Doing the Math of Mobile Pizzeria Operations

Mobile units are sexy and cool, but there’s a lot to consider before investing your time and your money in the business.

  • There’s a lot to consider before deciding whether a mobile pizza operation is worth the investment of your time and money.
  • For starters, not everyone who attends a seasonal event will actually purchase your pizza, and you could lose money once you add up the cost of your labor and supplies.

Related: Learn the road rules for pizzeria mobile catering

By Billy Manzo, Jr.

Picture this: It’s a balmy summer day. The temperature is warm. The beverages are cold. People are happy. Your restaurant is full. Life is good. Then the owners of your local craft-beer house call you up and say, “Hey, I have a proposition for you! We’re having a big outdoor party Friday night. We love your pizza, and we wondered whether you could swing by with a mobile unit and cook for the event. We’re expecting hundreds of people, so you’re going to kill it! What do you say?”

Your possible answers are: 

A) “Yeah, baby!” You get swept up in the excitement and decide to take all the money out of your 401(k), invest in a five-figure mobile brick oven, and score your first mobile moneymaker. Ka-ching!

B) “Um….” You think to yourself: “Does this sound too good to be true?”

C) “No way, José!” You decide to stick to what you know.

Correct answer: B (or maybe C).

The mobile pizza industry—whether on two wheels or four—is one of the most challenging ventures for pizzeria operators. Sure, mobile units are sexy and cool, and people get to see you in action, but it’s not just fun and daffodils. It’s a business—a seasonal one for many pizzerias in the country—and there’s a lot to consider before deciding it’s worth the investment of your time and money. 

First, there’s the logistics. I get a lot of phone calls from people who want me to bring my mobile unit to a park, whether it’s a nonprofit event or a private party. I say no 99.9% of the time. Why? I don’t think people really understand what they’re asking of me. This kind of venture requires two days of prep before the gig; schlepping my stuff to the gig; having staff for the gig; and cleaning up for almost three hours after the gig.

Pop-up? More like pooped out.

Second, the math doesn’t always add up. For example: “How many people are you expecting Friday night?” you ask the local craft-beer house guy.

“On Friday night?” he exclaims. “We’ll have about 400 people there!”

You think, “Wow, 400 people multiplied by $20-apiece pizzas? That’s 8 Gs. I’m in!”

But hold on. It doesn’t work like that. Based on my experience, you’re more likely to get 10% of attendees to purchase your pizza (if you’re lucky). So that’s 40 people at 20 bucks a pizza, which totals $800. That’s not a lot of money, especially after two days of prepping and breaking down. In fact, you’ve probably lost money when you add up the cost of labor and supplies.

Patrick Maggi, owner of Blues Pizza Truck in Frederick, Maryland, waits on a customer.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to talk you out of going mobile (or maybe I am). You just need to go into it understanding the facts. That said, if you really have an itch for this business, here are some things to keep in mind:

1) You need the skill set.

A good portion of people who own a pizzeria don’t know how to use a brick oven. If that’s you, take a class. Or hire a consultant to guide you or the person who will do the cooking.

2) You need to understand the requirements.

I hear all the time, “But, Billy, the food truck business is booming!” Maybe so, but the guy or woman who owns the local taco truck that’s doing $1 million a year doesn’t have the same business requirements as you. All he needs is a prep area that’s 12’ x 4’ and 1’ high, and he can have 400 corn tortilla shells ready to go. Meanwhile, in that same space, you might only fit 20 pizzas. Mathematically, you cannot hold enough dough balls in a trailer to cook hundreds of pizzas.

3) You need storage.

Do not tell me that your buddy owns a restaurant and that he’s going to help you out and give you ingredients and space to prep. I’ll tell you right now: That relationship is going to go sideways quickly. His food and his restaurant will always be more important than your food for your trailer. You’re on your own. And how many people really want to put a $25,000 oven and 80-quart mixer in their garage? It’s not smart, and your local health department doesn’t like it.

4) You need a guarantee.

They say nothing in life is guaranteed, but that’s not true for the mobile pizza business. There are all kinds of guarantees to help you make money:

A) Ask the client for a flat fee up front. No guessing. None of this “You’re gonna kill it!” baloney. If you cater a birthday party, a wedding or anything to do with a guaranteed number, ask to be paid in advance so you can book your staff accordingly and cover the gas, wood and dough costs in order to secure a healthy margin.

B) If the client can’t pay up front, ask for a guarantee in sales. For example, say, “If I don’t hit the $2,000 mark, will you kick in the rest?” (Note: 99.9% of people will say no. And now you know why they don’t have a mobile brick oven on the property.)

5) Charge a healthy price point.

Mobile unit pricing is not bargain-basement pricing. People are paying for the experience—the outdoor brick oven, the sizzle of the cheese, the smell of the wood, watching you in action (who wouldn’t pay good money for that?). As a reference, I’d say $20 for a 12” pizza would be a decent place to start.

6) Insist on cross-promotion.

Tell the client, “I need you to hang a banner that advertises that we’re providing the pizza here.” Ask to be on the venue’s website and social media channels, especially Instagram. This way, if you only make $2,500 that night, maybe you’ll at least get $3,000 worth of PR/marketing on the event.

Other things to consider:

  • Where will you store your oven in the winter?
  • Where will you get your wood?
  • Where will you put your wood?
  • Will the town let you leave the oven in your driveway?
  • Are your neighbors gonna give you grief?
  • Do you have refrigeration space to store your cheese?

Listen, the mobile pizza business is tough, no matter how you slice it. You need to know what you’re going to be up against. Keep in mind that I come from New England, where we get a mere 90 days of decent weather every summer (if we’re lucky) to try make some money with a mobile brick oven, so I’m a bit jaded. These days, with the way New England summer weather has been—rainy and cold—I’m better off staying inside.  

Billy Manzo Jr. is a veteran restaurant operator and the owner/chef of Federal Hill Pizza in Warren, Rhode Island.