April 3, 2017

What It Took To Get My Food Truck Rolling – Part 1 of 2 (PODCAST)

food truck podcast

I always love talking with food entrepreneurs about their experiences ‘in the trenches’ and today’s podcast interview is no different.  In fact, Natascha Sherman Hess, the owner of the The Ginger Pig food truck, had so much great information to share that I’m breaking it into two podcasts.




Jennifer:I hope you enjoy the first one today and listen back for the rest of our interview together in Part Two of this podcast. I also want to remind food brands that if you’re looking for more information, expertise and a chance to get your products in front of food buyers, check out the Food Brand Summit, that’s foodbrandsummit.com, which is taking place on May 4th and 5th of this year. This is an industry-first online conference specific to food entrepreneurs and I hope you’ll find it interesting. With that, let’s get started.


Today we have a look inside an entrepreneur’s life, which I know are some of the stories that you listeners really enjoy. We have the opportunity to talk to Natascha Sherman Hess today. She is the founder of and owner and operator of The Ginger Pig. It is an Asian street food mobile truck that’s based in Boulder, Colorado. That’s all I’m going to tell you about her story because I want Natascha to be able to tell you about her story, both in terms of what it took to get the food truck up and running and then also they’re heading into their second year now so kind of what that first year, lessons learned, all of that. That’s what we’re going to be talking about.


Natascha, thank you so much. Yeah, so Natascha thank you so much for joining us.


Natascha:Thank you so much for having me. I’m really excited to be here. It’s a real honor.


Jennifer:Oh, no. We appreciate it. I especially appreciate the fact that you’re going to kind of give us a peek behind what it was like to get your business up and running and then also what that first year was like. I want to mention, you recently celebrated year two of your business and by that, you told everybody on Facebook, by year two you mean that you’re starting into kind of your second season as a food truck operator. I want to kind of back up to the very beginning and start talking about that year that you spent or that time that you spent planning and preparing and even before that, what were you doing before? Where … Were you in the culinary field? What were you doing?


Natascha:I actually was an attorney and I was doing bankruptcy, divorce and criminal law and it was very depressing and I could really feel it every day.


Jennifer:You say very happy stuff.


Natascha:Yeah. I actually started getting a CSA from a farm, community supported agriculture. Every week I’d go and pick up vegetables at a local farm, organic vegetables, and it was kind of my meditation and my way to kind of escape from my daily life and going to court. I really fell in love with cooking, using it as my escape, I guess, and realized that I was really passionate about it. I had been a Chinese major in college and I had backpacked all over southeast Asia and just was, I would say deeply in love with Asian street food.


The more I started cooking and I just realized this was what I needed to be doing. This feels right, whereas practicing law for me always kind of felt like square peg, round hole. I was definitely looking to make a change and this seemed like a really great thing. Food trucks have become really popular and with all the movies and everything it seems like anyone can do it. I learned that’s definitely not true, but … It’s not really what it seems. It’s actually quite different than what I even thought it was two years ago when I thought I would just do this. It’s incredibly hard, physically, mentally.


I knew it would be really hard physically but it’s been really hard just even knowing if I have enough cilantro and little basic things like that. It’s really been a lot of fun, really rewarding. Like you said, we just actually opened for our second season on Thursday, a few days ago. It’s been really exciting to get back into.


Jennifer:I want to, just so all the listeners are … I want to be candid with all the listeners and let all of you who are listening know that Natascha and I originally connected through an online food business course that I taught. We’ve actually, she and I have been in touch for several years, through the time when she was working to start the business and build the business. I mention that because I remember Natascha when you and I were first talking, you had mentioned that you were really excited about this idea, you were really passionate about this idea and you were doing a lot to learn by listening through other podcasts, by kind of reaching out to whoever you could for questions and mentorship.


You had mentioned that there were some people in your personal life who were really supportive of this idea, for example your husband, even though it meant that you’d be transitioning away from being an attorney. You had others, and we don’t need to call them out publicly, who questioned your idea. How did you deal with the less supportive folks? I think that that’s, again, one of those things, whether it’s a food truck or a farmer’s market business or any type of new endeavor, that is an issue that food entrepreneurs face are those, the naysayers who just doubt the idea and it takes a lot to kind of emotionally pick yourself up and move past that. What did you do?


Natascha:That’s a great question. I think in the beginning it was really upsetting for me and it was hard for me to push through and it took a lot of kind of strength and determination and grit to get through that. I think now when I look back I feel like that fueled me. I look back and I almost feel like it was good because it really fueled me and it gave me this drive and desire to prove people wrong. I have probably worked a lot harder at it because of that. It’s one of those kind of blessing in disguises that you can’t really see at the time but when you look back you can connect the dots.


Jennifer:I can see that, that it’s kind of extra added motivation to prove people wrong, even if that sounds terrible to say.


Natascha:It’s true though. I’m a five-foot person and I played Division I hockey so for me it was kind of the same kind of thing. Nobody thought I could play Division I hockey because I’m so short and I just worked harder than everybody else. I think I did the same thing with this. I spent a year and a half before we ever opened the door to The Ginger Pig. Most food truck owners that I talk to spent three or four months before they opened, five months, six months. I never heard of anyone spending a year and a half working on it. I think that’s important. I think that the time that I spent working on it before we opened is valuable, useful. I would have liked to be out there selling food sooner but I was definitely more prepared by spending more time learning.


Jennifer:Let’s talk about, so what did you do in that year and a half that you were planning and learning?


Natascha:I did three things that I think really made a big difference: I went and I interned at a restaurant in Denver for five months and I took a four-month business of artisan food certificate program at Portland State University. I also did an eight-week food truck academy. The combo of those three things for me, especially since this was a new industry and I didn’t have any professional cooking experience, those were the key. It was not just the experience of going through each of those three things but it was the people that I met at the restaurant, through the classes.


The support network, the fact that I have people in all these different areas I can call and ask a question to. The classes were tremendously valuable but the networks have been even more valuable. I had many people from the restaurant come help me on the truck. It’s just been an unbelievable kind of ride that I couldn’t have imagined. It’s been a lot of fun, really rewarding.


Jennifer:Can you … You and I know the story, but can you share with everybody the story behind how you got that internship at the restaurant?




Jennifer:I think … I personally think it speaks a lot to your character about being willing to step outside your comfort zone.


Natascha:Thank you. This is a good story. My husband was working late nights so we would sometimes go out to eat … He’d get home at around 11 so there are not too many places where you can go get a pretty good meal at 11 at night. We found a place on Yelp, ironically, called Brazen in Denver and we were sitting at the chef’s counter and I had the most wonderful bowl of ramen, better than ramen I’ve had in Japan. They actually make their own ramen noodles from scratch there, which is really, really unusual. I saw this chef dancing around the kitchen and treating everyone with such respect. She started talking to us and I told her we were starting a food truck and I said to her, “Do you give lesson?” She said, “No, but we could.”


She suggested I stage somewhere and I said, “No one will take me, I don’t have any professional cooking experience.” She said, “I’ll take you.” We got into the car and I looked her up and realized if I knew who she was I would have never, ever asked for her help. She’s kind of a big deal in town here. There’s only one James Beard award winning chef in Colorado and this is one of her disciples. I’m kind of lucky I didn’t know who she was because I would have never asked for her help.


Part of the story is that we became really good friends and she ended up leaving Brazen and she came and worked on our truck for almost four months and really put me through a real boot camp, I would say and now she’s starting her own restaurant and I’m ready to do it without her because I’ve been trained so well. It’s been really special.


Jennifer:Getting that experience, especially for being on a food truck where the operations piece of it is a big piece of the equation and being able to turn that food out at a high quality but also in high numbers when needed and quickly, to be able to have that internship, whether it was with her on the truck giving you, like you said, kind of putting you through the paces, or in a restaurant itself. That’s really valuable experience.


Natascha:Tremendous. Whenever anyone asks me about what they should do, somebody who is starting a food truck or somebody who wants to start a brewery who asks me what to do, I say go intern at a brewery, go intern at a restaurant, go intern on a truck. It’s so valuable, just the little things you pick up that then you can transfer with you, it’s amazing. I can feel myself using techniques that I learned at Brazen for totally different types of food and using them now with my own food. It’s amazing what I’ve learned. To be honest, it was the best job I’ve ever had in my life. I’ve never been that happy at a job. It was because of the people and getting to learn so much, that obviously is what makes a job so wonderful anyway, the people and getting to learn.


Jennifer:Can I ask you, this is …


Natascha:It was hard for me to leave there.


Jennifer:I was going to say, this is going to sound like kind of a bit of a woo-woo question, but having made the transition from being an attorney and then going to work in a kitchen, did you feel like you had kind of found your place?


Natascha:Definitely. I think one of the things I was really missing being an attorney was that feeling of being on a team. I grew up playing hockey and softball and was an athlete my whole life and that was such a big part of my life, having a team and being on a team. I actually feel like I have that again for the first time since I was in college. I had that at Brazen, I have that on the truck and it makes me happy.


Jennifer:That’s an interesting insight, yeah, about being part of a team.


Natascha:You definitely don’t feel that way as an attorney. I could tell that that was something that I wanted, that feeling of working together and collaborating. Being part of a team is a special thing. Anyone who has ever been on a team knows that, you have like 20 sisters and siblings. For me it’s just been really rewarding. It’s been a really nice life change. I feel really empowered. I feel in charge of my own life and I didn’t feel that way when I was practicing law.


Jennifer:I remember there was like a Harvard Business Review study a couple of years ago talking about why do people become entrepreneurs. The researchers had gone into the study thinking that it was going to be more about the financial gain and it turned out that it was this empowerment piece and then flexibility too were like the two biggest drivers for why people wanted to become entrepreneurs and how they kind of viewed themselves as successful wasn’t necessarily by their financial worth from the business but by being able to be flexible and by being able to feel like they can make decisions and be empowered.


Natascha:That’s huge. I agree. Not feeling like I have to look over my shoulder. It’s a very comfortable place to live where you feel like you’re in charge and if you make a mistake it’s you who’s going to be mad at you, not someone else. It’s a nice, new feeling.


Jennifer:During that year and a half as you were, before you opened up the doors, in addition to learning you had mentioned that there were some hard lessons learned along the way. What were some of the challenges that you ran into that … Again, since you and I know one another, your initial start date got pushed back a little bit, which is not uncommon in the food industry at all, or really with any entrepreneurial endeavor. What were some of the challenges that you ran into, if you don’t mind sharing, and then also how did you overcome them?


Natascha:We had a lot of challenges. Things with the health department, they needed us to change out our three-compartment sink and put in a different type of flooring. We had coolant leak into our engine. Things you could never really imagine. Our truck wrap actually got lost in the mail, 500 square feet of vinyl, so we had to have that reprinted and reshipped and we lost two weeks there.


Jennifer:Did it ever turn up?


Natascha:It did. UPS actually had to pay for it but then they were able to find it and so now we have a second truck wrap sitting in Florida in case we ever need it. We had just things you couldn’t imagine. Even since we’ve been open I was driving to a gig once and our gas pedal became detached from the rest of the truck, which is something you really could never imagine or plan for. I was just relieved it wasn’t the brake that detached. I guess what I’ve learned is that we’re in the business of problem solving, we’re not really in the business of serving food.


Just being able to figure out what our best next move is and being able to solve each problem and try and be patient and knowing that everything costs twice as much and takes twice as much time as you think. That’s real. We were actually supposed to be at a brewery last night, I’m sorry, Friday night for their grand opening and they sent me an e-mail a week ago saying they’re opening three weeks late. I think in the past I would have been surprised or disappointed, but like you said, after being in this industry for a little while, I’m surprised it’s only three weeks that they’re delayed. It was really easy for me to switch my calendar and I’m still going to be there for their opening, but I’m also not expecting them to probably open on their second try.


There’s always just little hiccups. I think the hardest part is getting open and being open is also really hard, but now I spend all my time trying to make things better and more efficient and that’s a good challenge as well.


Jennifer:I just like, as you said, I’m like okay, I’m going to write this quote down and post it somewhere because you are so right, we are in the business of problem solving. It’s like you’ve got the … You have the fires in your kitchen, and by that I mean the fires that you’re cooking with, but then there’s also just the fires in your business. I think that’s kind of one of the hard things about being an entrepreneur is that everyone tells you, including my website like, “Oh, you have to have long-range vision. You’ve got to be planning out your marketing for a year …” but at the same time you have to be solving problems that have come up today and that need to be addressed today.


Natascha:Right. Another thing that’s interesting is how many different hats you’re wearing when you’re doing this. I’m cleaning, I’m cooking, I’m returning e-mails, I’m shopping, I’m keeping track of inventory, I’m doing marketing, I’m doing some … Not really much accounting, I farmed that out because that’s not my forte. What I’ve realized is I’m being stretched pretty thin and I need to get more help in certain areas so the accounting is a really good example. If I was doing my own accounting we would definitely have no food to put out the window. I recognize that and I’m focusing on my strengths and then getting help where I need it. It is challenging to be wearing this many hats.


I had my own law practice for a little while and I wore all the hats there and that’s very doable. This is different. There’s so many more hats here. I guess it’s just … I thought I’d run a business before, I can do this, but this is different. This is making sure you don’t run out of food and doing scheduling. It’s just a lot of different things all the time and it’s hard to balance them. If I’m trying to catch up on production and making food, that’s time away from posting stuff on social media or returning e-mails. One thing I’m working on in year two is just trying to have a little more balance and get more help where I need it. I was definitely feeling stretched a little thin last year.


Jennifer:Yeah. That’s something that … I’m just kind of sitting here like, yeah, shaking my head in total agreement. I think I run into that. Every entrepreneur I know runs into that. It’s that quandary of you need more time and you need more help but you also have to balance that against the financials and so how do you make those two things work. I think we as entrepreneurs have a tendency to push ourself physically before we feel comfortable kind of putting the financial component in and saying, “Okay, I’m going to outsource my social media …” as an example. That’s a hard balance for a while.


Natascha:Right. Like you said, balance, even just work-life balance is something we’re working on in year two. We definitely overdid it last year. We took the truck out 13 days in a row, 10 days in a row, 9 days in a row, and I wouldn’t recommend that. We definitely burned ourselves out and we’re kind of doing it this year where we’re just taking the truck out Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday. We’re going to do production on Tuesdays and admin and prep and then on Mondays we’re actually going to take the day off. I’m really looking forward to seeing how that affects our business, actually taking some time off. I think it’s really going to help us. It’s going to help me, that’s for sure.


Jennifer:What drove that decision? Was it just that you got to the end of kind of your first year and were just physically and mentally done?


Natascha:Yes. We took the truck out 31 times in October and that includes a few of the doubles we did, it was 31 different events in October. I never … By the middle of December I knew I needed to take a break. It was really cold. We weren’t selling as much food, our sales were way down. From September to November they were down two-thirds because of the weather and I was really exhausted. We ended up closing for January and February and we just reopened March 2nd. The only kind of way that I know I can get from now through December again is to take January and February off next year so we are already planning on doing that.


We’re doing pretty well if we’re in a position that we can take some time off so I feel like the hard work paid off, but I do feel like we overdid it and I would caution people … You get addicted and you say ‘yes’ to everything when people say, “Can you fill in …” and “Can you do this …” but to really watch out for yourself because your health is the most important thing. You can’t do this without being healthy. We worked so hard. We were around sick people and we got sick and we hadn’t been sick in years. Just to be careful and not … I wouldn’t recommend people work as hard as we did last year. I don’t think it’s healthy. We’re actually trying to scale back and have a little more work-life balance.


Jennifer:I’m going to leave it there as a little bit of a cliffhanger. Does work-life balance actually work if you’re a food truck or a food entrepreneur? Hope you’ll check back for Part Two of this podcast interview to find out.


Again, you can find more information about this podcast series and other resources for food entrepreneurs at smallfoodbiz.com.


Also, again I encourage you to check out foodbrandsummit.com for more information about the industry’s first online conference and buyer pitch specific to emerging and small food brands.


Lastly, if you have a topic that you’d like to see covered on this podcast interview or if you have a story that you’d like to share about your experience as a food entrepreneur, please reach out to us. You can reach us at info(at)smallfoodbiz.com. Thanks.


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