This is a follow up story for Food Fleet. If you're interested in reading how they got started, published about 4 years ago, check it out here.
Hello again! Remind us who you are and what business you started.
I started my career at the world-famous Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles Apprenticing under Certified Master Chef Raimund Hofmeister.
Since then I have worked in more than 22 countries around the world working for some of the world’s finest chefs from Cas Spijkers, 2 Michelin star Restaurant De Swann Hotel in Oisterwijk, to Paul Prudhomme's K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen. I was on the 92 and 96 US Culinary Olympic Teams. Chef for the LA lakers from 04-11. In 2011 the lockout happened and the equipment manager of the lakers came to me with an idea to start a food truck. The short version is, we did and realized the real business and need was to help small mom and pop food trucks be able to work in the corporate foodservice world, from Convention centers, Universities, hospitals, Corporate dining. We supply all of the major corporate foodservice companies with their mobile solutions and indoor popups, or station takeovers. Since the pandemic our industry as a whole has been decimated. Revenue is down by more than 80%. I have to say those in our industry have all had successes and failures, it's part of the game. It's the same for all entrepreneurs.
Losing so much through no fault of your own, while the guilt and coulda woulda shouldn't isn't there. The outcome is the same if not worse. I am sure like many of you, we were poised to have our best year and expand globally. Now we're just trying to hang on.
Tell us about what you’ve been up to! Has the business been growing?
When the pandemic hit, everything started shutting down and drying up. All events were being canceled. Campuses were closing etc. We went from gearing up for the season to a ghost town in under a month. We contacted our partners and started to see where we still fit in the world. There was a need to feed staff at hospitals and makeshift hospitals. First and foremost we had to work with our clients as well as the National Restaurant Association and search online to use our networks for the new C-19 protocols. We need to protect our vendor partners as well as our guests. It took a bit to put the proper protocols in place. What was more difficult was keeping up with the constant changes and updates. It's understandable everyone was trying to fight against an enemy that was completely unknown like never before.
We all decided as a group to charge forward and be a part of the solution and help where we could. We were feeding military personnel at the Javitz center along with area hospitals up and down the east coast. I gave us real satisfaction to help people that were doing amazing heroic things on a day to day basis. We wanted to make sure during their 30 minutes of downtime there had a good meal that they could find comfort in. I learn this while working on military bases. All the service members typically have to look forward to while on duty is their meals. It's the time of day when they can recharge and reflect with their comrades on the day. I always wanted to make sure they could enjoy that time to the fullest.
I can tell you we weren't focused on the money. We were concentrating on developing the systems and protocols, realizing that more and more people felt comfortable eating out a truck. They were outside could social distance and have full visibility of the food being prepared. We implemented a 30-minute program where the operators would stop, completely clean up, wipe down their stations with sanitizers. Change their gloves etc. and then start up again. It helped show the customers real precautions were being taken for their safety. I have to tell you what little money we made we all decided as a team to give that money to 4 different charities.
I am one of the founding members of a non-profit in the northwest called the Wave, that focuses on climate, food energy, and waste. The Executive Director Justin Zeulner and I had the idea to create value for companies that joined the Wave. More so for their employees. To give them a connection to people in their communities and the work we were doing. Most times when companies support nonprofits the employees rarely see the benefit or connect it to them. We have all been there, HR gives you discount tickets to Disneyland, etc. and that's about it. I think the whole local support with your community was getting overused with its sounding more like a marketing thing, then being genuine. Since the pandemic, however, the shelter in place orders, people being confined. You saw people all over the world trying to reach out and be part of their community, they felt a real need to connect. They were so busy they didn't see it. All of a sudden you saw people in Italy singing from their balconies to each other. Now more than ever people want to feel like they are a part of something, they took the time to slow down and reflect and realize what's important. So we wanted to do these local hero boxes from artisans in each community from fruit and vegetable growers to cheesemakers, master craft people, and artisans doing everything from tamales to bread. We thought of people in their office environments, along with sports fans supporting their team and other Wave partners would want to support their community by buying a box and donating one back to someone in need.
From that starting point, the idea went off the rails and quickly turned into feeding people in need. Food insecurity was fast becoming a huge issue for the tribes in Oregon Washington and Idaho as well as the BIPOC communities. It’s a national issue but we were being reached out to in those areas since it was our base. The Executive Director and I started to see how we could use our resources to help feed people. We realized along with others in our industry that we needed to support our farmers, fishermen, and others. Crops were being tilled back into the soil. Fishermen were going out, dairy farmers were pouring milk down the drains, all the while there being a huge need to feed people. It was insane. We reached out to private funders that wanted to support our efforts.
I reached out to my friend who I worked with during Hurricane Maria. He worked for more than 6 months taking care of people's needs on the Island. He is a disaster relief specialist. We paid for him to move to Oregon and help with the startup. I had created a model that we were trying to implement as an overall goal for the food boxes if we got the funding. The model is to create an FDR style recovery plan for our industry. Meaning everyone from the farmer to the producer, transport, and nonprofit all get paid, and the people in need get the boxes. The twist as well is to do these boxes with a blue apron approach precut vegetables and proteins to make it easier for the families to prepare a meal when they are working all day. We want to make the boxes specifically for the communities where service is ethnically and culturally appropriate. Along with our sports nutritionist, we can ensure their nutritional needs would be met.
Justin worked with a funder and others on the team to secure 40K lbs of sustainably caught small boat fisherman Cod and Sablefish. We got it to Seattle and started to Distribute it to all people in need. We added our own element of using our fleet of food trucks to go along with the food distribution and provide hot meals to people picking up the boxes. This was a huge success. The smiles you saw by providing a hot meal were incredible. We were then asked to provide trucks for the tribes of the Columbia River Gorge to offer meals while they were taking their Census. This continued to grow quickly and we were on a roll supplying meals and boxes. The funder was so happy she wanted to know if we were able to distribute another 50K lbs of Alaskan Seafood. I reached out to one of my Board members, remembering he sits on the National Board of the Armed services YMCA. Marine Major General Melvin Spiese 2 star( Ret)
He told me there was an actual need in Alaska to support their food bank. We made the arrangements and got it shipped to them. Just hearing about the work they do, and they are completely self-funded brought tears to our eyes. The amazing support they provide and the activities offered to our service member families was overwhelming. There are words to describe the joy it brought to everyone involved.
At that point, Justin had been speaking with a number of congressional leaders and suggested we apply for the USDA Farm to family food box program to continue to do this work. We are currently seeking a grant with all our partners nationwide to do this. If we're successful this will help get us through at least 2022. Lastly, When we first started the company we were working on a lot of military bases. As we began to grow and pick up other contracts. That sector of business became too much for us to manage along with everything else we were doing. After the Pandemic hit, I realized that service personnel does not get laid off, and life on the base remained pretty much the same. So we are actively pursuing that again.
What have been your biggest lessons learned in the last year?
My Mom passed in the middle of February, right at the beginning of all of this. Then my first cousin and his wife passed away from C-19 in March, 3 days apart, and their son had to bury both his parents. If that wasn't enough they diagnosed my dog with bone cancer and told me she had about a month to live. For anyone those would be big hits, to add the pandemic to it, and watch the company that you built start to dry up, was a bit overwhelming, to say the least. I had to focus on getting through and try and not to get paralyzed by everything that was going on. We looked at what we had in the bank, it wasn't great since Nov-march is our slow season. I went to the entire team and was straight with them. I asked them all to take a look at what they all need every month to get by. I told them at some point, we would make up the difference to all of them, but for now, this is what we needed to do, I told them all right now it's not about making a profit, it's about making sure we can stretch what we have as long as possible for all of you. They all got back to me with what they needed and then we took the next steps. Cut off all nonessential spending, keep the insurance up was a priority.
I applied right away for the PPP money from Bank of America. Run do not walk away from them, after 30 years with them and running over 20 million a year through their bank I was treated like I had leprosy. We applied and shockingly got your application complete email the day the first round of money ran dry. I applied on day 1, I applied at Lendio right after that and they spent an hour on the phone going over all the documents and pre-approved us for close to the amount I was hoping for. About 2 weeks after that I got an email from BofA and asked to go online and approve the amount. It was right before midnight and I felt a huge sigh of relief, that was until I went on and saw how much they approved of me. We asked for over 200K we sent in all the required doc etc. like so many of you. They approved me for 35k. This is when the battle began and finally caught up with me. I had my app in with lendio, and they were not going to approve with approval pending. I called the bank and started railing on them. Not once did they call me to go over the amount how we got to our numbers, nothing after 30 years of loyalty. This took me out for a few days. It hit me hard and did finally paralyze me. It's what came next that turned it all around.
I was sitting in bed and thinking of my mom and dad, both Holocaust survivors. I thought to myself, I have a home, food TV, etc WTF do I have to complain about. My parents were ripped from their homes at 12 years old. Put into concentration camps had most of their family murdered. Once again WTF do I have to complain about no one is ripping me from my home, putting me in a camp, etc. I realized right then and there my parents prepared me for something like this my whole life. I have always had a tolerance for ambiguity, always made my way in the world, and would figure it out again.
The next morning I called the bank and ripped into them. I came to realize that very few if any of them from sr VP on down have ever had their own business or had skin in the game. They had no idea how to actually calculate the correct amount of the loan. And for Fuck sake it wasn’t their money, they had no risk. After more than a dozen calls. I was being pressured by one person at the bank to take the money. I said who the Fuck are you to tell me I need to take it. Well, I am getting pressure from my boss. I told her to have her call me. I got a call the next day and I am with the DR program, I was told you wanted to speak to me. I said I asked to speak to the Sr VP, oh I am. The call went back and forth, she as well never had a business. I asked why none took the time to go over the numbers again with me to verify it all. Long story short, I told her to take the money and shove it up her ass, and I was pulling everything from the bank in the am and moving on for good. Amazingly I got a number I could live with the next day. This was just the beginning of the hunt, and I was starting to feel good again.
I then started to make sure I kept the team together engaged and focusing on all of them first and foremost. The pandemic was an opportunity, not a problem. It gives us time to review all SOP QA every system we have. We as a team can re-evaluate it all and start over and retrain where we felt we needed to. Under normal circumstances, we wouldn't have the time.
I started to do calls with the team 3 times a week. I would tell a few jokes to get the ball rolling, then after a month or so, they had to tell a few as well. The calls were great, we all got to connect and talk about anything and everything. I then asked them what they wanted to learn and what classes we could buy for everyone to learn new skills. We were always a close team but this brought us even closer together. Lastly, to keep up all engaged I asked them every Monday to give me their weekly goals both for work and personal. I wanted them to be able to take the time now that we had it to do things they always wanted to do. Watch Ted talks, draw, read a book, spend more time with the kids, whatever is important to them. While they were all doing that I focused on connecting with our partners and have been working with them on their reopening plans. Working on what will be next and the new normal. Helping to put together everything from Virtual farmers markets to the local heroes programs to name just a few.
Last and most important is to take care of others, and especially your team. In the last 6 plus months, we all have seen some crazy shit. Make sure every day you’re addressing everyone’s needs. Everyone deals with the pandemic differently, even though you may not understand why they are feeling a certain way. It's real and it affects them. Having the team engaged in helping others has given them all a different perspective on all that is going on. Every one of them is an exceptional human being and cares for the world around them. But they have not seen it all up close and personal. I know I am the luckiest person alive to have them all in my life. I don't just say it, I mean it, without them there is no company. To that effect about a month ago I gave them all shares and vested them in the company. I am proud of every one of them. They all have shown amazing strength through all of this and I am glad they are all a part of my life.
What’s in the plans for the upcoming year, and the next 5 years?
Well, I would say, get a large chunk of money and off to a non-extradition county, but since we can’t leave, I think the mobile food and popup industry will be a booming sector.
Look at your partner’s or clients’ business and see how you can help grow it.
A Lot of companies are looking for 3rd party operators to provide food service till they can make the revenue to bring back. We had an aggressive 3-year plan scheduled for international expansion, which is not our 5-year plan. So it really works out for the question you asked
Have you read any good books in the last year?
I don't think there is any book as good as the real drama unfolding before our very eyes every day.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who might be struggling to grow their business?
I know it's cliche but think outside the box. Look at your partner’s or clients’ business and see how you can help grow it. Give them an edge up. Let them know you are their partner.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
Right this second now, but if we pull off the grant along with a few other things in the works we may be needing a great many people.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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