Food truck lesson 3: Educate yourself--Ask people with experience for help and advice.
We read a TON of self-help books, as I mentioned in an earlier post. We read about starting our LLC, about accounting, about restaurants, about food trucks, about auctions, about investors...we read a ton of books and websites, but even though they had "for dummies" in the title of some of them it was still a bit confusing sometimes. So we started to seek the advice of some experienced people in order to be sure that we had the right idea on many of these things. You don't want to cripple your business because you didn't ask that one simple question!
Since neither David or I have much restaurant experience, we tapped the restaurant owners and chefs in our church for some help. We got tons of great advice on equipment, equipment deals, vendors to source product from, who to call when you need repairs, etc. We have a restaurant owner, Miguel, that goes to our church and he was particularly helpful. He gave us contacts for all of the above and an accountant--which was particularly helpful when trying to decide if we could really pull the trigger on this thing! And, as I mentioned, since I don't have a lot of "back of the house" restaurant experience he allowed me to come to the Rose and Crown and shadow his chefs and cooks for a few days. (The Rose and Crown is off of Powers Ferry near Windy Hill--if you are in the Atlanta area show some love for me!) If you don't have experience in a commercial kitchen I highly recommend finding someone that will allow you to get some! On top of all that, Miguel put me in touch with a friend of his that oversees the operation of an area food truck, AND he has offered to let us use his business for a vending location once our truck is finished. He and his staff have been an amazing resource.
Cobb County requires us to have a commissary kitchen in addition to our truck. So when David was scouting out the best location, he asked a lot of questions of the owner AND the other food truckers working from the kitchen. There are limited options in Cobb for food trucks, but we heard from other truckers that we wanted to be in Happy Belly's kitchen because they will hook you up with events that Dawn and Dan help manage as well as pass on jobs that they can't fulfill. In addition to that, I was able to shadow their operation for a lunch service to see how it might differ from the restaurant experience I had. I got some great advice on having checklists for prep and truck maintenance. They have let us take a look at things like their employee handbook, and shared some advice like using a certain vendor in order to get the perk of free inventory software. We have also been in the kitchen setting up and have been able to ask the other truckers about their big lessons learned and see how they manage their day-to-day operations.
I stumbled across a great used kitchen equipment vendor, Billy Vick. When you are on a budget you will find that it can be a challenge to find good and CLEAN used equipment at a reasonable price. They are willing to bargain especially if you are in the market for more than one piece. So again, surround yourself with reputable business owners and lean on them for advice whenever you can! You can't build a successful business without building some relationships.
My last piece of advice is about knowing your limits, and understanding the limits of others or "Stay in your lane." I first heard this advice at my Serve Safe class (a requirement so add that to your checklist if you haven't already). The instructor was talking in terms of certain regulations on pest control. He was explaining that if you have a pest issue at home you can go to Home Depot and get a can of whatever and take care of it if you like, but when you are a food vendor you cannot do that! You have to stay in your lane--you are a food service professional, not a pest control professional. If you have a pest problem you call pest control--makes sense. While some people have wider lanes of experience than others, stepping out of your lane, or allowing someone else to step out of their lane, can cause you some unnecessary grief.
I'll give you an example from my personal experience. We have been working with a fabricator that was recommended to us as someone that is willing to work on a used truck and understands budgets. He is a very kind, Christian man and we have learned a lot of things from him as well. But, he is NOT an equipment mechanic. We had bought some kitchen equipment for the truck at an auction and made the mistake of going by the picture and description that was posted rather than checking it out in person. When we got the equipment it was dirty, the fridge in particular was super smelly, and it needed some TLC (missing castors, dents, etc.). The truck fabricator accepted our equipment and then later called to tell us that none of it worked properly, that it was in terrible shape, and that he wouldn't have given $100 for it. We spent more than $100 on it, much more, so we were freaking out! David even tried calling the auction house to tell them that they had misrepresented the items and should take them back (no luck there). We were left with no choice but to try and get it fixed--if it was so terrible we certainly wouldn't get enough from reselling it to cover the cost of purchasing replacements. So I got a number for an equipment mechanic from Miguel. We hauled it all over to him and a few days and just a couple of replacement electrical cords later, we were fine! We did spend quite a bit of time cleaning those items, and hauling them back and forth at some expense, so again you will have to weigh the savings with the time it will cost you (and in this case the stress and added expense of repairs and additional transport). It may have been better for us to just spend a little extra for a clean and inspected piece from Billy Vick's (we didn't know about them at the time)!
Live and learn, right! You will make mistakes no matter how careful you think you are being. But the bottom line is that a little time educating yourself could save you a lot!