It's a Thursday evening just north of downtown Columbus, Ohio, an area not known for its dining options. Despite the threatening sky, several pioneers are setting up for dinner in a parking lot. Among them, a new business venture called "That Food Truck."
Such mobile restaurants are the fastest-growing segment in the dining industry. It seems like everyone and their brother thinks it might be fun to cook and be your own boss in a repurposed delivery truck. But it is also risky business, with razor-thin margins and a fickle clientele.
Steve Concilla gave up a job in finance to run That Food Truck with his business partner, Dan Kraus.
"I had been doing [finance] for eight years and I had been looking to do something a little bit more adventurous," Concilla said. "The finance gig was on its way out, I felt. It just wasn't as fun as it used to be, so I figured why not try to make money doing something I love, which is eating."
Despite the odds, Concilla and Kraus, who is trained as a butcher, were determined to give it a go. The two started dreaming about getting a food truck back in 2011. They found a used Fed-Ex truck and spent the next few months retro-fitting it for food service.
In early July, the two prepared for a test lunch to see whether customers liked the menu and whether they could make the offerings fast enough when a crowd formed. The temperatures spiking into the 90s came as a surprise.
"I learned that it is crazy-hot on food trucks," Kraus said.
"I learned we have to prepare, prepare, prepare," Concilla added.
But making their venture work depended on more than just cooking good food. In Columbus, these newbie businessmen got support from a nonprofit development organization called the Economic and Community Development Institute.
"We help them with the marketing aspect, we help them with social media, we help them with food safety, we also go out and network and find them locations to do their job, because essentially we get rewarded if they expand and are successful," ECDI director of business development Steve Brady said.
The institute also provides a secure parking lot complete with electrical hookups, a kitchen with grease disposal and industrial-sized sinks, and -- for Concilla and Kraus -- cash. Having already sunk most of their savings and generous family loans into the truck, the two found themselves short. A $20,000 loan from ECDI covered the last-minute expenses.
In this hyper-trendy business, each new entry needs to have an angle to get noticed. For Concilla and Kraus, the hook is a seasonal menu from locally grown ingredients. A farm about an hour away from Columbus provides them with meat and eggs.
Before hitting the street, the two needed one key step: clearance from the Board of Health to operate. Unlike traditional restaurants, food trucks are heavily inspected on both the inside and outside.
Finally, it was time to find customers. Opening night was in the middle of July last year, and naturally there were some hiccups. The first few hours were slow in an area not well trafficked on a Saturday night, but for the duo, it was a learning experience.
"People said I can't take the burger off the menu, no matter how labor intensive. I got to keep it on," Kraus said of their menus that change seasonally.
Total for the first day: $187. "Not bad, I'll take that," Concilla said.
Running a Food Truck Comes With Challenges
In running a food truck, one of the biggest obstacles is working around restricted areas. These mobile restaurants are not allowed to park and set up most places they would like to, where the foot traffic is heaviest.
There is also no central area in downtown Columbus to attract crowds, so food trucks have to be invited by companies and organizations to set up for employee dining specials. Concilla and Kraus rely heavily on social media to publicize their location and ever-changing menu.
Columbus has several food-truck festivals during the warm months, but even though such events are packed with customers and are great for exposure, it is still just one part of the income puzzle. So even in the chill of winter, Concilla and Kraus are out as often as the weather promises the hint of a profit and constantly re-working their business plan.
"The truck makes money when it's going," Kraus said. "But we needed to establish a way to make money when it's not going."
Now almost eight months later, Kraus and Concilla are as busy as possible during the slow winter months and are getting ready for the upcoming busy seasons. There is no hesitation from them that they made the right decision to go for it on their own.
"I don't want to take a day off anytime soon," Kraus said. "Personally, I can say that because it's my business. If I was working for somebody else and cooking their food, it would probably be different. I would probably want multiple days off a week, but right now I'm totally happy."