You’re part of a community organization whose mission is to provide your neighborhood with better access to fresh, affordable food. Have you ever wondered how starting a mobile market could help you achieve this goal?
In some cases, it might be hard for people in need to come to you for help. Single parents with kids in tow or people with disabilities1 can sometimes have a hard time getting to your location. Not to mention, add in some bad weather and it becomes that much harder to get around.
The answer? Make fresh food more accessible by taking it closer to the people you serve!
Starting a mobile farmers’ market can do just that.
Operating a mobile farmers’ market is a very rewarding and effective way to provide the fresh and affordable produce that everyone deserves.
Having a solid plan in place to start your mobile market and to keep it running smoothly is just as important as the mission itself. In this article, we go over the five most important considerations when it comes to starting your very own mobile farmers’ market.
1. Start With the Wheels: How to Decide Between a Mobile Market Truck, Trailer, or Bus
Not all vehicles are created equal. Choosing the right type to suit your operational and community needs is crucial in running a successful mobile market.
There are three types of vehicles to consider:
- A bus (Fresh Truck2),
- A truck (Fresh Approach3), or
- A trailer (Hub City Mobile Market4).
Each comes with its own set of advantages and disadvantages. Maneuverability and licensing are important factors to consider when choosing your set of wheels.
Size Does Matter
Larger vehicles like a bus need special licensing. It can be hard to find a driver that will also want to operate a mobile market. Buses and trailers can be difficult to back up or parallel park.
The layout of the neighborhoods you’re trying to access, and the availability of qualified drivers will impact the vehicle that’s right for your mobile market.
A trailer is a cost-effective option, with no engine and relatively low maintenance. The vehicle pulling the trailer can easily be changed or replaced. It can also be used to pick up extra items on a busy day.
So, What About New or Used?
Something else to consider when choosing a vehicle is deciding between new and used. It’s important to look at the upfront costs versus the yearly maintenance costs.
Used buses and vans are often taken off the road for a good reason. They’ve seen a lot of miles and have endured a lot of wear and tear.
Reliability is another important factor to consider. Showing up late to markets, or canceling because of vehicle troubles can be difficult and inconvenient for the people that count on you.
At The Farmers’ Truck, we’ve operated our own mobile market truck for years. We’ve learned a ton about what works and what doesn’t. You can now buy the ultimate mobile farmers’ market truck and save yourself the hassle. Check it out here.
2. When to Use a Wholesaler, When to Buy Local, and Why?
Providing affordable food to your customers is one of your top priorities. It means making food more accessible to those who need it most, especially in food deserts.
Finding the right wholesaler is key to supporting those goals. Wholesale products are most likely not local, but they’re usually more affordable.
Buy local when you can.
Building trust with local vendors means clearly communicating your plan to them, and sticking to it. This ensures that you’ll be able to provide culturally appropriate foods in your mobile farmers’ market.
Switching vendors from week to week to help spread your local dollar might sound like a great idea. But in practice, this puts a strain on the original vendor who has likely set aside products for you.
If you reach out to a vendor and make a plan to buy from them throughout the season, make sure you follow through.
If you don’t follow through, they might not see you as a reliable buyer. This could lead to a breakdown of the trust you worked so hard to build, and result in fewer products being made available to you.
Finding the right size vendor is also important for a steady and varied supply of fresh, healthy food.
Small vendors may have higher price points and might struggle to meet the quantities you need. On the other hand, large vendors may have lower price points but may require you to buy quantities beyond what you can expect to sell on a weekly basis.
If supporting small producers is a goal for your mobile market, make sure to reach out early and plan in advance. For larger vendors, finding appropriate space to store products will help with bulk purchasing.
3. Build Success and Strength With a Solid Team
The people behind your mobile market truck are just as important as the food in it. Having the right staff, volunteers, or a combination of, is important for your mobile farmers’ market to succeed. And making sure they have a good support structure is important too.
Running a mobile market requires many skill sets that are hard to find in one person. It involves:
- Prepping fresh produce every morning and dealing with leftovers at the end of the day.
- Measuring as you go and ordering just enough for each stop.
- Driving the mobile market from location to location (this can be tricky depending on your vehicle).
- Updating prices.
- Managing your team.
- Handling cash transactions and daily banking.
For these reasons, many mobile farmers’ markets across the U.S. hire a full-time market manager who handles tasks behind the scenes. They aren’t easy to find!
This position is often complimented with employees or volunteers who help with the cleaning and packing of the vehicle, driving, handling cash, and letting the market manager know when supplies are running low.
For smaller operations running out of a van or trailer, two staff or volunteers is typical for market days. Larger or busier markets may see four or more staff and volunteers on hand.
4. Budget, Budget…did We Say Budget?
Mobile farmers’ markets are starting to gain popularity, not only because they can deliver food directly to neighborhoods but because they’re cost-effective compared to the expenses of having a brick-and-mortar store.
The costs of running a mobile market are split into two main categories: capital and operational.
The capital costs of starting a mobile market aren’t cheap, but planning a budget and sticking to it can ensure long-term success. The biggest capital cost is the vehicle. This includes the purchase of the vehicle and any retrofits, refrigeration, and design changes.
Smaller capital expenses to think about are sales items, like a point of sale system, cashbox, receipt paper, and maintenance items like a broom, trash can, and compost bin. Other items are important to budget for as well, like shopping bags, produce bins, signs, and scales.
When it comes to operations, staff costs and benefits are the biggest budget item. Budgeting a competitive salary for a market manager will help ensure the stability of your operation. Other operational costs can vary drastically based on region and type of vehicle.
A new vehicle is always best, but the ticket price might be out of your budget. A used vehicle can save on upfront costs but expect to budget a larger amount for annual maintenance and repairs.
Organizations can see a maintenance budget of anywhere from $500 to $15,000 depending on the vehicle type. Keep in mind that even minor repairs on a large bus can add up. It’s a lot harder to find a mechanic to service this kind of vehicle.
Fuel, insurance, marketing, and any municipal or state licenses are other costs to consider in your budget.
5. How to Source Funds & Support to Start Your Mobile Market
Getting funding can feel like a daunting task but it doesn’t have to be. There are a lot of federal and state grants to help support access to affordable, healthy foods. In addition to finding start-up grants, many mobile markets across North America look to private donors.
Community and corporate sponsors can also help with ongoing operational costs. Community investments can be monetary or can come in the form of in-kind support. Market sales also help support operational costs.
Corporate-sponsored pop-up markets are another popular way to fundraise and bring visibility to your operation. Corporate sponsors can also provide in-kind support such as marketing, or volunteers.
Planning for Your Mobile Market’s Success and the Future
With 38.3 million5 people living in food-insecure households in the U.S., there’s a huge opportunity for mobile farmers’ markets to make an impact. They’re an effective and cost-efficient way to make fresh, healthy food accessible and affordable for those who need it the most.
You want to be able to serve your community in the best way possible and for years to come. Focusing on the right vehicle, suppliers, staff, budgeting, and funding will ensure that your mobile market is a sustainable operation for long-term success.
If you want to know more about how to start your own mobile farmers’ market, or if you have any questions about operating one, we’re here for you. Helping organizations start and operate mobile markets is what we love to do!