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HOW TO START A FOOD CONCESSION BUSINESS
By Amy Lindgren
For the AJC


The snow is falling again, my head cold is making me miserable, and I have to leave for work an hour too early tomorrow to stay ahead of the snowplows and tow trucks. Was there ever a better time to start dreaming of summer?

When you do think of those balmier months (and downright hot in the South), do you conjure up thoughts of barbecue and outdoor cooking? I do and I go one step further -- as a person who enjoys city life, I also think of the street vendors who reappear once the snow gives way a bit.

I enjoy eating from a cart next to a trash bin. No, really, I do. I’ll eat things from a street vendor that I would never eat at home, and I’ll do it again the next day if I get the chance.

Barb Fitzgerald of Cornelius, Ore., has made it her mission to find and serve people like me, and I’m grateful. A self-employed food concessionaire since 1984, Fitzgerald has recently released the second edition of a book to help others who want to enter the business ("Food Booth: The Entrepreneur’s Complete Guide to the Food Concession Business," Carnival Press, www.foodbooth.net).

At $39.95, this isn’t likely to be a book you purchase on a whim. But if you’re interested in this field, neither are you advised to ignore it. Fitzgerald’s credentials include selling food across the Northwest for more than 25 years and founding a professional organization for concession food sellers (Northwest Vendor’s Network Association). Having started adult life as a single parent with a minimum-wage job and no high school degree, Fitzgerald makes a compelling argument for one of this industry’s best sales points: Anyone can jump in.

But should they? More to the point, should you? Fitzgerald does a good job of laying out the pros and cons of the case; here are some other points she covers, and some things that occurred to me while I read this book:

  • The stand matters. A lot goes into choosing your food stand -- will it be stationary? Temporary? Mobile?
  • What kind of site will work best for you?
  • How do you approach the landlords?
  • And finally, what will it look like -- a custom-made chili pepper? Or maybe a tried-and-true popcorn cart purchased off of Craigslist? To make the question more difficult: Will it be a tent, a trailer, a stick-built canopy setup?
  • How will you store it and how will you move it?

At least you won’t have to worry about refrigeration units: Apparently ice-filled coolers are the more popular option for most concessionaires. Whatever you lean toward, you’re likely to find a picture of it in this book. The black-and-white photos are not artistic, but they’re extremely helpful.

This is a regulated business. Even though food booths seem to pop up overnight on street corners, the business is usually regulated by a variety of city or county agencies, whom you ignore at your own peril.

It’s not a one-size-fits-all business. Some entrepreneurs run just one stand for a few months a year, others work at festivals only and others make a full-time business of operating concessions in multiple locations.

Finding the right product is important. Every food item has its advantages and disadvantages. Some are easy to prepare but can’t be priced very high; other foods are laborious to make or difficult to describe on a sign. The cost of ingredients is another factor to consider, as is the equipment you’ll need to prepare the food. As a final complication, some venues will not accept your booth if your product is already represented there.

Everything costs money. Of course, you know there will be startup expenses for the equipment and booth, and ingredient costs for the food. But did you remember license fees, employee wages and taxes, signage, napkins and cups and plates, insurance and fuel? After reviewing Fitzgerald’s budget worksheets and cost analyses, I begin to understand why I’m paying $5 for my hot dogs on the street.

So the decision comes back to you: Does this sound like a good cure for unemployment or stuffy work settings, or any of the other career woes that ail you? If you’re attracted to this idea, scratch the itch and buy the book -- you’ll be supporting an independent author.

If, on the other hand, you’ve heard enough to know this isn’t for you, count yourself lucky to have avoided a wrong turn on your career path. Then celebrate your good fortune by tipping your hot dog vendors an extra buck -- they’ll appreciate that.

Amy Lindgren owns Prototype Career Service, a career consulting firm in St. Paul. She can be reached at alindgren@prototypecareerservice.com or at 626 Armstrong Ave., St. Paul, MN 55102.

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