Ed Hardy is the proud owner of a popular chef-driven food truck in Washington, D.C. By that, we mean that Hardy is a chef and he literally drives the truck. Follow him on Twitter: @chefEdHardy.
It’s been a little more than one year since I hung up my fine-dining chef jacket and traded it in for a food-truck T-shirt. Finally, I could be my own boss. The captain of my own ship. I was ready for the glamorous life of a mobile entrepreneur! I invested $40,000 of my own money. I crowd-sourced the name on Facebook, with “Bacon N Ed’s” easily beating out “Barely EDible” and “Ed’s Crustacular Discount Shrimp Wagon.” After two months of construction, equipment installation and wading through bureaucracy and regulations, I became a food-truck owner! So how did it go?
1. Truckin’ ain’t easy.
For every hour I spend on the truck, serving customers and watching that beautiful green “cabbage” pile up, I spend an hour working outside the truck. Getting gas, getting propane, buying one thing or another from Home Depot to keep the infernal beast running. I’m the chef, but I’m also the dishwasher, delivery boy, scheduler, general manager, PR department and errand boy. And mechanic. I know things about generator maintenance and trailer hitch heights that I never dreamed would be necessary in a culinary career. All that work and you’re not guaranteed a dime. Keep in mind, I’ve been an executive chef for years, and the cooking and the sourcing of good local products is easy for me.
2. The real money isn’t on the street.
I started out in what I thought was a dream location: a new Metro stop here in the D.C. area that had thousands of commuters. But just having a crowd doesn’t instantly translate into money. Unlike what Chef the movie and The Great Food Truck Race would have you believe, you can’t just roll up to any curb and attract a crowd. People have to have a reason to stop and eat. That’s why music festivals, food festivals and sporting events are where we make our money. Any money made on the street is just gravy. For example, because of arcane alcohol laws, breweries in Virginia can’t serve food in some instances. That’s why you’ll find me parked outside Old Ox Brewery on weekends, selling my Fried Chicken Banh Mi and Grilled Pretzels to micro-brew aficionados.
3. Winter is a bitch.
I opened my truck in October 2014. I enjoyed a modest bit of success, then Jack Frost rolled in and went all Deliverance on me. Continuous snow and two months of temperatures that went down to 5°F, which is definitely unusual for Washington, D.C. Lesson learned? Anything under 20°F means a food-truck owner should stay home and enjoy a cup of hot cocoa. What happens at 20°F? Batteries lose their charge. Water lines freeze up. Oil viscosity within your all-important generator changes. Propane valves stick. Exhaust fans pull snow through the service window, causing snowdrifts inside the truck. Those drifts then melt, then freeze on the diamond steel plate floor, creating your own private culinary skating rink. This winter, you can find me and the truck in South Beach from January to March.
4. Keep it simple, stupid.
At my first commuter-heavy location, I felt pressure to be everything to everybody: Twelve menu items? Sure! Hot chocolate, hot coffee, hot tea and hot cider? Why not? Gluten-free and vegetarian items? No problem! Grab-n-go items for Dulles-bound diplomats to take home as last-minute gifts to their faraway countries? Yup. My protégé/sous chef finally talked some sense into me after the Valentine’s Roses Debacle. We made cute little Valentine’s bacon bouquets, twisting perfect little bacon roses onto stems for hours. And for what? An extra $80? My sous talked me into leaving all the options behind and sticking with a simpler five- to six-item menu. He was right. Quality, profitability, and customer satisfaction all went up. Less is more.
5. We’re all land pirates.
I spent countless hours registering for a business license, business insurance, Health Department certification and solicitation license. I report each dollar I earn to five different tax authorities. I pay my employees the hard way and pay the Social Security and the payroll taxes. And almost every day I park next to a food truck that does none of the above. It truly is the Wild West out there. With regulations that are contradictory and hard to understand at best, limited vending locations lead to sneaky tactics and a cutthroat business mentality. Then you get into fistfights with other food-truck owners.
6. Social media is everything.
Thank heavens I had a little social media savvy up my sleeve. The importance of an online presence cannot be understated. We’ve got an excellent Yelp score, great reviews on Facebook and a good amount of engagement on Twitter. We keep in touch with our best customers and make sure people know where we are. It has paid off in high-profile gigs and media exposure. All I need now is some nice exposure on Food Republic!
7. Food trucks come in many flavors. Mine tastes like money.
I overbuilt my truck. I’ve got a deep fryer, a steam table, a high-temp grill, a griddle, a convection oven, a coffeemaker and ten other pieces of equipment. I bought the “Rolls-Royce” of generators (a Cummins Onan) that is so quiet you can have a whispered conversation standing next to it. Don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I love that I can do practically anything out of the truck and that we cook everything to order instead of scooping out of a steam table. It’s helped us transition to some high-end catering gigs and win some local food-truck awards with our creative and ever-changing menu. But some of that equipment wasn’t necessary. If you have a van with a window, a table, a hot plate and a generator, you too can have a food truck. Some trucks are just a pizza oven on two tires. Yeah, I spent too much on my truck. But I smile every time my competitors fire up their Honda generators, thankful that mine doesn’t sound like weed-whackers mating.
8. Just add bacon.
Through sheer dumb luck, I managed to stumble into a complete branding success. My choices, from the crowd-sourced name to the simple skillet logo to my choice of the silver trailer instead of another color, left me with an enigmatic yet engaging trailer that folks noticed and evoked a classic Airstream simplicity. This has been possibly the story of our success this year. Because of the branding, we’re able to feed biscuits to bikers in the morning and duck confit and trout amandine to discerning diners at night. This variation is possible because we came up with a small gimmick that played off our name: “Add bacon to anything on our menu!” It suddenly made it possible for me and my sous to make basically anything because, well, bacon goes with anything.
9. Congratulations. You’ve got a mildly profitable business. Now what?
My accountant smiled (well, smirked, really) for the first time about a month ago. It seems that about 11 months into my first entrepreneurial venture, I had achieved (mild) profitability! This doesn’t mean that I’m out of debt from building the truck, just that I had reached the ability to start paying down debts and have a little left over. I even have free time. I’m considering getting Netflix! To put this in perspective, I willingly gave up offers of $70,000 to $80,000 a year to be the executive chef of various restaurants and now instead pay myself about $20,000 a year. I’m living the dream! So what do I do now? Build another truck and cause myself twice the work and possibly compete with myself? Go back into debt, assume even more financial risk and build a cute little storefront? I have no idea.
10. There are better ways to make a living.
Sometimes housing gets overbuilt. Sometimes factory farming makes cheap calories plentiful and gives everyone diabetes. I firmly believe that we’re approaching Peak Food Truck. How many kebab options does one office park need? Pretty soon every millennial with some extra cash and every midlife career change crisis will give birth to a food truck. Conversations and the “clink” of silverware on plates will be drowned out by a nationwide buzzing of generators. This won’t end well. Call me first. Seriously, contact me through my many social media outlets. Let’s discuss the pros and cons of starting a food truck. All that being said, read my (upcoming) article in Food Republic on how to build a food truck!