How I Took Food Trucks Corporate And Built A $18M Business
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
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.
I have been involved in all aspects of the foodservice industry. My main focus has always been on healthy sustainable foods; working in every aspect of the business from fine dining to airport foodservice and food manufacturing. I personally took care of the Los Angeles Lakers Foodservice providing all meal periods for the team in the season for 8 years including the 3-year title run with two world titles receiving two championship rings for my efforts.
My passion is volunteering for Environmental and other health-related causes. I helped coordinate one of the first sustainable dinners in 1998 with the Earth Pledge Foundation in NY, I served on the boards of American Ocean Campaign, Oceana, National Marine Sanctuary Foundation and currently serves on the Boards of Jean Michel Cousteau’s Ocean Futures Society ,The Green Sports Alliance Food advisory board the Pioneers of Sustainability and the Carbon Underground.
My partner and I started Food Fleet in 2012 to help mom and pop mobile food vendors work within a corporate environment. Since then Food Fleet has secured a National Contract with Sodexo, has multiple contracts with Levy Restaurants, Guckenheimer and others, providing services for Convention Centers, NASCAR, PGA, Concerts, Colleges and Universities, Hospitals, MLB All-Star Week and more.
We also provide design and build services as well as food manufacturing and consulting for a number of large scale companies.
Food Fleet’s growth Year after year has been at an at over 30 %. From 2017-2018 we had an unprecedented 160% growth spurt. With a team of 6, including my partner and I, we managed over 20 million in sales for our clients. As an example. We took over a convention center 3 years ago managing their food truck business. For their largest event of the year, we were up 53% over the previous year. I honestly would have to equate some of that success to the under-reporting of sales by the previous operator. But the following year we were up 19% from that figure and again close to that this year. That is due in large part to our understanding of transaction times, menu mix, the equipment in each truck or pop up and other factors.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
We started the food truck business in 2012.
We kept finding it very difficult to find locations to operate. We had a booker that we used to find our locations but fell short and we let her go. I took over our booking and found that most people did not want to book just one truck, not only that they were upset that most of the time the trucks didn’t show up or were late.
We learned the real need was not only helping the trucks but providing a turnkey service for the corporations. This was a game-changer for us, we were really struggling financially.
After a few calls, I started saying I was with the Food Truck Alliance and had as many trucks as they wanted. I knew I could because my partner Rudy was working most events every night and establishing a relationship with the owners of a large number of trucks. I did this to ensure we would be part of the mix, as well as make a little extra money booking the other trucks. What I learned is that most truck owners while passionate at what they did, had little to no experience working in a structured corporate environment. What we also did differently then most lots/events and companies booking trucks at the time was, if they didn't make money we didn't collect a commission.
I then put my 35 years of Food Service experience to work helping them with everything from food safety to insurance. We learned the real need was not only helping the trucks but providing a turnkey service for the corporations.
This was a game-changer for us, we were really struggling financially. Developing this service helped keep us afloat. At a certain point the services we provided far outweighed the need to continue to operate the truck financially. My partner and I decided to seek out contracts for locations to operate at. We secured with a lot of time, effort and energy, our first contract with the Navy to put trucks on bases. This was the launching point for us. We then used that to leverage other types of accounts from Universities to B&I, hospitals, and casinos.
Take us through the process of designing and launching the business.
My partner and I were fortunate enough to bring back a former employee that worked for us when we were pretty much-doing catering and events with the truck. She was well organized and very detail-oriented. This enabled us to help further develop the systems we started using into a more formal approach…
Our financial model was a simple one, don't spend money we don't have or will have. We didn't take out a loan or even credit cards. We only used debit cards.
We also decided there and then we would not be charging a membership fee to the trucks to belong to Food Fleet. We felt it was a conflict of interest to have the trucks pay us to belong. We would be beholden to them and not our clients.
From there we then developed a vetting system that covered all the essentials of what we required for them to meet our client's needs. The principles included first and foremost food safety, then transaction times. Those two were key factors. We did not want it to take long for people to get their food. We then added over 50 more. The other major key was the insurance piece. Most trucks only carry the min required. And little to no one carried workman's comp. Most of our clients required a 5 million umbrella and WC.
We were lucky once again to find Burnie Tappel the President of Cobbs Allen Insurance Burnie is a third-generation Lloyds of London insurer that only dealt with risk management. They were experts in Oil and Gas and risk Management. He liked the challenge of trying to insurance us nationally for what we were trying to do. He was able to help us find a policy that met our client's needs. We were then able to offer the clients a larger pool in which to choose.
Having them to help us understand liability and indemnity issues along with a lot of other contractual obligations that would need to be met was critical. They have been a key part of our growth and a partner we couldn't do without.
Once we had the basics secured, all three of us set out to accomplish different tasks. Carly worked on the website and booking platform we were going to use. Rudy worked on Logistics as well as local regulatory compliance issues operating in multiple states. I worked on the vetting systems, insurance piece and securing the contracts.
I will tell you were ran more than we walked and had to clean up and fix more things along the way. We still are.
Our financial model was a simple one, don't spend money we don't have or will have. We didn't take out a loan or even credit cards, We only used debit cards. Only 2 years ago did we get Credit cards and within the last 6 months got a second one. I understand the term other people's money but we didn't look to borrow or bring in investors. Not that we were not sure of what we had or what we were doing, we needed to understand better what we had and what we were doing. The model that we started with has changed and evolved many times over the years. Honestly, we didn't want to be beholden to anyone.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
While there were others doing what we were doing, I noticed early on what the key difference was. Others were in the booking / Broker business, and the tech business. Most if not all of them were not in the hospitality business.
Our employees are not allowed to text or email clients or vendors until they have spoken to them and established a relationship with them. All our staff comes from the hospitality business they aren't salespeople or tech people, they all have worked in restaurants, B&I, hotels, etc.
This is the key factor. Being in the business for 35 years I understood what our customers and clients really wanted and needed. I knew how to come up with solutions for their problems. We were in the hospitality business, were in customer service. It's what this business really is.
Working on trucks and understanding how to operate then for many years really helped us. Understanding how to use my experience, and being able to relate that to our clients made the difference. I came to find out more than anything that even to this day no one really understands the business and more importantly they don’t want to.
Our first real call for consulting along with design and build came from my old Olympic team manager. He was the Sr VP of food and beverage for Pinnacle entertainment at that time. They operated 19 casinos.
He also had been the Corporate chef for Disney, opened Epcot, Sr VP at Darden for Red Lobster, CEO of the California Culinary Academy, worked in a leadership role at Levy Restaurants. He called me because he had no understanding at all of the food truck business and needed help. He is one of the most brilliant talented people in the hospitality business and he called me for help.
I realized more and more that this was the norm. Most thought in the traditional manner of Brick and Mortar, when it came to start-up costs, daily costs P&L. it is not the same at all and that where most go wrong. For lack of a better word, I was able to crack the code and translate it into language they could understand. More importantly, they did not want to have to deal with the trucks or the owners. They were happy to have someone else do it for them that they knew understood what they wanted and needed.
We provide world-class customer service. The highest quality mobile food solutions for events and catering were professional and respond to all inquiries by the end of the day no matter what. We pick up the phone and talk to people to connect with them, as well as better understand their needs.
Our employees are not allowed to text or email clients or vendors until they have spoken to them and established a relationship with them. All our staff comes from the hospitality business they aren't salespeople or tech people, they all have worked in restaurants, B&I, hotels, etc. How can we truly help our clients when we don't understand their business. We fully understand their financial models and requirements.
We then expanded into Design and Build food Manufacturing and consulting. Due to my background, network and expertise we were able to grow our business exponentially. When we got on the phone with clients they not only understood that we knew what we were talking about. They had trust in us to take care of their needs no matter what. Of course a lot of things we had some limited experience in the beginning. But I knew if we said, we could deliver we would. More often than not, my team has to hold me back from bringing in more business.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
I have to assume everyone exaggerates and embellishes here a bit. But the truth is the future looks bright. We are tightening up all our standard operating procedures and our quality assurance specs along with our policies. Since every client is different this is a constantly changing and evolving area that we work on weekly. Implementing new policies and procedures goes along with that. Things come up all the time that we address and add into our policies and procedures
We have been preparing for a large expansion for the past year and are working toward taking that next step. We are not the same as any other business.
We have a number of different models and services based strictly on each client and location account. No two of our client's contracts are alike, so we have to be able to adapt to their individual needs.
This makes having the same margins a bit more difficult. Our model is scalable and can be done globally and we are working toward that goal.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Start with a partner that has your back, this is step one. My partner is the most loyal honest person I have ever met. I am lucky to call him my friend and partner.
We both have struggled financially and emotionally through this whole process. We both have ebbed and followed when one of us was going through a rough patch the other picked up the slack no questions asked. Then bring in a team of caring and passionate people that love this business and understand what it means to be in it. This will help you avoid a lot of mistakes.
When you find the right person to vest them in with benchmarks and goals. It was the best decision my partner and I made. Now we have a core team where each of us has finally developed into our roles and each complement the others skill set. That doesn't happen too often.
While we have made a few mistakes they were all short term ones. For example, taking an account that we felt was going to do well financially and it failed miserably and quickly. That comes back to one of the lessons. We do learn by our mistakes. At this point, we have pretty much seen it all. We can tell our clients what the pitfalls are as well as the pinch points. Lost money made money hired the wrong web developer, hired the right one small little things. Dumb luck, being at the right place at the right time.
That honestly has been one of our biggest assets.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We have tried a number of them and currently, our VP of Ops found us a platform that we use. She has been able to make it work for us till now.
We will have our own tech platform within 60 days. This will be a game-changer. Our business is so unique we have tried to find third party solutions but nothing that has worked for our needs.
We have spent 2 years searching for a solution and finally decided to do it ourselves. This is once again where dumb luck and being in the right place at the right time comes into play. I found our builder, Freshin Up while having a bowl of Ramen in the Tokyo airport. We were at the counter eating and talking to the guy next to us, and it came out what he did. We continued to talk until my flight was leaving. He was heading to Thailand and I just came from there. We connected when we got home. I sent him the specs of what we needed, and they were the only company that truly understood our needs. They got what we were trying to accomplish and had a team that we're able to think the way we did.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Both my partner and I were fortunate to be around the great Phil Jackson on a daily basis. He was more than me. That being said, Phil was an inspiration, along with countless other mentors and friends.
Tomorrow is another day you get to prove yourself again. It’s great.
They have been way more influential to me than any book or podcast. Chefs and Coaches are in many ways exactly alike. They both lead a team of people. They both have to train, coach, mentor, listen, care, and teach.
They are only as good as their weakest link. Chefs also say we are only as good as our last meal. They succeed and fail daily, learn from it and move on. Chefs, coaches, and players all have good and bad days, when you go home at the end of the shift or game it's over. Tomorrow is another day you get to prove yourself again. It’s great.
When I was an apprentice there was a banquet chef named Jimmy Wong. Jimmy was the finest banquet chef I have ever known. The Century Plaza where I trained served on average 3,000 meals a day in banquets. It was the flagship of the Westin hotel. The Corporate chef brought Jimmy to the hotel when it opened as one of his anchors. Jimmy was from Hong Kong by way of Vancouver Jimmy was a legend, to say the least. Every Chef that wanted to be an executive chef for Westin had to come through Jimmy's station, if he did not give them the thumbs up they never were promoted. Were talking about some of the most iconic chefs of the day. All thinking they knew more than him and wondering why they had to have his approval. Most learned quickly that they were not in his league and couldn't keep up.
The corporate chef knew the real money in every hotel came from banquets without that they would fail and lose money. Banqueting supported most of the specialty and fine dining restaurants in the hotel. If the chef didn't get that then they were out. Jimmy was fearless doing 1000 breakfast and 1000 lunches or more by himself almost every day. When I first started at the hotel they had me in one of the restaurants. Every day when I came to work I would clock in and go and say hello to Jimmy, then go to work. The others always said Jimmy is a hard ass, he won't show you anything, he is old school send you to go get something, then make the sauce while you were gone. I was not going to let that happen to me, I realized it was more often times the lack of respect they paid him. I found out Jimmy's routine every morning like clockwork he would show up at 5:50 am set up his station, then clock in at 6 am and go get a cup of coffee and sit for 10 minutes to figure out his day. At 10 am he would take lunch no matter how busy. I would come in and watch how he set up, draw diagrams of where the pots and pans went and what he would do to get ready.
On my first day working at Jimmy's station, I came in at 5 am and set up the station. When he walked in at 5:50 it was ready to go. He smiled from ear to ear, he checked it and then clocked and invited me to go have coffee with him. Needless to say, he taught me everything I know about large events. This comes back to another lesson I learned from him. If he didn't respect someone or thought they were a shitty cook, he would call them a shoemaker. One day I asked Jimmy why. He said because they stopped learning and caring about being a good cook or chef. If you stopped caring and learning about cooking you were done with that, then you might as well become a shoemaker since your not going to be a cook anymore. Lesson don't rest on your laurels or past always be willing to keep learning. You will never know it all. The real joy is learning something new.
I have been going to MIT for the last year to recruit as well as learn. Nothing has made me happier than to have the ability to be around such brilliant creative minds. The future of everything is there. I am lucky to have the opportunity to take advantage of it.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Do what you say you’re going to do. Never apologize unless you have a solution to the issue. Otherwise, it's just an empty apology.
No one wants to hear that unless you can follow that up with what you're going to do to fix the reason you're apologizing for.
My father taught me two important lessons that I live my life by. “Be nice to everybody, give them the shirt off your back, but if they fuck you, hang them by their balls.” That is simple direct and to the point.
“Pick the hill you want to die on.” That means is that battle worth going down for, or do you let it go and move on. There are a great number of them that you will say that's the hill, but make sure it is for something your willing to lose it all for.
Only care what your friends and family think the rest doesn't matter. Never let others drag you down. Try and lead whenever possible, following leads to mediocrity, and zero creativity.
Always look at the whole chessboard and think 5 years ahead, Certain things you need narrow focus on, but someone has to think long term and strategy. If you cant you will get passed by very quickly. There is always someone that is going to try and copy you or take it to the next level. It's the nature of all things, stay ahead of them by being an innovator and not a follower. Be willing to go all in, and not worry about failing. I throw 100 things at the wall, and from that, I really do get a few amazing ideas.
Just because it didn't work at that time doesn't mean it wasn’t a good idea.
Be willing to hear everyone out on any crazy idea they have. That what changes the world.
If you can figure out how to make money and do the right thing, there is nothing better.
You will be a lot happier and create a more sustainable business.
If you work and care about what you do, the money will come, it always does.
Always hire people that are smarter than you, and you won't have to work as hard.
Always bring a gift with you to give to whoever your meeting, and make it personal from you. Not something generic. If you make something special, then make it for them, it shows you care.
Lastly, “have fun, laugh a lot, enjoy what you do” otherwise why bother. If I can't have a good time doing it the chances are others won't as well.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
Were always looking to hire when the right person comes along. We want talent creative innovative people that want to have fun enjoy life be a part of the greatest industry in the world. I tend to go to MIT and try and talk kids out of going to work for investment bankers, private equity, etc. Bringing food always helps at the job fair.
Where can we go to learn more?
Your local post office wall, or the Cook county correctional facility
- Website www.foodfleet.com
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Food Fleet has provided an update on their business!
About 1 year ago, we followed up with Food Fleet to see how they've been doing since we published this article.
4 months ago, we followed up with Food Fleet to see how they've been doing since we published this article.
Over 2 years ago, we followed up with Food Fleet to see how they've been doing since we published this article.
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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