the most profitable. In Dubai, you have homegrown startups like us competing with multinational food chains, so I tend to stay away from the events with the big brands. They spend a fortune to be there just for marketing’s sake, and I can’t afford to compete with that as a small business – its not sustainable. You have to get used to saying no to a lot of opportunities.

Lesson Six: Diversify, diversify, diversify

The menu I started with and the menu I have now are very different. We went from cutlet paos, a famous street food in Goa, to a steak burger: its the same thing, but a more familiar name will always be a better seller. Every entrepreneur also needs different revenue streams. To rely on sale of food alone is too risky. How we hoped Dubai’s food truck infrastructure would evolve hasn’t materialised, so we now do private catering, a lot of event management, and have cofounded ventures like TruckersDXB, the Hangry Hangar, and the Truckers of Arabia. One of the reasons we set up the Truckers of Arabia was to show the hilarity of a food truck behind-the-scenes is. Like when a truck got stuck on the sand at JBR – three bulldozers later, I was wondering what I’d signed up for.