There is more than one path to a career in the kitchen. In fact, one popular path could more aptly be described as a highway. Increasingly, chefs and food entrepreneurs are ditching the daunting prospect of setting down roots in a brick-and-mortar restaurant, and instead starting their culinary careers from the back of a truck.
The flexibility of food trucks make them a particular draw for young entrepreneurs hoping to break into the food industry. But for those pondering a business on wheels, there are some big questions to keep in mind, chiefly, is starting a food truck actually that much easier than just opening a restaurant?
Eater chatted with three food truck founders — Cecilia Polanco (So Good Pupusas), Marti Lieberman (Mac Mart), and Erica Strait (Foxy Falafel) — about the challenges and rewards of operating a food truck business. These answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
So Good Pupusas, Durham, NC
Eater: How old were you when you started the So Good Pupusas truck, and how did the idea come about?
Polanco: The idea started when I was an undergrad. When I established the business in June 2015 I was 21. I started the food truck as a means to an end. The food truck business was created to generate funds to sustain scholarships (for undocumented students) for our partner non-profit, Pupusas for Education. So it was really just a way to be able to fulfill the mission.
What were some of the hurdles to joining the food industry as a food truck entrepreneur?
I was entering two markets that I’d never worked in. I’d never worked in food, and I didn’t have a business background, so I was breaking into both of those markets, and I had a huge learning curve. We also had to consider prioritizing the planet, how to be environmentally friendly, buy recycled materials, and compost — those are all business models that are celebrated, but not supported or enabled. I think operating, from the beginning, as the business you want to be is very difficult. To hold yourself to that caliber and standard of being environmentally friendly or having a social mission makes it harder to become successful and marketable, which is what a lot of big companies prioritize.
I think people don’t take me seriously when I show up, and I’m used to that. People always want to say, “You’re too young, you haven’t been in business long enough, you’re not making enough money.” They don’t expect me to be a contender, so that’s a really big challenge — to walk into a room and not be seen as an entrepreneur or a social entrepreneur or a small business owner, but to be seen as someone who is trying to be those things and isn’t there yet. That impostor syndrome is a huge challenge. And I know there’s a lot I don’t know, but I’m also very capable and very capable of learning. It’s not about already knowing everything or being good at everything; it’s about having the capacity to learn, and putting the effort into it.
Who did you rely on during the planning and opening process?
Mainly I relied on my family, and my sisters in particular. They are some of my biggest resources — one is a lawyer, one is an accountant, and the other does insurance. So those skills were huge for us. I relied on my parents too, with my dad helping run the business and my mom being the head chef.
We’ve also relied on students since the beginning, helping out on the truck and letting us get things done. It’s very much a community and collaborative effort. It’s taken a lot of people, a lot of hands, and a lot of work to get us to where we are, and that’s something we celebrate. We are mission-driven, and that’s largely because of the community. So we make sure that we’re continually giving back to the community that supports us.
What is the most surprising part about owning and operating a food truck?
People in food are super nice. Everyone in food is excited about what they’re making; they put a lot of love into it. They’re excited, not just to be selling and making money, but for people to eat their food. There’s a pride there, and it shows in the food.
Food is hard, food is not high margin — so I don’t think people get into the food industry to get rich. Some do make it, but people really get into the industry to share something. With the right resources, it can sustain them and build wealth, but it also provides something really valuable to the customers, more than just a meal. It’s an experience; you’re creating a bridge between people through food.
What advice would you give to a 20-something thinking about opening a food truck?
It’s something worth exploring. It’s less risky than trying to open a [brick-and-mortar] business or something on a greater scale. Even if you don’t end up being successful with a truck, you could flip it and sell it or you could try something new. Truly anything you’re thinking of exploring as a 20-something is worth trying, at least for a year or two. You can always walk away from it having learned something. When you’re young, all of the things people say are setbacks for you because of your inexperience can also be strengths. You’re coming in with a lot of energy, plus potentially less responsibilities like a family or mortgage, so you have a little more freedom to try things out. We’re all scared that we might try and fail, but there’s a real possibility that you can try and succeed.
Mac Mart, Philadelphia, PA
Eater: How did Mac Mart start?
Lieberman: I started it when I was 22. I wanted a way out of the job that I had gotten right out of school, which was working at a high-end retailer. Long story short, I made mac and cheese for some family and friends. They really loved it. Food trucks were at the breaking point of popularity, so put two and two together, and in order to get out of one job I had to get into another.
I didn’t have a food background. A lot of the other truckers didn’t think that we could last or we knew what we were doing. We were lucky. We lasted more than a lot of them.
When did you know your business would take off?
I think it really kind of hit us when we were at food festivals and would realize in the most humble way that they would strategically put our truck somewhere because they knew our lines would be so long, and because we were one of a kind. There were no other mac and cheese trucks, so that worked to our benefit as well. Even if — and I don’t think we do — but even if we had the grossest food, we were still going to be a draw for people because there was only one of us there, versus a taco truck where there were four or five. Once we popped our window open, it was like “Go! Go! Go!” and we would serve thousands of people.
How has Mac Mart expanded? How did you make that growth possible?
We got a storefront because we were lucky enough to have so many regulars and loyal customers on the truck. Now we try to keep it as simple as possible. The size of our shops and anything that we would ever do going forward has to be small. We’ve tried things outside of mac and cheese, but at the end of the day we just have to stick to what we know. Mac and cheese is what works for us. Beyond that, just staying focused and being present is huge. People really like that the owners are always around. We know our customers, we take care of issues firsthand. Not trying to be something we’re not, and not trying to be fancy or keep up with food trends has kept us on a good path, and that’s what’s brought us success.
Going forward, we’re probably not going to do any more storefronts. Unless one day someone wants to give us $1 million or so to open up in a Vegas casino, which would be awesome. We’d love to maybe do some concession stands at amusement parks or sell in colleges, but we’ve really turned our focus to the online, wholesale retail world. We’d love to sell our cheese sauce to restaurants, and we’re planning to get our product to the rest of the country, because we’ve been asked to so many times.
What would you tell a 20-something exploring the world of food truck ownership?
Are you ready to work? It’s a seven-day-a-week job. If you’re not on the truck or cleaning the truck or prepping the food or cleaning up after an event, you are booking events in your computer, and trying to cater, and getting supplies, and fixing your truck. You have to sacrifice your 20s. That’s what I would say. If you’re willing to sacrifice it I’m sure there’s a reward at the end. I just turned 30, and we’ve had plenty of rewards, but I keep saying I’m still waiting for that one day I will sit back and take a deep breath and go, “Holy shit. That was worth it.” Even if you’re successful, which we’re lucky enough to be, the work doesn’t stop once you reach that point. You have to keep up with it and make sure you stay relevant.
Foxy Falafel, Minneapolis, MN
Eater: How old were you when you started the Foxy Falafel truck, and how did the idea come about?
Strait: I was 31 when I started the truck, and I was 29 when I started at the farmer’s market. Foxy Falafel started at the farmer’s market with just me, a tent, and a table, and my pedal-powered smoothie bike.
At the time, a food truck boom was happening, and so, in the Twin Cities, it just was a natural progression for me to go from the tent and tables set-up to a truck to be able to do more. And I felt that I was ready for that and there was a demand for it as well.
What challenges did you experience when you first opened? What resources did you rely on for guidance?
There were everything from mechanical problems with the truck to issues with all the equipment and just needing to learn how to be really efficient with the space and the set-up that I had. Then I had to learn how to make that all flow and to create a menu that could go well with the set-up, because every truck is set up differently.
Not getting burned out was also a huge thing to balance and to figure out, because at the beginning, you’re just constantly going. I wanted to take every opportunity I possibly could, but learning to say no was a hard thing for me. I think just because I wanted to do everything, but I had to also learn how to take care of myself in the business as well.
How has Foxy Falafel changed since the beginning? How have those changes impacted you as an operator?
So from the farmer’s market I got the truck, and then in that same year I opened the restaurant. So that progression from truck to restaurant was very quick.
One of the important things when going into a brick-and-mortar is figuring out if there’s a demand for it and then finding the right space. And I was fortunate that I had a wonderful space that landed in my lap. It was just something that I couldn’t pass up. And going from truck to restaurant there was a shift in that feeling of being mobile to the feeling of being grounded. The restaurant is stable; if you run out of something, you can just run down to the walk-in and grab more. On the truck you really can’t do that; you’ve got what you’ve got.
What does someone need to be ready to start a food truck?
They need a good vision of what they want their truck to be, what they want their food to be, and what they want their food to say to people — plus passion, a ton of passion and drive. It’s a heck of a lot of work, mentally, physically, and emotionally. Just being on your truck, there’s a lot of physical work. I always call it a CrossFit workout because we just going up and down stairs, loading the truck, and pushing things all day. You need money, some sort of financial backing to get started.
Then, download all the weather apps. What the weather’s doing every day determines whether or not you go out or how much food you bring. I always joke that I feel like I’m a farmer. I grew up with my parents and grandparents being farmers, and my brothers are farmers now. I’m always joking that I feel like one too because I’m always talking about the weather — “What’s it doing now? What’s going on?”
What is the most surprising part about owning and operating a food truck?
The food truck community has been so supportive. I find that if there is a problem, or you’re troubleshooting something, or you’re looking for someone to fill in, or you have questions, there’s just a really great network of truck people that are there to help. If I’m at an event and my generator breaks down, there’s someone from another truck who’s coming over and offering solutions or saying, “Hey, you can plug in here.” It’s been really cool to be a part of that community and to see how generous people are with time and advice and mentoring. It’s actually amazing.