So you want to go the DIY route and build a food truck all by yourself? The good news is there are many examples of entrepreneurs who have successfully built their own trailers and trucks without any formal experience. The bad news is that you should expect hiccups along the way.

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A: Air conditioner, B: Fume hood, C: Rear door, D: External power hookup, E: Generator cover panel, F: Circuit breaker, G: 100lb propane tank, H: Propane housing door. Illustrations by Rob Nance

If you have mechanical experience, an engineering background, and are really good at solving problems you can certainly pull this off. Plus, if you put the vehicle together yourself, you’ll have in-depth knowledge on how to fix anything that might arise.

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I: 30 gallon wastewater tank, J: 20 gallon freshwater tank, K: Hand washing sink, L: 3 basin sink, M: Counter space, N: 36″ gas griddle, O: 40lb gas fryer, P: 6 burner gas range, Q: 6200 watt generator, R: Mini fridge

1. LAYOUT AND EQUIPMENT

Determine the type of food truck you want, along with the equipment needed to serve the food. A coffee truck will have very different space and equipment requirements than a burger bus. Write down everything you need in your future truck. This could include a refrigerator, deep fryer, freezer, heat lamp, and storage space.

Next, determine how much space you need. Get the specifics of each piece of equipment and design a layout of where each should be placed. Take your time when deciding the layout — building a food truck that’s designed for efficiency is critical for maximizing profit.

The Whole Cart operates a custom fleet of 25 food trucks that serve Bay Area corporate campuses. Photography by Hep Svadja

The Whole Cart operates a custom fleet of 25 food trucks that serve Bay Area corporate campuses. Photography by Hep Svadja

2. FIND A VEHICLE

Be sure to conduct an inspection of the vehicle you’re considering, and find out as much information as possible about its history prior to purchase. If you’re buying directly from a business, you can be more certain of how the truck has been cared for in the past. If you buy from a dealer, it’s more difficult to determine how the vehicle has been treated.

3. MARK THE LAYOUT

Clear out the interior of the truck, minus the driver’s seat and steering wheel, until you get a big empty box.

Mark where the serving window will be within the truck. Use a Sharpie to outline where all the equipment will be placed. Identify the location of any outlets and fixtures, and determine the locations of the wall that separates the kitchen from the driver, the propane tank, and the generator.

4. SET UP THE ELECTRICAL WIRING

Wiring your truck correctly is extremely important because if the power goes out in your vehicle, you won’t be able to serve customers. And it can be very difficult to determine what’s wrong with electrical wiring after a vehicle is fully built.

Get an experienced electrician to help you with this if you don’t know what you’re doing. The electrician will run wire to all circuits and to the back panel. Electrical boxes may also need to be installed.

The interior of the Rue du Falafel truck features rotating vertical spits for cooking shawarma.

The interior of the Rue du Falafel truck features rotating vertical spits for cooking shawarma.

5. REINFORCING THE INTERIOR

Due to its light weight and durability, aluminum square tubing is recommended for framing the outside walls, around the serving window, the generator, the hood, areas of the A/C, and the divider wall.

6. CUT OPENINGS FOR WINDOWS AND A/C

Cut the side panel for the serving window. A typical opening is 4×3 feet. You’ll also want to cut a space for the A/C unit on the roof.

7. FINISH THE INSIDE WALLS

The wall behind your cooking line must be made from nonflammable materials per most fire code requirements. That means wood should not be used in any area.

Insulate the walls using styrofoam panels (or nonflammable rockwool behind your cooking line), then install interior paneling on the walls and ceiling. Most food truckers recommend 100% stainless steel sheets for the walls. You also want to install non-skid flooring at this time.

8. GAS / PROPANE TANK

Check your local safety/fire regulations to ensure you’re setting up everything correctly. Although it’s very common to install propane tanks on the rear of a food truck, there are many cities that don’t allow this. Ask your fire department for help positioning the gas tanks on your vehicle.

Next, install a gas manifold for your equipment, connect the manifold to the propane tank, and install the regulator. You will likely need to fabricate and install the tank rack to hold all this gear.

A PowerTech 50kW generator serves up to 200 amps on the Red Triangle Coffee + Provisions truck.

A PowerTech 50kW generator serves up to 200 amps on the Red Triangle Coffee + Provisions truck.

9. SET UP THE INTERIOR HOOD

Interior exhaust hoods help to ventilate your vehicle. Before installing, check your local laws to confirm everything is up to code.

10. PRE-EQUIPMENT LOAD

Install the concession window and door, A/C unit, any general equipment tables, and cabinets and countertops.

11. COMPLETE ELECTRICAL WORK

Add light fixtures, outlets, switches, panels, and connect them to the breakers. Again, if you don’t know how to do this, call a professional who has experience wiring
food trucks or mobile homes.

12. LOAD COOKING EQUIPMENT

Load up the rest of the equipment: the refrigerator, kitchen sink, cash register, and other tools required to deliver memorable food moments to your future customers. If it goes onto the truck, install it now.

13. PLUMBING

At this point the plumber can connect the sinks to the fresh water tank, install a dump valve, and conduct other work that is required by your local ordinances. Hiring an experienced food-truck plumber is recommended. Anticipate actual costs to be 2–3 times the initial estimate.

14. SET UP THE GENERATOR

Confirm your generator is securely and firmly positioned. You’ll need to connect the generator to the main panel and transfer switch. Also, make sure the generator is installed in a well-ventilated area of the vehicle. These things get hot!

15. FINISHING TOUCHES

Inspect the plumbing, gas connections, and electrical work, and test the generator.
Finally, you’ll need to find someone to make and apply the truck wrap on the outside of the vehicle. This is not something you want to do yourself since the first thing customers will see is the outside of your vehicle. Make sure you look like a pro.

THE FINAL WORD

There will be some unique troubleshooting issues you’ll need to figure out when building a food truck. Each is a little bit different and has particular equipment needs.

You shouldn’t hesitate to reach out to experts along the way. You might even be surprised that any friends who are plumbers, electricians, or mechanics will be happy to help you out with this interesting project. Food trucks are fun! Fellow food truck owners can also be an incredible resource. They understand the local laws and may have built their own truck as well. Good luck!