Tag Archives: food entrepreneurship

Keep it rolling: adventures in food truck entrepreneurship

Ice cream lovers line up for a taste of Molly Moon’s Ice Cream

You’ve seen the magazine covers (“Seattle’s Best Food Trucks 2012”) and read the headlines (“the mobile revolution has begun!”), but you need only look both ways on a busy Seattle street to see that we’ve got food truck fever.

In 2007 just a handful of sometimes-questionable mobile eateries roamed Seattle’s roads. Five years later, city regulations have changed, opening the door for a flood of high-quality food truck entrepreneurs. Food truck “pods” are popping up all over town – there’s one in South Lake Union, home to Amazon and its throngs of employees, and another recently opened downtown at Second and Pike. The food truck trend might lead you to think that food truck entrepreneurship is easy – roll out a truck, and watch the money roll in.

Not so fast, said Molly Neitzel, owner of Molly Moon’s Ice Cream. Neitzel, along with Josh Henderson of Skillet, Marshall Jett of Veraci Pizza, and Danielle Custer of Monte Cristo, were part of a panel on food truck entrepreneurship that took place during CIE’s annual ENTREWeek in October. Food trucks turned out to be one of the most popular features of the nine events offered during Entreweek 2012. Why so popular? CIE not only hosted foodie entrepreneurs, but their trucks as well. Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to forgo the usual campus fare for wood-fired pizza from a clay oven on wheels or salted caramel ice cream from a gourmet ice cream truck?

Neitzel went on to say that after opening two successful ice cream stores in Seattle’s Wallingford and Capitol Hill neighborhoods, she thought it would be fun to add an ice cream truck to the family. It turned out to be a logistical nightmare. “Since the launch of the truck, I’ve opened three more shops,” she said, adding, “I’ll never open a truck again.”

Running a food truck is demanding, and owners face financial and logistical issues that don’t come up in a brick-and-mortar restaurant. Custer, the newest owner on the food truck panel, had opened her gourmet grilled cheese truck, Monte Cristo, just a week earlier. “We’ve had four lunch services,” she said, “and the truck has been in the shop four times.”

It’s clear that food truck ownership is not for the faint of heart. So why are so many jumping on the food truck bandwagon? Perhaps because mobile food entrepreneurs know that a food truck can place them on the road to success. Food entrepreneurs see opportunity in using trucks as PR vehicles:  develop a fan base with mobile food and those fans will follow once you find a permanent home.

Skillet is a great example. Henderson began serving burgers and poutine out of his silver airstream trailer in August 2007. By the time he opened Skillet Diner in 2011, the Skillet brand was hugely popular. Further success followed, and the brand now boasts a second location, Skillet Counter, plus a cookbook, a second food truck for catering, and products like Bacon Jam. Skillet’s success can be attributed in large part to the dedicated following of devotees who got their first taste of Skillet’s food when it was only served street-side.

Like Henderson, Marshall Jett opened his brick-and-mortar pizzeria five years after introducing his mobile Veraci pizza oven to Seattle farmer’s markets. “By the time we built Veraci in Ballard, we had a huge following,” he said. He added that the pizzeria’s opening coincided with the financial crisis in 2008, and remarked, “If we hadn’t established our business the way that we did and developed the momentum  we had with our customers and our product, we probably would’ve gone out of business.”

All this transitioning from mobile to mortar may make food entrepreneurs feel a bit more stable, but it doesn’t mean the food truck trend is going away anytime soon. Even those with restaurants still keep their trucks running. Sure, owning a food truck can be a headache, and it’s probably not the key to riches, but they’re a great way to test a concept, build an audience, and be part of Seattle’s rolling food revolution.

Watch the ENTREweek 2012 Food Truck Panel video
Read another food truck blog post: Apricots, creativity, and food trucks.

 

Apricots, creativity and food trucks

Guest post by Sohroosh Hashemi, Foster BA 2011
He attended the panel discussion Food on Wheels – A Foodie Blogger Dishes with Food Truck Owners, which was part of Entrepreneur Week 2012. Panel moderator was Jennifer Lewis, blogger and author of Food on Wheels.

A local organic farmer’s fresh apricot harvest was inspiration for Molly Neitzel, founder of Molly Moon’s Homemade Ice Cream. Neitzel placed a large order of apricots and began planning for the debut of her new roasted apricot ice cream.

Monte CristoThat was that start of the story, as Neitzel told the students and alumni in attendance at the Food on Wheels panel discussion. She went on to explain that her great idea—roasted apricot ice cream—was not what her customers wanted in October, when the new flavor would be on sale. Neitzel ended up with 100 pounds too many of apricots, which she turned into homemade jam. She used this experience to highlight a challenge she often faces, “a lot of times the creativity that we desire, or that you might desire as an entrepreneur, is the opposite of what your customer wants.” Neitzel’s apricot surplus also demonstrates the seasonality of her business. Molly Moon’s uses local ingredients, so any fruit or vegetable it sources is only seasonally available.

All of the other entrepreneurs on the panel—Josh Henderson of Skillet, Danielle Custer of Monte Cristo, and Marshall Jett of Veraci Pizza—also agreed that the seasons have a huge impact on their businesses. Both consumer preferences and the availability of local ingredients vary from season to season. Each of these entrepreneurs owns a company that relies either exclusively or in-part on food truck sales, and all of them find a large chunk of their revenues through catering seasonal events like weddings.

After the discussion, the audience question and answer session produced some takeaways. Danielle Custer, founder of the newly launched grilled cheese truck Monte Cristo, gave this advice: “Simplify. Specialize. Do that one thing very well.”

Entrepreneur Week is put on by the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

Watch highlights from the panel discussion.

Want to see more? Watch the full video.

Reinventing the Fremont Dock

Erik PetersenWhat do a sports bar and fishing boat have in common? If you’re Erik Petersen, quite a bit.

Petersen, an alumnus of the Executive Development Program at the University of Washington Foster School of Business, manages fishing boats for Iquique U.S. by day and is owner of the Fremont Dock by night and weekend. As a fourth-generation member of the commercial fishing industry, it’s in his blood. He grew up on fishing boats and worked on one in Alaska with his father during the summer between high school and college. His ownership of a sports bar is more recent.

In 2011 he became a silent managing partner in the Fremont Dock, and when it became for sale, he bought it. The Fremont Dock reopened in September, and business has been good ever since.

Petersen has been able to apply what he learned in the EDP, not only to his work at Iquique, but also to the Dock. The program emphasized maximizing return on investment capital (ROIC) and he’s applied that concept to both of his jobs by running lean businesses. He is relentlessly focused on maximizing profits and reducing waste and costs by tightly managing inventory and purchasing.

Petersen’s motivation for enrolling in the EDP was to gain more skills and advance his career with a minimal impact on his time. He credits the EDP with “changing his frame of mind.” At the beginning of the program he said he went from learning how to think strategically to thinking strategically in his day-to-day work activities. An example of this is leveraging the network that exists in the program. It didn’t take Petersen long to find connections between his classmates and his businesses.

The Fremont Dock is family owned and operated. Petersen’s wife, Sara, manages it and his brother and parents also work there. His 5-7 year plan is to establish and expand the brand to other waterfront towns and neighborhoods–à la Ballard Dock, Edmonds Dock, etc.

“I’m passionate about never stagnating and constantly improving,” Petersen says.

It’s a mantra he applies to both Iquique U.S. and the Fremont Dock.

Grow smarter

Seattle Bagel BakeryAJ Ghambari, 2007 University of Washington Foster School of Business alumnus, has owned Seattle Bagel Bakery since October 2010. The previous owner was ready to give the business up in the midst of financial hardship and Ghambari took this opportunity to turn the bakery around. This summer, he enlisted the help of a student consultant through the Business & Economic Development Center’s (BEDC) Summer Internship Program to identify ways to strategically grow his business.

“I’m a big fan of the leadership at the BEDC. I want to surround myself with people I want to be like…They are good people doing positive things in the business environment,” said Ghambari. As an undergraduate studying at the Foster School, he “loved the opportunity to collaborate with small business owners, mentors…learning problem solving, consulting…real world stuff…the BEDC really gave that.” Ghambari wanted to play a role in getting students involved and applying their classroom knowledge to the real world.

Since taking over Seattle Bagel Bakery (SBB), Ghambari has continued to deliver a high quality product – “old school kettle-boiled bagels.” But it’s not only the product that is prospering; SBB prides itself on the relationships it builds with their suppliers, customers and employees. All the employees have been with the company from five to 15 years. “We instill a strong sense of ownership in our employees – they feel empowered to do what they’re good at. And that really comes out in the product.”

Ghambari said he hopes to double sales revenue of SBB in the next three to five years, and “not just to make a quick buck, but sustainable growth.” In order to do this, he emphasized how SBB needs to look at its strategy and how it is growing. “We need to grow smarter, not harder,” he said. The BEDC Summer Internship Program is providing this. Student consultant Cynthia Chiou has been creating a “clearer, more focused strategy on growing business outside of the state of Washington,” said Ghambari.

“Everything the student and BEDC said they would do, they have done…they walk the walk,” said Ghambari. He recommends this program for “any small business looking for mentoring and guidance, a second opinion. It’s a great group of people to bounce ideas off of.”

Twelve businesses participated in the summer intern consulting program. Learn more about the companies.

Food on wheels: a foodie blogger dishes with food truck owners

Molly Moon Food TruckFood trucks are not a fad. There are over 80 operating in Seattle currently and the number continues to grow. If you want to know what it’s like to start and operate a food truck, this is your chance. SmallFoodBiz.com blogger and author of Food On Wheels, Jennifer Lewis, will lead a panel discussion with food truck entrepreneurs Molly Neitzel, Molly Moon’s; Josh Henderson, Skillet; and Marshall Jett, Veraci Pizza. Jennifer, along with the panel, will cover everything from permitting and budgeting to executing on your idea to becoming profitable.

The challenges of owning a food truck are real. Food truck restaurateurs have to worry about competition, not only from restaurants but also from other food trucks. There are also other considerations: cost, location, rules and regulations, and marketing a business that moves. We’ll also talk about the amazing food truck craze. The initial impression was that it’s low rent food, but it’s actually delicious, high quality cuisine sought by foodies all over the Northwest. Join us for this insightful panel discussion about the business of operating a food truck.

Food on Wheels Panel Discussion
Wednesday, October 17 from 12:30-1:30 p.m. in Anthony’s Forum, 320 Business Hall

Food trucks will also be open for business! Molly Moon’s, Veraci Pizza, and Monte Cristo will be serving food from 11:00 a.m.-2:00 p.m. on October 17 on the Business Hall Promenade.