Friday, June 22, 2018

Inside a food truck, it's hard work to keep a business afloat

It felt like 102 degrees on the asphalt parking lot at midafternoon in Bradenton. Inside the steel food truck, it was closer to hell.

Kelvin Blyden was seasoning a mojo chicken breast on a propane-powered commercial grill and deep-frying a small batch of sweet plantains. The dish — served with black beans and yellow rice — is a signature of his 6-month-old Latin food truck business, SRQ Curbside Cafe.

There were only eight food trucks at the Bradenton Food Truck Rally in Cortez Plaza. Not much competition, so the customer stream was steady.

Blyden, 45, contemplated if he'd really do well at Saturday's World's Largest Food Truck Rally at the Florida State Fairgrounds, which hopes to bring in 100 or more trucks.

"There'll be so many choices there," he said. "And people won't want whole meals, they'll want to try this for $3 or that for $5. When I go to events like that, that's what I do."

SRQ doesn't have big-name recognition, no Twitter account and only a little over 200 likes on Facebook.

A big rally like the one being hosted by Generation Food Truck is a great opportunity to get his product out there, but big opportunities require big investments. As it stands, SRQ celebrates small profits and most often breaks even.

Still, Blyden gets up several morning a week and assembles dozens of Cuban sandwiches, wraps them in plastic and loads them onto his truck. He stands over the grill joking and moseys over to the window to rib customers with a sarcastic deadpan at their sometimes strange requests. Sometimes his wife or children will come along to help. Sometimes he's alone. At the Bradenton Rally, he had a different helper.

I was sitting at the window taking orders and hanging them above the grill.

"So are you ready to quit the paper and come out here with me full-time?" Blyden asked.

As the sweat rolled down my back, my eyes rolled in my head.

Blyden had skin in the game, a fully outfitted truck worth more than $35,000, that made him smile even when the days were long and the orders were few.

The mojo chicken was one of several ticket orders hanging above his head on Saturday. He'd count it as an alright day. Despite being ridiculously hot, the rally had drawn a decent crowd.

"A good day, I'd say, is about $500," he explained. "You have to factor in the cost of fuel and the cost of the food for the day, but if you can make $500 or more you're doing good."

The rally take: $369. But before Blyden could think of how to spend his earnings, he had to pay 10 percent to Tampa Bay Food Truck Rally for setting him up with this gig and several others for the week.

"I don't mind paying them their due," Blyden said. "I appreciate what they're doing for me. I'm not the type to stiff someone who's helping me out."

TBFTR had already booked him at Tampa International Airport, the Bradenton Rally and outside SS Hobbies & Raceway in Tampa in one week. Next week, he'd set up shop again at Hillsborough Community College's Ruskin Campus.

Sure, it's a hike from Sarasota to Tampa, but Blyden isn't turning down any opportunities to serve his favorite foods and make a little cash.

He got into the food-truck business after stints in other fields from motivational speaking to cooking to night club management. Blyden bought his purple and pink food truck from a friend's Craigslist posting in 2009 while he was still running the club. The idea was to get back into cooking full-time and also be self-employed.

But having the truck wasn't initially enough motivation to get going. Family started to encourage Blyden to get into the business, and on Feb. 2, after concept planning and menu selection, he rolled out for the first time.

"Around when we first started, we went down to Ft. Myers for a concert and made about $1,800," he said. "It made me think, 'Oh. Wow. It could be like this.'"

• • •

My two days on the truck were not like that.

From 2 p.m. to 3 p.m., a customer arrived every three minutes or so. Many had requests or questions.

"Do you make cheese fries?" "What is mojo chicken?" "Can I get the Cuban without pickles?"

We complied with what we could, and offered alternatives for what we couldn't. Selling out the beans and rice was the goal for the day, so I had to push the entrees as well as the pre-made Cuban sandwiches.

The learning curve was steep. A price cheat sheet was taped inside the window, but even after 30 orders my eyes still flitted to it to make sure. Food wasn't instant, so remembering faces that went with names was also key. When the order was up, I'd call out the name and hope that some random thief didn't saunter up to collect. I fretted about whether I gave correct change and utterly failed to use the card swiper on the mobile cash register. And I didn't even have to cook. This was a lot. Blyden has done it alone as he prepared meals.

For him, the work is worth it. His goals aren't lofty.

"I'm already a success because I'm open," he said. "One day I'd like to maybe have a second truck but if I could get this truck to where I could take a week's paid vacation, I'd be happy."

Ty Gordon, director of operations at Tampa Bay Food Truck Rally, said that though the food truck business is growing, the lack of uniformity of regulations makes it difficult for vendors.

"You get to some cities and they really don't know what their rules are," Gordon said. "It's a challenge."

He stopped by the window several times at the rally to ask us things. At the end of the day Blyden settled up and told Gordon that most of his customers had heard about the event via word of mouth. Yet another piece of data that will help streamline marketing and hopefully get more people out to the next one.

A little after 6 p.m., Blyden started cleanup and breakdown, which took 30 minutes because he was too tired to wash the dishes in the truck. He vowed to wash them inside his house after shopping for the next week.

• • •

When we parted ways, he told me that tomorrow's gig at SS Hobbies and Raceway in Tampa would be the first time a food truck ever parked at that location.

Across the street from the clay, off-road RC car raceway, Blyden set up his truck as per usual and began waiting for the customers and the eventual rain.

Race announcer Ronnie Setser and his family started a tab and came back continually for sodas, sandwiches, fries and nibbles. Wanting to try something different, Setser, 53, of Tampa, tried the bistec (marinated skirt steak with yellow rice and black beans). Several minutes later he came charging back, styrofoam container in hand.

"The sauce on this is great," Setser delivered in a deadpan. "I might have to get the recipe from you on this one."

Blyden smiled.

"That's the great thing about this business, interacting with customers and getting instant feedback," he said. "You just don't get that when you're a chef somewhere working in the kitchen. Maybe in the movies you come to the table but rarely in real life."

The feedback was the highlight of a otherwise really slow day. It would have taken a miracle for SRQ Curbside Cafe to break $200 with such a small crowd and so few people coming to the truck.

Accounting for the gas it takes for the 120-mile round trip, Blyden still deemed the day probably worth it.

He had time to start the deep clean of his truck, something his wife usually does, and make mental plans for his trip to HCC in two days. I tallied the day's orders, and walked away wondering how someone could stay so positive about a job this hard with a future so uncertain. Blyden said the key is patience and availability.

"I'm happy to take everything," he said. "I'm one of those guys who's like 'Just give me a chance. Put me in the game, coach.' "

The flagging sales at the raceway set up future opportunities with food truck promoters because SRQ is branding itself as dependable with quality food, Blyden explained. "Other jobs will come," he said.

He was still unsure if the 100-plus food truck rally would be worth the gas and food investment, but Blyden vowed to think about it positively.

"Maybe I'll get some wavers to stand outside the truck handing out samples and drawing people in," he said. "That might help me compete."

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