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Can I start a roadside catering business?

woman taking the order from her customer

Starting a mobile catering business is a common first step for many food entrepreneurs in the UK, and a popular place to begin is on a roadside pitch. If you’re wondering whether you have what it takes to set up a roadside catering business then read this insightful article from the Mobilers team.

If you're serious about getting your slice of the catering pie, then reading up on all you can about roadside catering is a good place to start. But remember, when you’re all set up, Mobilers can help by arranging a catering insurance policy that suits your needs and budget.

The UK roadside catering market

People have always loved to eat on the move, and there are few better sights for a hungry traveller than to see a tempting food truck beside the road ahead. Indeed, before the days of food festivals, street food hubs and business parks, on the roadside is where all mobile caterers used to set up.

However, over the years many councils restricted the numbers of roadside pitches available, arguing they were causing a traffic hazard! But while some councils have banned roadside pitches altogether, many have simply moved them from the very busiest roads to quieter areas.

Despite the challenges, roadside catering businesses have continued to play a very significant role in the growth of the mobile business catering industry. Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the world of street food had witnessed massive growth in the UK – growing at an annual rate of 7% and worth an estimated £1.3 billion a year to the economy.

Since then, the whole industry has undergone significant disruption. From large street food operators to small independent traders the past two years has seen some of the most significant business challenges of many owners’ careers.

But there are significant signs of recovery with many traders reporting ‘insane demands’ for their services. For an excellent review of how the street food industry has revived in 2022, look no further than this article from industry experts at The Grocer.

So, if you want to be part of this reinvigorated industry, love cooking great quality food, and can see the continued potential of getting away from the traditional bricks and mortar unit, then starting a roadside catering business could be a great opportunity.

Do I have what it takes to start a roadside catering business?

Just like any business venture, roadside catering requires a large dose of time, effort, and money to make it work. So, making sure you’re 100% committed to your project and have what it takes to succeed are questions always worth considering.

There are many reasons why starting a roadside catering business could be the best thing you ever do. But first ask yourself the following questions to see if you’re suited to a life on the road.

Am I happy to be my own boss?

Many people dream of being their own boss, but it’s not for everyone. It’s great not having to answer to anyone but would you be comfortable making all your own business decisions?

Running your own roadside catering business requires you to do just that. From sorting out catering insurance and ensuring food hygiene standards are met to what offers to run and when to move pitch, there’s no hiding behind anyone else if things go wrong – the buck stops with you!

Can I afford the start-up costs?

Running your own bricks and mortar business requires a massive capital investment and can be a big risk when just starting out. Because most people don’t have access to that amount of cash, the roadside catering business can be seen as an attractive option.

But even ‘just’ a few thousand pounds, is not a small amount of money for anyone. As with any investment if things go wrong, you could lose what you’ve put in.

NCASS the Nationwide Caterers Association estimates that even a small, second-hand mobile catering vans in good condition that’s suitable for a roadside catering start-up could set you back anywhere up to £5,000. A similar amount to a new gazebo and some basic catering equipment.

But you could easily be looking at more. NCASS says that a more typical vehicle budget for roadside caterers or those visiting small events would be between £5,000 and £10,000. This would get you a decent second-hand van conversion suitable for the roadside or a second-hand sandwich snack truck.

Obviously, if you’re looking at something that’s capable of high quality and high output suitable for large events then you’ll soon be approaching £50,000. This should get you a new, high quality, high output trailer for large shows and events.

And that’s just the upfront vehicle costs. Any experienced mobile caterer will tell you that adding in equipment, stock, catering insurance, fuel, parking, licensing and pitch fees, advertising, MOTs and maintenance could see your set-up costs reach many thousands of pounds. By no means a budget option!

So, while a fancy top-of-the-range motorised trailer will make a great impression on those first customers, it will cost you. And when you’re only starting out this will take careful thought.

With so much to think about when setting up a roadside catering business then it’s important to get the right help when you can. For all your catering insurance needs there’s no better place to come than Mobilers.

Am I happy to start off small?

Giving up your day job and diving into a roadside catering business full time is great if you know what you’re doing and know you enjoy it. However, if this is your first time it might be worth starting off with something small and inexpensive like a small stall at a food market.

Operating just in the evenings or at weekends can also reduce costs. If you are thinking about a stall then be aware that we offer market trader insurance as well as catering insurance. Market trader insurance is perfect for those who want to become a market trader.

How experienced am I in catering?

There are no qualification barriers to setting up a roadside catering business, but that doesn’t mean just anyone can do it. For example, you don’t need letters after your name or a lifetime’s worth of prior experience to get started (although those things could help!).

But there are other essential qualities such as having some sound business nous, great people skills, and a can-do attitude that will get you out on the road on the odd cold or wet morning. And if you don’t like cooking, then are you really cut out for the catering business anyway?

Do I have a business plan for the future?

With the end of the COVID-19 pandemic in sight, now is the time to really think about how you want to position your business in the catering market place. The world of roadside catering has moved on a long way from the times when you could simply turn up with your trailer and hope for the best.

It’s a highly competitive market out there, and you need to be ambitious in order to survive. From converted VW campervans to vintage trucks, there’s a whole fleet of mobile caterers who have brought a level of chic to the industry that’s never been seen before.

And don’t forget your potential customers. They’ve come to expect high quality food to be quick and easy to get. And, if they can’t get it from you then they’ll go elsewhere.

If you’re thinking of running your own roadside catering business, then it’s a good idea to give some serious consideration to your future plans. Are you looking to stick to one brilliant van that people journey for miles to visit or are you looking to build up a serious brand with a fleet of vehicles? If you're looking for a fleet of vehicles, then consider which vehicles are best for catering van conversions.

Am I good with budgeting?

How you manage the costs of your mobile catering business will play a big part in whether you’re successful or not. The NCASS claims that a typical gross profit margin in the mobile catering industry can be between 65% and 85%, but some businesses might do even better – with profit margins of up to 95% not unheard of.

However, to be in with a chance of achieving those kinds of jaw-dropping margins, you’ll need to keep a strict eye on your outgoings. Particularly when the costs of many items such as fuel and food stock have been rising so significantly during the current cost-of-living crisis. Check out our guide on how to cater for 100 guests on a budget for some more money saving tips.

To keep costs down you might consider:

  • Renting a food truck rather than buying one.
  • Looking for second-hand equipment that meets legal and safety requirements.
  • Choosing smaller, cheaper dishes for your menu. Perhaps consider starting your own ice cream business.
  • Using seasonal or long-life ingredients.
  • Building good relationships with local food suppliers to keep costs down. Make sure to shop around and consider getting together with other businesses to save on bulk purchases.

Do I enjoy meeting new people?

Being your own boss and getting out on the road is never going to be boring. But are you up for the challenge? You’ll never know who you’ll find queuing up in front of your truck, but you’ll be sure to meet lots of different people from all different walks of life.

Whether you’re flipping burgers at a truck stop on a Friday night, or ladling out hearty soups and chilis in a supermarket car park on a Saturday afternoon during festival season, if you’re a people person then the hours will fly by. Whatever business dreams you have, Mobilers has catering insurance tailored to you and your budget.

Where can I pitch my roadside catering business?

So, if you think you have what it takes to be successful in roadside catering, what next? Unfortunately, finding a place to pitch your roadside catering business is not as straightforward as you might think.

You can’t just turn up anywhere and start cooking. And the laws relating to roadside catering can vary hugely from one area to another, so are well worth researching.

Some councils require a Street Trading Licence (which can be expensive) while some won’t allow roadside catering at all. Whatever is the case in your area it’s vital you work with your local council to agree on a pitch and the parameters you want to trade within.

Even if a council doesn’t require you to obtain a specific consent/licence or charge roadside caterers, there are often strict conditions you’ll need to follow if you want to stay out of hot water. These could include:

  • Never pitch in a lay-by on a dual carriageway.
  • Your catering unit must be self-propelled or towable.
  • It mustn’t cause road safety concerns.
  • It can’t cause any damage to the highway or interfere with the free and safe flow of traffic.
  • All waste and liquids must be kept off the highway at all times.
  • Litter must be removed from the site at the end of each business opening period.
  • The unit must be located behind the kerb line.
  • You must leave at least 1.5m between the unit and the highway to ensure pedestrian safety.
  • The 'pitch' does not become the property of a trader and no rights are acquired through length of use.
  • No nuisance shall be caused to neighbouring landowners or any other persons.

A UK city guide to street trading licence/consent costs

birmingham city centre

To give you a better idea of precisely how much a street trading licence or consent could set you back in cities around the country, we’ve put together a list of some of the UK’s largest cities and how much they charge street traders.

Many councils don’t have an easy to search list of potential street trading sites. So, it’s up to you to do your own research and identify the site you want to apply to trade on.

When you apply for a street trading licence or consent, make sure you’re as precise as possible about where you plan to trade. You don’t want to make a mistake and end up in the wrong spot!

Also make sure to refer to any council’s street trading policy so you’ll know what they take into consideration when assessing the suitability of a location.

  • Aberdeenshire Council charges a fee of £207 for mobile street trading.
  • Belfast City Council charges mobile street traders a £180 application fee and a £1,100 annual fee if you wish to trade seven days a week.
  • Birmingham City Council charges a £724 application fee and a £5,160 consent fee for an annual city centre consent. The consent fee reduces to £2,218 for an out-of-city consent.
  • Bristol City Council charges £1,565 per quarter for trading in the centre and £398 per quarter outside of the centre. Mobile street traders are charged £453 per year.
  • Cardiff City Council charges a £60 application fee and a £537 grant fee for street trading.
  • Exeter City Council charges a fee of £1,930 for a 12-month street trading licence.
  • Glasgow City Council charges street traders a £153 application fee for a 3-year licence.
  • Liverpool City Council charges an annual consent fee of £217.81. If you want to trade around Everton and Liverpool Football Clubs’ grounds on match days then you’ll be charged a consent fee of £293.60.
  • Manchester City Council charges £720 for a street trader licence and £420 for a street trader consent.
  • Sheffield City Council charges £1,994 for an annual street trading consent in the city centre.
  • Swansea City Council charges £5,279.40 for a 12-month street trading licence at each of its city centre pitches.

How to find a pitch

In general, there are three main ways you can go about finding a suitable pitch for your roadside catering business.

1. Start from scratch

Find a likely unused spot on the roadside or at a retail, trading or industrial estate and speak to the land owner about getting an agreement in place. Speak with your local council and clear it with them.

See what certificates you need to have in place and whether you need to pay for a Street Trading Licence. Depending on the location, there could be a range of other conditions you’ll also need to follow.

2. Buy an existing business or pitch

Just like with any business, sometimes circumstances change and an owner wants to move on. A roadside catering business that has been operating from a pitch for a while and has built up a decent customer base is obviously going to be worth some money.

However, remember that an existing agreement with a landowner or licence from the council may not be transferable to you. Always make absolutely sure about the situation before you hand over any money.

3. Pitch on private land

Car parks outside retail or business addresses as well as other areas of private land are a common solution for roadside catering businesses looking for a suitable pitch. However, you’ll still need to contact your local council to find out about licensing.

After all, just because the business is on private land rather than the public highway, doesn’t mean you don’t need a licence. You might also need to seek planning permission if you’re looking to change the use of the land.

Having the right paperwork in place is an important part of starting a roadside catering business. Just like having the right catering insurance policy documents to cover your business against risk.

Depending on the location, you may also need to contact a local site agent. These agents operate many major retail car parks across the UK such as those used by B&Q or Homebase customers.

Two companies that might be worth contacting to help with finding a likely site for your roadside catering business are Retail Concessions and Access Point.

And don’t forget that ever-helpful source of information and contacts, social media! For example, if you’re on Facebook then why not join groups such as Mobile Catering & Burger Vans UK or Catering Pitches and Events UK. With thousands of members there’s bound to be someone who could help in your search.

What else do I need to do before I start a roadside catering business?

Anyone serving food as part of their business is required to register as a food business with the relevant local authority environmental health department. Officers will then inspect your van or trailer and make sure you’re complying with the relevant food safety and hygiene legislation.

As well as a street trader’s licence, if you plan on serving hot food or drink between the hours of 11pm and 5am you often need to obtain a late-night refreshment licence from the local council. Not forgetting the need to arrange catering insurance to protect your young business. You may also find benefit in getting catering van Wi-Fi for your catering business, check out our guide to learn more.

If you or your staff need to handle food in the course of business then you must attend an appropriate food hygiene training course. NCASS as well as a number of other organisations and local colleges have such courses on offer. You have to also consider if you want to market your business online or offline, we created a guide to help you through the process.

Remember, environmental health inspectors can visit your business at any time to check you’re following food hygiene regulations. They’ll also assess the overall standard of your roadside catering unit. So make sure you are adhering to the gas safety that is necessary for your catering business. 

Protect your roadside catering business with catering insurance from Mobilers

woman taking a contactless payment from her customer

Successfully starting a roadside catering business is impossible if you haven’t the right level of insurance for your roadside catering van or truck. How else are you going to safeguard your business and your customers against a range of risks?

The team of insurance specialists at Mobilers can quickly provide catering insurance for your van or truck. Or even set you up with specialist cover for an ice cream van, burger van, mobile bar, coffee van or other type of catering unit.

Get a quote for catering insurance today!

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