Registrations for food truck and trailer licences are on the rise, with some people in the business saying the boom time for mobile hospitality is just beginning.

In Australia, the boom may be over. The number of food truck vendors has soared in recent years, meaning increased competition and lower returns. The Australian Mobile Food Vendors Group estimates there are 3000 food trucks in Victoria alone, up from 1500 two years ago.

But Tauranga marketing adviser Sheldon Nesdale, who keeps a running list of all of the New Zealand food trucks open for business, says things are just beginning in this country.

"In New Zealand, it's absolutely boom time," the food truck lover says.


Three years ago Nesdale created a website and a tally of the mobile hospitality vendors in New Zealand. That number now stands at 214, he says, and is growing by two new vendors each week.

"Food trucks are magical ways to eat," says Nesdale. "They're delicious and gourmet, the meal choices are unique.

"They're really great value for money because they've got less overheads, they're mobile and can turn up to events, there's this fun element about them."

Nesdale says local councils have realised the benefits of community events and made it easier for vendors to set up shop.

But Maggie Gray, like some other vendors running mobile food outlets, disagrees about how easy it is to do business.

"When I started my food truck I thought I could roll down to the beach like Mr Whippy and start trading, and I wondered why no one else was doing it.

"The more I looked into it, I realised that you need permission from the council, permission from the local reserve or wherever you are, which is understandable, but it's just not as easy as I thought it would be."

Being a mobile vendor has its difficulties, says Gray, particularly council restrictions, few events to trade at and licence and compliance costs.


"There's a really great community of food trucks now in Auckland ... trying to get the council more on board and supporting us being able to trade in more city-centre locations and not be so restrictive is the biggest barrier."

According to Auckland Council statistics, 432 mobile food vehicles are operating in the city - 312 food trucks and 119 coffee carts. That number has been steady over the past two years, says the council.

Gray runs her organic smoothie bar Rawe as a part-time venture and is the founder of the Auckland Food Truck Collection, a group of 15 vendors who meet monthly to discuss issues and promote upcoming events.

"There was a big boom of us that started about two years ago," she says.

"Food trucks are an incredible addition and add character to any city."

Gray says a wave of new entrants have moved into Auckland's food truck scene. "It's becoming a little bit flooded because there are so many food trucks ... but there's not enough events, or profitable events, and places to trade," she says.

When there are events, fees to set up shop range from $100 to $1000.

"There are difficulties when events either get cancelled due to weather or they are not as promising as you've been sold," Gray says. "You do have events where you make a loss.

"Some event organisers see food trucks as an easy way of making money. If they're a bit more fair in terms of prices they offer, I think, the industry can continue to rise," she says. "It's a bit more challenging than people probably think it is."

Sheldon Nesdale, Tauranga-based marketing advisor. Photo / Supplied
Sheldon Nesdale, Tauranga-based marketing advisor. Photo / Supplied

On the whole, though, Gray says running a food truck is a viable business. "It's definitely a profitable model when you're at the right event and trading on the right day."

Nesdale puts food trucks' success down to the "unique" food and drink on offer.

"What I really appreciate about this sector is the creativity. As long as they can come up with a new name and a new type of food that doesn't exist out there, then I think those types of businesses will succeed."

The growing focus on healthy eating and alternative ingredients is also a factor, and more and more people are wanting to cash in on mobile outlets' success, he says.

"I've definitely seen growth in people's interest in either buying food trucks or building them from scratch; that has been increasing over the last two years."

Nesdale says he is approached every couple of weeks with enquires about wanting to buy a food truck business, mostly by people who plan to run it as a side gig.

Catering, selling retail products and collaborations with brands are some of the ways many mobile vendors stay in business during bleak weather.

Chinese-inspired fusion street food business Judge Bao does that.

It retails bottled spice mixes, oils and sauces as a supplementary income, as well as attending events. The mobile business began in the summer of 2015, starting as a side business trading on weekends while owners Debbie Orr and Jamie Johnston worked full time as an IBM consultant and chef.

"We really loved what we were doing but it got to the point that to do it properly and to give it our best shot, we had to give up our full time jobs," Orr says.

"When we first started, people would talk about food trucks or food stalls and street food, the ones they would associate with would be night market versions, the cheap and cheerful. It was a bit of a struggle for us as we were doing a gourmet, better version of street food ... gradually, as the years have gone by, more people like us have started and they are all elevating standards of street food and changing people's perception of what street food and food trucks are all about."

Judge Bao's Chinese fusion street food. Photo / Supplied
Judge Bao's Chinese fusion street food. Photo / Supplied

Orr says she thinks the business model is viable when done part time. "As a full time job it is a lot trickier because winter is always the biggest challenge because there are less markets and when the weather gets nippy people don't want to come out."

Judge Bao now dabbles in collaborations with brands as another way to get through quieter periods. Recent partnerships include one with gin brand Bombay Sapphire as a pairing with its food.

Johnston says food trucks are steering food trends and influencing what is sold in restaurants and cafes.

"Even the top chefs nowadays are looking at street food and they're introducing it onto their menus and they'll be doing something along the lines of a taco, maybe a bao (Chinese steamed bun), or some kind of loaded fries," he says.

"We've helped influence restaurants."

Johnston says he puts New Zealand's vibrant food truck scene down to the country's ethnic diversity. "When I came to New Zealand I was baffled by how many different cultures there were in one tiny little island, and then when it comes to the food scene, I've probably had more awesome ethnic food cooked by people of those backgrounds, in New Zealand."

Compared to the Australian food truck scene, says Johnston, the food this side of the Tasman is much better.

"We went to Melbourne to check out the food truck scene and it looked very polished, awesome, the trucks looked like they were good builds and brilliant branding but the food let them down," he says.

"When we came back to New Zealand we realised that our friends in the food truck scene, their food is a 10, absolutely outstanding and the service so warm, you actually get to see the owners and operators, that's what I think really makes a difference."

Orr says: "One of the most beautiful things about the food truck scene here is that we all work very well together and there's no sabotaging, there's no trying to throw salad under the bus."

Judge Bao founders 'Bun hun' Debbie and 'Sauce boss' Jamie. Photo / Supplied
Judge Bao founders 'Bun hun' Debbie and 'Sauce boss' Jamie. Photo / Supplied

Former veteran food caravan operator Dan Smith says he stopped running his part time business after 15 years, as operating costs skyrocketed.

He echoes what Gray says: fees to sell at events and festivals, combined with compliance costs, have made a relatively simple operation troublesome.

"Unfortunately food trucks are at the whim of event organisers, and occasionally when you think you've got something regular, you don't," Smith says.

He says he found running food trucks very rewarding. "I find the thrill and bustle of being part of the show, not just attending it, has a massive draw for me.

"When we started you couldn't help but make money, everything was very lucrative and the sale price was very low, and costs were a lot lower then, too.

"Compliance was minimal, a few hundred dollars for the council certificate and the cost of the ingredients and products was way lower. For me, I found it a lot more lucrative and a higher yield on it back then 15 years ago. Since then costs have slowly started mounting," says Smith.

"The other thing I notice happen was a lot of shows, the fees skyrocketed. As people made money, fees started skyrocketing and obviously house prices drove the cost of everything up."

The last event he did was Parachute, a three-and-a-half-day festival, and had to pay a $5000 fee to be there.

Food trucks go mainstream

Food trucks are in such hot demand, even pizza franchise Hell has jumped on the trend. The pizza company has started selling mobile franchise business for $150,000, with operators using a Mad Max style RV complete with a full-size pizza oven.

American ice-cream company Ben & Jerry's also operates food trucks.

It has one truck in Takapuna, a pop-up container in Lower Hutt and another mobile truck which it uses nationwide for promotions.

Ben & Jerry's New Zealand country business lead Bert Naber says the Takapuna food truck was introduced in 2016 as it wanted to save its "fans on the shore from having to cross the bridge to get a scoop".

Naber says Ben & Jerry's trucks have been well-received. "We think food trucks bring a great dynamic to any town and can support the local community and culture."

Christchurch City Council has granted 15 food truck licences so far this year. Last year it granted 30, there were 35 in 2016 and about the same in 2015. It now has 206 registered operators, up from 188 in 2014.

Hell's mobile trailers were designed to look like trucks from the film Mad Max. Photo / Supplied
Hell's mobile trailers were designed to look like trucks from the film Mad Max. Photo / Supplied

In the Wellington metro area, the Wellington City Council had 44 food truck registrations last year, but a council spokesman says there was a jump because of changes in food hygiene regulations. So far this year there have been 13.

Niche and fusion hospitality has boosted the food truck industry, says AUT University senior hospitality management lecturer Lindsay Neill.

"The people who are putting together food trucks think them out more; they're not just trendy or of the moment," Neill says.

"I don't think the mobile food vendor is going away any time soon.

"The food may be trendy but I think we have added value, the relationship with the customer and the food truck owner and that's what makes the market, possibly, a little bit different than the Australian market.

"Our concepts are a bit more well-conceived because the market is smaller so people have to think about it a bit more, and also I think we are a bit more conscious with building relationships with customers."

But, says Neill, "Kiwi mobile food truck owners, because it's a small market, need to do their homework that little bit more because we just don't have the numbers of population.

"These kinds of things go through booms and busts. Once we reach a particular point where the market is saturated with options, I think, there will be a bit of a culling in terms of lower-performing operators which are not as unique," he says.

"We're still going up the peak, and who knows when it's going to stop."