Food truck operators have diverse degrees, some in marketing, law, or history. They might have led boardroom meetings, researched cures, or litigated criminal trials. Some retired after a long career in their field, some were downsized or laid off; some were just looking for a life change.
Whatever their past life, these food truck operators are now business owners on the Eastside. Brightly colored trucks can be seen cruising the streets of downtown Bellevue, or parked right outside the busiest Eastside businesses, serving lunch from a small, carefully curated, themed menu.
After a career in journalism, Peasant Food Manifesto owner Beth Clement went back to school to try her hand in the food industry.
“I cashed out my 401k and just bought the food truck,” she says.
Bo Saxbe, co-owner of Cheese Wizards, has a similar past life.
“I was in discovery research in inflammatory biomedicines,” Saxbe says. “My lab actually shut down around the same time that my brother left New Haven and we decided that we wanted to start our own business.”
Food truck owners might choose a mobile restaurant over a brick-and-mortar restaurant because of the relatively low capital needed to start up a food truck compared to its static competitors. A food truck costs approximately $40,000 to start, whereas a brick-and-mortar restaurant can cost more than $100,000.
The Saxbe brothers lowered their start up costs by renovating the truck themselves.
“When we got the truck it was a nightmare,” Saxbe says. “We only spent about $1,200 for it and then spent about five or six months of just gut-wrenching work to get it up and running. I think our overall cost was about $20,000 to get the business up and running.”
Other vendors may choose a food truck as a stepping-stone to prepare for opening a brick-and-mortar location at a later time. This is the case for Sam Choy’s Poke to the Max kitchen supervisor, Javohn Ferguson, who aspires to operate his own truck.
“I feel like I would want to have a truck as a platform first just to kind of get the business going,” he says. “I think a lot of people rush into buying a restaurant because they have good recipes. It’s more about being organized, getting your numbers down, knowing your market, and just going from there.”
The truck is only the first piece of the food-truck puzzle. The next step is finding a niche market and developing a themed menu.
“The fact that food trucks can be so personalized was very attractive to us,” Saxbe says. “It’s something that you can really make yours, and I think that’s what we’ve done with ours. It’s very silly and it’s super nerdy. We also knew we wanted to find something where quality ingredients would make a difference without a lot of cooking time.”
Once all the details are hammered out, food truck business owners must set their sights on obtaining all the proper paperwork to operate their trucks as well as undergo inspections.
“Currently, people operating food trucks here must have a Bellevue business license which is valid for the life of the business,” says City of Bellevue spokesperson Bobbi Pochman. “They must also have a King County Health permit. Most of the trucks move around and operate on private property for a limited time during the day—those very few trucks that are located permanently on private property are permitted under our Vendor Cart permit.”
Clement says the packet of information required by the health department had multiple complex components.
“We had to go through a rigorous inspection and in some cases its more rigorous than what most restaurants go through. I interned in restaurants and I never saw an inspector whereas now, it’s all the time,” she says.
In addition, the state of Washington requires food trucks to maintain a commercial kitchen, or commissary, to prepare food and wash dishes before they go mobile, and they must operate within 200 feet of a usable restroom.
Once the rubber hits the road and the trucks are ready for the public, a food truck owner can wear many hats; a mechanic, cook, driver, boss, cashier, and social media manager, often all at the same time.
“You have to be a special kind of person because you are a jack of all trades willing to troubleshoot and come up with plan B,” Clement says. “You have to be willing to think on your feet.”
Due to the economy, some food trucks don’t make it more than a year or two before they fold, while others have been hanging in for years. Many food truck vendors don’t start making a profit for more than a year and a half after launching the business. There isn’t one secret to success, but many long-lasting food truck owners attribute their resiliency to regular customers.
“If you are willing to think about your customer base, tailor yourself to really match well with them and you’ll get a ton of attention and better business for it,” Saxbe says. “People like consistency—we get probably 70 percent of our business from repeat customers. When we go to a new spot its usually slow for about a month or so but once we get a customer base, they come back every week.”
Saxbe also says social media plays a large role in their success.
“We are in different spots all the time and it’s really important for our customers to know where we are at and when we are going to be there. That’s why we are on Instagram, Twitter, and of course Facebook.”
Despite the hard work and the pains of a startup, many of these second-career, small-business owners are enjoying their new industry.
“The greatest advantage is the ability to be mobile and go wherever you want to go,” Clement says. “You get to meet a lot of people that you wouldn’t get to meet in a restaurant. The guy that’s on the truck with me likens it to being like pirates on a ship—in that you are rouge pirates and everyday is a different adventure.”
For a schedule of Eastside food trucks visit Bellevue.com.