Fair Food, Food Carts, and the Food Concession Business

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Q&A - Food Concessionaires’ Collection of Collective Knowledge

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Rarely does a food concessionaire achieve success without some guidance from other vendors. Over the years I have asked a lot of questions of more experienced vendors. I in turn, have also answered a LOT of questions from novice concessionaires. This realization spurred me to 1) write the Food Booth book, 2) start a one on one consulting service, and 3) start a Q&A list to pool our knowledge.

Want to participate in the concession Q&A?

Do you have a question that needs an answer? Or, would you like to share a tidbit of your own expertise with other vendors? Please submit them to: carnival@foodbooth.net (title it Q&A). If you are sharing your experience just phrase your submission in the form of a Q&A. Further, if you have a different perspective or want to expand on the answers that are given on this page please submit your thoughts on that as well. Our collective knowledge is a valuable and entertaining resource for us all, particularly since the concession business and culture varies across the country and around the world!

I reserve the right to edit for brevity.

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Q: What exactly is a food concession business?

A: The food concession business is broad with many variations, levels of involvement, and opportunities. Many people build their business permanently around one venue such as a coffee kiosk in a hospital lobby, a food stand in front of Home Depot, or an occasionally operated hot dog cart at the local ball park. In each of these cases the booth repeatedly does business at the same location. Other food concession businesses are mobile, doing business at different venues, such as community fairs, festivals, sporting events, auctions, flea markets, and outdoor concerts. At each of these venues the booth is set up temporarily, doing business at the location for a limited period of time. Because mobile concessions travel from venue to venue they are managed and licensed differently than permanent concessions. Their product is also marketed differently because, unlike a permanent concession, a temporary concession's pool of customers is large and the window of sales opportunity is brief.

Q. What sort of experience do you need to run a concession business?

Luckily a food concession operator doesn’t need any particular type of experience. What is important is the operator has character traits that are typical of all entrepreneurs- independence, ambition, and an ability to follow through with the tasks before them. Additionally, good physical health, adequate energy, and common sense are nearly as important. And, there are other traits and skills that are unnecessary but are helpful such as: experience in food service, small business management, or even graphic design or mechanics. Most of a concessionaire's previous life experiences will benefit their concession business in some way.top of page

Q. Why is the food concession business a good field to go into now?

A food concession business always has certain benefits that one doesn’t get from working for wages: independence, more spare time, cash income, tax benefits, ….It also has some benefits that one doesn't’t get from most other forms of self employment such as cash income (again), requiring a small financial investment relative to the potential returns, a fun working environment, a high probability of success relative to the level of expertise and effort applied, regulatory leniency, an ability to customize one’s investment of time and resources to meet one’s goals. Food sales are generally secure against economic downturns. People always need to eat. And during tough economic times people still like to have fun. Usually the local fair or festival is considered a good option for a family on a tight budget. Additionally, during this time of economic uncertainty running a food concession is also a very good hedge against layoffs or lost benefits.

Q. How does the money equation compare to punching a time clock?

It varies depending on your level of success, the wages you are comparing it to, and your perspective. Typically, a new vendor’s overall sales will improve each year he or she continues in the business. After several years of trying a variety of events while fine tuning their menu, honing their skills, and improving their operation, a vendor will establish a seasonal schedule of their favorite and most prosperous events where they build a dependable base of steady customers. The value of those events in combination with the increased sales capacity of the operation, and level of operational effectiveness is what determines the level of revenue. top of page

Q. OK, so how much money can you make in this field?

I have seen some vendors go broke and others earn upwards of $200,000. My guess is that the average, moderate size concession business that does around 12 multi-day events a season earns, on average, around $35,000 net

Q. So, besides fairs and festivals, at what other types of events can a concessionaire sell food?

Nearly anywhere that people gather. A large booth that takes a lot of time to set up and is expensive to operate would need to focus on large venues with high attendance. Small, easy to set-up and operate booths that are self-contained needing no power or water hook-ups can find many events such as farmers markets, auctions, ballparks, a boat ramp, the local beach, and special interest gatherings like horse shows and go-cart races.

Q. How do you know what licenses you need?

To start with, no matter the venue, if you prepare and serve food to the public you need to be licensed by the Health Department. If you sell repeatedly at the same location you need a mobile food unit license, which is similar to a restaurant license but is for non-permanent (mobile) structures. You would likely also need a licensed commissary which is an extra facility used for food preparation and storage, and maintenance of your mobile food unit. If you sell food as a temporary restaurant for a limited number of days at a variety of locations you need a “temporary restaurant permit” for each event. The Health Department uses this "health permit" to monitor transient or temporary operations such as non-profit fund raisers, carnival food booths and concession booths that sell in different counties at special events. Typically, in this case your booth is also considered your commissary. Always contact your local Health Department for specific requirements in your area.

Q. What do you like most about the business?

Hands down it’s the CASH! Otherwise, a paycheck with FICA and all the other taxes removed just doesn'tt have the same satisfying feel as a bank bag stuffed full of crisp and crinkled bills. Other favorites are harder to describe but they or things like, freedom, independence, control, the opportunity for financial growth, travel, meeting new people, and pride in what I do. Also, the food concession business is never boring. top of page

Q. What can I do now, while I’m still working at my regular job, to lay the groundwork for starting my concession business?

Research and plan. Visit local events to study the booths, menus, and signs. Talk to local vendors about regulations in your area. Search out sales of various types of booths. Visit restaurant equipment shops for equipment ideas and prices. Visit wholesale grocers for prices and product options. Look into possible venues. Researching and then writing a detailed list of ideas and calculations is the best way to fully brainstorm and plan your business.

Q. Why did you write the Food Booth book? By writing it aren’t you giving away trade secrets?

First, I primarily wrote the book because I have watched so many people start their concession full of hope, then quit a few weeks later because they can't get past the steep learning curve. I love the concession business in large part because it is one of very few business opportunities in which nearly anyone has a decent shot at improving their financial situation. Second, I believe the market will control how many vendors are in the field. No matter how many people read my book there are still only a limited number of events and customers in any given area to support the vendors. A certain number of vendors will not be able to find enough events or customers and will necessarily drop out. Others will find that the business is harder than it looks and quite. Third, the publication of Food Booth will keep me involved in the concession business and continue earning an income when I can physically no longer work my concession. In this way I can continue to benefit from my experience and expertise the way many other experienced professionals do.

Q. How do I deal with a customer that loudly returns food in front of other customers with the complaint that they don’t like it and want their money back.

I think the big problem here is not just the impression they give your customers standing in line, but the word of mouth damage that is done as the complainer continues to slam your business all day long. I want my customers to be happy so if the food is hardly touched I apologize, offer to fix the problem if I can, or return their money. The unhappy customer is now a happy customer and will hopefully endorse your booth. I make this response with a confident smile, quickly do what is requested and move on to the next customer. Problem solved. Sometimes someone will come back for a refund after the food is entirely consumed. In this case I point out that I would be more happy if they had returned the food before they ate it. However, unless they are rude I still go ahead and refund their money. Anyone standing in line will understand what has transpired and appreciate you for not holding up their order any longer than necessary. Let’s face it, some people are cranky and if the situation is not resolved to their liking may possibly come back to cause you even more serious problems. In nearly all cases maintaining good will is the best course. top of page

Q. Why do veteran vendors usually outsell the rookies though in many cases the rookie has a better booth and product?

A new vendor may do everything right; have a nice booth, good signage, great food and schedule into excellent events. But, the real earning potential of the booth won’t be realized until the attendees at the events become happy repeat customers. This speaks directly to a marketing principle that affects all businesses. People are creatures of habit and will religiously buy from the businesses they are accustomed to, and satisfied with. This impacts the sales and long-term viability of a concession in a profound way. A vendor who participates in an event for repeated and consecutive years will build up a customer base of repeat customers. If the vendor skips one year, the steady customers will start a new event ritual of buying from a different booth.

Q: What is the secret to cleaning greasy surfaces in the booth? Nothing I use takes all the grease off the back and sides of my deep fryer.

A: Hands down the best cleaner I know of is Oil Eater. I find it at Costco and buy it in one gallon containers. It is the best at cleaning grease up to the point that oven cleaner is your next step. Oven cleaner is far more caustic and Oil Eater can be used without gloves and rinses clean.

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