A step van—also known as a walk-in delivery van or a multi-stop delivery truck—is a very flexible tool, one you can see used for all kinds of mobile businesses. They’re great for food trucks because they offer high ceilings and lots of space for equipment and movement. (The name comes from the fact that for many years they were the only vehicles with one or two small steps from the driver’s door to the street, making it easier to enter and exit–perfect for deliveries).
When future food truck owners are in the planning stages of their first truck or expanding into their next the question of going with new or used always comes up. There are a number of factors to consider, and pros and cons to both options.
Anyone who has bought any kind of vehicle knows that the process is both intimidating and exciting. Be methodical, don’t get overwhelmed, and don’t jump at the first option that comes along. This is a huge step (no pun intended), and so it’s not a decision to take lightly.
Pros of buying a new step van:
A warranty. Manufacturer’s warranties can mean more financial security and peace of mind when it comes to a very pricey investment. No mysteries. You can be confident that your van has never needed maintenance or repair, and you’ll be starting at close to zero mileage.
Cons of buying new:
Cost. Obviously, the upfront expense is going to be higher if you’re buying a new step van, and you may end up spending more to outfit it to your needs than you initially think.
Pros of buying a used step van:
Less expensive. You’ll spend less if you choose to purchase a pre-owned van. Better loan options. If the step van’s cost is lower, you’ll be more likely to find a good vehicle loan to help pay for it.
Cons of buying used:
Mileage and maintenance history. Pay close attention to the vehicle’s maintenance report, and make sure you have all the details. Even the best vehicles don’t run forever, and you don’t want to invest in customization and repair for a van that only has a few good years left. Find a trustworthy dealership where you can be confident in an accurate assessment of the wear and tear on the van you are considering. No warranty. You’re unlikely to find a used van with a current manufacturer’s warranty—but you can sometimes find good options for third-party warranties.
Be sure you know what you need. Before you start shopping, do your research, and make a list of what your essentials are. Know what factors you need to look for, and what questions you should be asking the seller. No matter how appealing a particular feature is, keep the big picture in mind, and remember that needs are more important than wants.
Here are the big questions you should be asking:
What are your financing options?
Before choosing a truck, make sure you have a lender. Be aware of your budget and what your interest rates and monthly payments will cost. Some dealerships offer financing options, but their rates can vary wildly. Check the fine print, and if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Gas vs. Diesel?
There are many diesel step vans on the market, and they’re popular for many delivery services, but they might not be the best choice for a food truck. Diesel trucks are more cost-efficient when it comes to long-distance highway travel, which works for some caterers who put a lot of miles between stops may prefer them, but diesel fumes are stronger and more lingering than the smell of gasoline, just keep that in mind.
Typically, the smallest step vans used for food trucks are 12 feet, and they can be as long as 20; most are between 16 and 18. Bigger usually means more expensive to purchase and also more expensive to fuel. A larger van can fit more equipment; you’ll be able to equip your truck with more cooking tools and move a little more comfortably. But it will be harder to park, and your city may even have regulations and zoning restrictions on food trucks above a certain size. A smaller step van is easier to maneuver and cheaper to gas up, but it might mean a more limited menu and a less comfortable day.
If you’re thinking of buying used, how much work are you willing to put in?
Are you comfortable doing any of the maintenance and repair yourself? Will you have the time and energy? Set reasonable expectations for yourself. Even if you have the skill, there are only so many hours in the day. If you don’t have the time or talent then you need to make sure you budget for those tasks.
Do you need to start with a relatively pristine step van with great curb appeal, where all you’ll need is a touch of customization? Or are you ready to give a less visually-enticing vehicle a facelift yourself?
What can wait?
As your business grows, you’ll have more capital to put into upgrades and luxuries.
What can’t wait?
You have necessities that you shouldn’t compromise on. Make that list, and don’t second-guess yourself when it comes to the basics.
How much are you going to be traveling?
Some food trucks never leave their city; some drive for hours for lucrative catering gigs and festivals. Factor the cost of gas or fuel into your budget.
Who should you trust?
You’ll see incredible prices on Craigslist, eBay and other bidding sites. Those low prices come with extremely high risks; don’t be tempted to take a chance on a step van you can’t vet and a seller you can’t feel confident about.
Your best resource will be fellow business owners. Walk around! Ask around! What do experienced food truck owners wish they’d known when they started out? And a trustworthy mechanic is worth his weight in gold, so make sure you have somebody reliable.
New or used, choosing a step van ultimately comes down to this: if you have a little patience, talk to the people, and look at the paperwork, you’ll be golden. Still have questions fill out our contact form we’d be happy to point you in the right direction.