Good Will

My business plan: blueprints and permits.
Some people have asked me if they could see my business plan, or talk to me about how to make a food truck in Pittsburgh or somewhere else. It's not so secret that I never had a formalized business plan. A friend (and food blogger) described what I did as "Jumping off the cliff and building my hang glider on the way down," which is not far from the truth.

The equation is simple, and probably universal. Think first of what you want to do and what you want to achieve with it. I love sharing food with people, and I chose tacos because I love tacos. My end goal was to leave people feeling as happy with a meal as I have in my favorite restaurants in Pittsburgh.

Look at what's being done already and immerse yourself in that. In my case, I have always eaten too much, so I could justify that as market research. Don't dive blindly into something thinking that a great idea you have will sell itself. You need to bring something new or innovative to the market. In my case, the tacos have wheels under them.

Start with good ingredients (the best you can get, or afford) whether that means food, real estate, personalities, design, or in my case an empty truck I found in Denver. It doesn't have to be the best, but it should be the best you can afford. Leave yourself enough money to survive the rainy days. 

My friend Hoon, owner of Fukuda. Photo: JW Lester.
When you do something you love, it is not work. This cliche may fall on deaf ears if you work a 50 hour a week job in a boring environment living paycheck-to-paycheck (as I did for over a decade). Motivate yourself to do something you love. Even if it's a lateral move in that direction. You're always moving, even if it doesn't feel like it, so it may as well be in a direction that benefits you. 

Even if you have no resources, think of your time as a resource, because it is. Spend your time with people who are supportive and embrace your ideas. Find people who love what they do and be around them. Treat people well and give your time to them. Don't offer something in exchange for a favor down the road. Just give of yourself, without enumeration, and the help will be there when you need it. Along the way, you will acquire skills and confidence that you did not anticipate. It just happens. 

And if you then apply these ideas to a business, it might work. You can populate spreadsheets with speculative numbers to see if something looks good on paper. But sometimes you just need to jump off that cliff with a good idea.

As a friend said to me recently: it's not about math. It's about chemistry.

And good will.

North Hills and Braddock

On Braddock Ave in Braddock.
I run a food truck that spends a lot of time not traveling. We set up shop 4 or 5 days a week in the North Hills of Pittsburgh, although I live in the city. That's how fate works. I had the good fortune to meet and befriend Mike, the owner of Coffee Buddha, before I even had the inkling that I'd actually start a food truck. Mike spent an entire year without a day off to get his coffee shop into gear. Although he gets an occasional respite, he still spends the majority of his time making coffee, tea, espresso, and hand-crafted syrups. He also has one of the friendliest and most capable crews of baristas working with him. We have fit into the mix at the Coffee Buddha, and its customers and the community at large have welcomed us.

The truck in front of The Coffee Buddha.
We collaborated on this partnership of sorts, because Mobile Food Trucks aren't really welcomed in the City of Pittsburgh. You do see a horde of mostly dilapidated food trucks at CMU and Pitt, but they don't go anywhere. They are rusting to the ground, with broken windows and flat tires. The city permits these trucks as "stationary vendors." I did not want to be tied to such a location, so I am considered a "mobile vendor." While we wait for legislation to change in Pittsburgh, mobile food trucks are mostly relegated to private parking lots whose owners give us permission to bring food to the community. (I will eventually buy a permit which allows me to park for up to 30 minutes at a non-metered location 500 feet or more from a restaurant, but for now I think it's a waste of money.)

One of the of stationary food trucks at Pitt. Why does the city allow a vehicle in this condition to serve food?
Sometimes you feel fate knocking, or maybe you've got a hunch, or a thought that comes to mind and that you impulsively pursue. That happened last Tuesday when a guy at Ink Division (a screen printing company in Braddock, PA) sent me a tweet that said something like "Hey man, we like tacos. Come here sometime."

I said "Sure. How about tomorrow?"

Probably a little surprised that I immediately accepted their offer, it took only 2 minutes of tweets and texts to set this up. I call this the magic of twitter in Pittsburgh, as well as the magic of small businesses collaborating. No regional managers or corporate policy handbooks to consult. In the words of Nike: Just Do It. Figure out the details on the fly.
Ink Division, 218 Braddock Ave.
If you don't know anything about Braddock, perhaps you should. Braddock's one of the last and nearest bastions of Pittsburgh's steel heritage. Situated on the Monongahela River across from Kennywood, it's just outside the City of Pittsburgh limits. During the heyday of the Steel Industry, Braddock was more densely populated than Brooklyn, NY. US Steel's Braddock Works still operates 24/7 as evidenced by the sight of smokestack flames, the hint of sulphur and quite loud clangs resonating from the railyard there. Just a stone's throw from the Waterfront in Homestead , Braddock hides out of sight of most Pittsburghers, and if you're new to town, you may not even be aware of its existence.

To say that Braddock has struggled since the decline of the Steel Industry is an understatement. In 2008, the average home value was under $7,000. Nearly 90% of the steel industry jobs are gone. It's a tough place.

But it's also home to a number of non-profits, startups and small businesses who've found value in an almost "wild-west" frontier environment. John Fetterman, a young Harvard graduate from York, PA moved there to work for Americorps in 2001, was elected mayor in 2005 and was re-elected in 2009. I have yet to meet him, but have followed his progress via news articles and YouTube clips of his appearances at TEDx and on national tv programs. I'm no expert, but I am growing fond of what is happening in Braddock.

Matt, Asa and taco fan Paula!
So on a rainy Tuesday afternoon, we wheeled up to 218 Braddock Avenue, just a few blocks from the bridge that lowers you into town. Some buckets were left out to reserve us a space in front of a "van that never moves." We were greeted by an instant line including Matt and Asa of The Brew Gentlemen, a startup beer company headquartered in Braddock. We spent three hours continuously serving tacos to happy faces from all over the area. The guys from Fossil Free Fuel across the street came over. A dude named "Fat Back" introduced himself, got a taco and welcomed us to Braddock. The cold rain turned to hail! A young woman named Ash stood under our window with her son while the hail pinged off the truck. They were excited to try our tacos. How'd you hear about us, we'd ask. "The internet," everyone responded. 

Part of the Ink Division Crew
Less than a week went by, and we came back to the same spot. We saw the same faces, and more. "We want you to come back, we love tacos--we love food trucks" was the refrain. It was sunnier, warmer, and people lingered to tell their stories of Braddock.

We will be returning every Monday we can.
Thank you Braddock.