April 17, 2017

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

food truck startWe’re back today with Natascha Sherman Hess from The Ginger Pig food truck, who’s telling us a little bit about some of the challenges of getting a food truck up and running.  In our prior podcast, she and I left off talking about feeling a little bit burned out after her first season running the truck.

TRANSCRIPT:

Natascha: We got burned out, and I think everybody has probably felt that in some way or another and can recognize that feeling.  But we were able to take time off and recharge and we had some fun making some new stuff for the menu this year. We are really excited about some of the opportunities we have this season. So, we’re feeling kind of reenergized and recharged, and excited again, which is super cool.
Jennifer:
That’s great. Yeah, being excited about what you’re doing, I mean otherwise go back and be an attorney.

 

Natascha: Right, right.

 

Jennifer: It’s easier.

 

Natascha: Yeah. You know, and just getting to put new things on the menu; I found that that’s the stuff that gets me really excited is when we start selling something new and seeing people’s faces, and having regulars come up to the window and ask what’s new. This week I realized that that’s really the fun part, you know, is developing new recipes and putting out a special. That really gave me a lot of energy and excitement, and reminded me why we’re doing this.

 

Jennifer: Let’s talk about your menu for a little bit, and let’s talk about, both from the standpoint of before you started up, before you actually opened doors and started working, you know, kind of what you had anticipated, and then did the reality, once you were opened, did the reality change what your menu needed to be, or did consumers change what you needed to be? Like what did you kind of learn from a menu standpoint, either from what consumers wanted, or from operations, or any of those pieces?

 

Natascha: It’s an interesting question. This is probably the biggest lesson we learned in year one. Originally, we had opened with potstickers, and originally, I wanted to have three or four different types of potstickers, edamame and mint, and pork and ginger, and tofu shiitake, and I wanted several different types. We ended up opening with two types. We had the pork and ginger, and the shiitake and tofu, and then we also had handmade Filipino egg rolls called lumpia.

 

We opened at a food park in July and it was really busy. The food park had opened the day before, but because it was the summer and a brand new food park, we ended up selling 1,500 potstickers a week, and probably the same amount of egg rolls. We couldn’t keep up making them. So, I ended up, we were at one point in late July, early August where I had three people, three days a week at the commissary making potstickers and egg rolls. We were able to sell them. Selling them was no problem at all. We couldn’t keep up making them. We would even freeze them and try and get ahead, and we’d still sell out pretty quickly each week. What we realized was that our labor was up at like 45%, which is terrifying, and I think we could’ve gone out of business pretty quickly if we had kept doing the potstickers and egg rolls.

 

So, we made a really tough decision, and we actually got rid of the potstickers and we laid off three people, and it was the best business decision we’d made since we’d in business. It completely turned everything around. We’ve been buying frozen egg rolls and selling those not as well, but pretty, like well enough. You know, it’s not the same but it’s pretty close. And then the potstickers, we thought about using frozen ones but the problem with potstickers is from frozen is it takes too long on the truck. So, that’s another situation that we kind of troubleshooted along the way when we had potstickers. But we just decided to get rid of potstickers, and just do them for catering when we have plenty of time to plan. So, I have a wedding this summer where they just recently asked if they could do potstickers, and I said, “Of course,” you know, because we’ll have time to plan ahead. But it’s not something, with the volume we were doing. You know, we have some Saturday nights, Sunday nights were we have $2,000 in sales and $500 of that was potstickers. And so, but I was putting so much into the labor, it wasn’t really worth it.

 

So, it was really hard for me to do that, to take those off the menu because it felt like it was part of our identity, but I also feel like if I wanted to be in business next year, I needed to do it. And so, we did that, and to be honest, it was the best decision we ever made. Very rarely do we have people come up and ask for potstickers anymore and seem disappointed. We have so many other things people like on the menu, it hasn’t been a problem at all. But it was definitely an interesting thing to go through, and scary, you know, you have to really make sure you’re looking at your numbers each month and then try to improve them. I have been able to get my labor down every single month that we’ve been in business, and been able to get my food costs down every single month. And so, I would recommend anyone doing this to spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to get those two numbers down, and then see yourself improve and nothing feels better than that.

 

Jennifer: I was going to say, because when you mentioned, “You know, okay, our food costs or our labor was up at 45%,” that speaks to the fact that you were looking at your numbers regularly, and it wasn’t something that you just kind of waited till the end of the year to have your accountant give you a print out. So, how often are you looking at your financials, and also then comparing them to either the month prior, or now that you’re going into year two, into year prior?

 

Natascha: So, I would get a report every month from my accountant, and then I would compare, at that time I would look through and compare it to the previous months. And then, sit down and figure out ways that we could further reduce our labor and food costs. Those are my two goals are to reduce those, and all our other costs, of course, as well. But I was able to save money on labor by having certain days when we used to have three people, we’d have two people; or when we used to have the call-in time at 1:00, then we had it at 3:00. We got so much faster over time, I was able to reduce the labor.

 

So, I knew the labor was going to be really bad the first month or two, and I knew it could get better because of efficiency. In the beginning, we would get home at 1:00 AM after dinner service after cleaning the truck, and cleaning the dishes, and putting everything away. And now we’re getting home … We’d get home at 2:00 AM, and now we’re getting home at midnight. So, we shaved two hours off our cleanup time last season as well, which obviously saves on labor. So, little things like that, having less people around, and having people come in later, me doing more myself, those are all things that we’ve done to make big changes with labor.

 

And then with food costs, an example of something I just did a few weeks ago to save, we had these Asian pickles that I really loved and are in my heart, so it’s hard for me to take them off the menu. They have pineapple, apple, cucumber, carrot, daikon, and shallots, and then a lot of rice vinegar, and you know, we made our own pickling brine. But the rice vinegar is really expensive, pineapples are really expensive, apples are quite expensive, and so I just put out a cucumber kimchi on the menu instead. And it’s hard because I love those Asian pickles, and I feel like they’re special, and they’re apart of our identity. They were actually written about in the Boulder DailyCamera, so that was hard for me to remove them from the menu.

 

Jennifer: Yeah.

 

Natascha: But the amount of time it would take for somebody to make a five gallon bucket of pickles that we’d go through in two days, and then have to make them again. I had one employee, it would take him four hours to make it, and I had another employee, it would take an hour. So, it also depends on who you have doing a certain project, I learned that as well. But you know, I think you have to be willing to adapt and make these changes and not get too set in your convictions, and too set in what you have planned on your menu, and be able to roll with changes, or you’re not going to last very long. You have to be able to adapt and adjust or, you know, you’re going to not be able to last very long, I think, so.

 

Jennifer: Yeah, you have to … And the hard piece too is you’ve got to be willing to emotionally distance yourself a little bit, while you make these decisions. And making them from a business standpoint, and not, because like you said, “Oh, these Asian pickles, they’re in my heart, they’re part of our brand identity,” but you do have to take a look at those numbers and say, “Is this a financially sound business decision?”

 

Natascha: It is worth it?

 

Jennifer: Yep. So, you mentioned weddings and food parks. So, talk a little bit about where do you guys, where have you and where will you continue or grow to taking the truck out to? Like how do you find opportunities to take your truck to?

 

Natascha: That’s a good question as well. So, surprisingly I thought that’d be the hardest part of food trucking. That was my big fear before we opened, was where are we going to go? I think a lot of food trucks are barbecue, pizza, tacos, and burgers, and because we’re not one of those four, we’re somewhat in demand, which has been really lucky and really cool. We do corporate catering, that’s one of our big things we’ve gotten into in year one. We do office drop offs, and then we also bring the truck to certain offices. We do breweries and obviously, Colorado’s one of the places where there the most breweries per capita. So, we have several different breweries that we go to, and there are more being built every day. So, more of that. We’ve done catered farm dinners, bar mitzvahs, let’s see, we actually did a thing at a hospital where we went and served emergency nurses and they bought vouchers two different times. We’ve done things that I never would have imagined like that.

 

We just got invited to go to the roller derby, and a 420 festival. So, there’s a lot of opportunities of places to go. Last year, we were at the food park in Boulder about four to five times a week. We were the truck that was there the most actually. So, we didn’t have to go too many other places.

 

This year, we’re trying to expand our business a little and make, you know, expand out into other places, other communities outside Boulder, Lafayette, Louisville, Longmont, some of the communities outside Boulder. And we actually are putting together something with a local farm that we’re really excited about for this upcoming season, where we’re going to be there, and we’re going to set up with a few other trucks that are some of our friends. That’s another thing I wanted to mention is that I thought it would be really competitive, but we’ve actually become really good friends with a lot of the other food truck owners, and people want to work together, and help each other.

 

Jennifer: Oh, that’s a great idea.

 

Natascha: So, that’s a really surprising and rewarding. So, we’re actually going to start this thing on a local farm where we build our own little food park, and we cook vegetables that are grown right there on site. So, each truck is going to use and incorporate the local organic vegetables into their food. So, that’s something we’re really, really excited about for this second season. And we’ll be starting to work on that in the next month or two.

 

Jennifer: Yeah, so can you tell me a little bit about you, I mean you just kind of briefly mentioned, like the I don’t even want to call it networking, because it sounds like it’s more like real friendships, and peers, or real friendships amongst your food trucking peers. So, it’s not a competitive feel?

 

Natascha: It’s competitive, but it’s less competitive, I guess, than I, well coming from the law, less competitive than that.

 

Jennifer: That’s true.

 

Natascha: And we dog sit for one of our friends that has a food truck. I’ve worked on another woman’s food truck when she needed help at the last minute. I’ve had people come work on my truck that own food trucks at the last minute. People are always giving each other advice. I had another food truck owner try and help me with a recipe. Another one try and help me with my generator. Another one try and help me clean my grill. I mean these people are so nice, like-minded, down to earth, entrepreneurs. It’s been so cool, just to see how generous people are with their time, and how people are trying to help each other. I think everyone realizes that we all need to do well for each other to do well. If somebody comes to the food park, and they had a bad meal, and they decide, “I hate food trucks,” then they’re never going to come back to the food park, or they’re never going to eat at a food truck, because they had one bad meal at one truck. That affects us all.

 

So, I think that people around here generally, believe that and want to see each other do well, because they know it helps them as well. And I have read studies where if there’s one food truck, they sell X, and if there’s three food trucks, all three sell more than that X. You know, so I think there’s a real feeling that we’re kind of in it together, and helping each other.

 

I can definitely feel that, I don’t know if it’s like that everywhere. It’s probably not, but Boulder is definitely like that, and it’s been a really cool thing to be apart of. I think if we were in Denver, there’s many, many more trucks, there’s less of a kind of feeling of community, maybe. But I’m definitely feeling that, and I definitely feel like I can go ask any food truck owner for help, or question, or for advice, and it’s been really great. It’s been a really special part of this process. We’ve made friends we weren’t expecting to make, and that’s been pretty cool.

 

Jennifer: That is really great to hear. Because it is always a little bit of this, you are competing against them, but I always say when it comes to a food entrepreneurship, be you a food truck, farmer’s market business, a food producer looking to get on the store shelves, rising tide carries all boats, and it’s like you really do need to work together in order, and kind of I hate to say it, but like kind of look at the big brands as the guys you’re all working together against to try and grab sales from them.

 

Natascha: Right. And it’s funny because we can be standing next to each other selling food right next to each other. You know, so we are in direct competition at the food park. But it doesn’t feel like I’m taking someone else’s business, it feels like there’s enough for everybody. So, I think that probably makes it feel better as well.

 

Jennifer: Yep. Absolutely. You know, you told me the other day when we talked that when you reopened for this season, you found yourself with regulars who had come out on a cold not particularly, you know, nice night, because they were excited that you were back. So, when you kind of quote, “Opened your doors,” and had those regulars there, how’d that make you feel?

 

Natascha: It was really cool, it made it feel like we’re not the only ones that are getting the benefit from the Ginger Pig. And we opened on Thursday, and then we were at the food park again on Sunday, we were at a brewery on Saturday, and the same three or four regulars came Thursday and Sunday. So, it felt really special to see them Thursday, but then I couldn’t believe they wanted to eat our food again twice in one week, that was, to see them again last night was really, that really felt amazing.

 

Jennifer: Oh yeah.

 

Natascha: To be able to make food that someone wants to eat multiple times in one week is something I really couldn’t have imagined when you and I started talking like years ago.

 

Jennifer: So, then the last question I have for you. What are you, if you could say, what are you most excited about for this year? And then also kind of pick a hazy date in the future, you know like what are you looking, whether this is just with regard to the Ginger Pig or an intersection of Ginger Pig in your life, I mean what are you most excited about this coming year and then also, looking forward?

 

Natascha: It’s interesting you ask me this when I’m 39. So, I’m going to turn 40 this year.

 

Jennifer: Congratulations, welcome to the 40 club.

 

Natascha: Thank you. But you know, when you turn 40, you really spend time kind of reflecting and seeing if you are where you want to be in your life. And for me, this is kind of the first time I’ve ever felt like I’m [inaudible 00:16:36] want to be. And it took me a long time to get here, and I’m pretty old to be switching careers and I was on a long journey of other stuff before this. But I really feel like all that other stuff helped me and I just feel like the connecting the dots like we talked about earlier, I can look back and they all kind of make sense. It’s hard to imagine, you know, when I was in China in 1997, 98, and 99 that I’d be selling Chinese food on the street in Boulder, but it kind of all makes sense, and feels right.

 

And moving forward, you know, year one is about learning and yes, it definitely was. Year two’s about efficiency and now we’re working on that. Year three is about growth, so I’m super excited to see how we can grow this business. I, right now only have two revenue streams. I have when I take the truck out and then when I do the drop off catering. And I’d really like to see us grow and have a few other revenue streams at some point. So, that’s what I’m going to be working on and looking forward in the future is how to build more revenue streams. Whether that’s getting products on shelves, opening a brick and mortar, sending the truck out from the brick and mortar, you know those are all possibilities and things that we had planned on from day one. In our original business plan, this was never just a food truck, the food truck was step one. So, we definitely have bigger goals, and dreams, and I think we’re putting the pieces together right now to be able to go after those.

 

But the thing we’re actually the most excited about in year two is the farm. Getting to go to a farm. And it’s not just any farm. It’s the farm where I got my CSA, where I really fell in love with cooking.

 

Jennifer: So, it’s now coming full circle.

 

Natascha: So, we had a farm dinner that we catered for them. They’re special to us. So, we’re, to get to partner with them, and work with them, and get to create a kind of community around their farm, and get to cook local vegetables on site, that’s what I signed up for. I didn’t really sign up for just going and sitting at a brewery all day. So, you know, what really drives me is to get to spend my day on a farm, making vegetables that they grew and serving them right there to people. That’s as good as it gets for me. That’s why I did this.

 

Jennifer: You know, and it’s funny because you can hear the excitement in your voice as you talk about it.

 

Natascha: I’m so excited about that.

 

Jennifer: Which is great, to be able to have taken that time off, and coming back into this season and saying, “Okay, I’m really recharged and excited not just about the truck, but about where we see ourselves going this year and where we see ourselves working towards in the future.” You know, that says a lot about being in the right place in your life.

 

Natascha: Thank you. Yeah. It’s exciting.

 

Jennifer: Well, Natascha, thank you so much, really appreciate it, especially since on Monday, which for those listening this is, we’re recording on a Monday then you’ll also hear this podcast on a Monday since this is your day off, so thank you so much for doing this, and making it work with my schedule as well. I really appreciate it. And I also just really appreciate you sharing, you know, kind of all of the ups and downs. Because it’s a lot of the stuff that we entrepreneurs, especially as you’re starting out, it’s like you know is going to happen, but nobody really ever wants to talk about. So, it’s nice that somebody’s willing to open the kimono so to speak a little bit and show some of those struggles, and help us all understand kind of the real side of it.

 

Natascha: Thank you for having me. One of the things I just wanted to add is that one of the reasons that I haven’t given up, and one of the reasons I’ve been able to keep going and be gritty, as they say, is because I’ve developed this network where I have you, and a few other mentors, and I can’t say how important that is to have a mentor. And to tell someone that you need a mentor, and ask for help, and people are really giving with their time and energy if you’re willing to ask for help. I have to say that if I didn’t have the support of you and Kerry, the chef, that I, that we wouldn’t be still here, still open. It’s so, so critical that you get a mentor. Even if you’ve been a chef for a long time, worked in kitchens, it’s still really important to have that support, and to have someone you can call and ask a question to. It’s so underrated, it’s unbelievable.

 

So, if you’re out there and you’re wondering, “What should I do? I want to start a food truck.” I would say the number one thing you should do is get a mentor. The number two thing you should do is go work in a restaurant if you haven’t done that before.

 

Jennifer: Perfect, and you are so right. Yeah. Whether you’re a food truck operator or in any other part of the food industry, having mentors that you can call, and just bounce questions off of and get outside of yourself and your own brain a little bit is so important.

 

Natascha: And having someone that believes in you that’s not just you. You know, that having some external belief and support system is helpful.

 

Jennifer: Yeah. Because it’s a long hard road.

 

Natascha: Oh, yeah. But so fun, and so rewarding, and so worth it. I hope people are feeling encouraged and willing to try.

 

Jennifer: I hope so too. Because again, you can hear the excitement in your voice as you start to talk about … You can hear about the pride in your voice about what you’ve done thus far, and overcome and then also, the excitement as you look going forward.

 

Natascha: Thank you. It’s been really, really rewarding.

 

Jennifer: Well, I look forward to hearing more from you then about how year two progresses.

 

Natascha: Sounds good.

 

Jennifer: And again, thank you so much.

 

I hope today’s podcast, along with the first half of this interview has given you some food for thought. Whether you’re thinking about starting up a food truck business, growing your existing food products company, or anything else you might be thinking about doing in the food industry. You can find a lot of other resources on the Small Food Business website, that’s smallfoodbiz.com where we also have a link to other podcasts that we’ve featured. I also invite you to visit us on Facebook at facebook.com/smallfoodbiz. As always, thanks for listening.

 

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