We Tried That: Working on a food truck for a day

Published May 24 2017

What we tried: It seems like everyone and their mother wants to open a food truck.

Literally. On my way to meet Stephanie Swanz, owner of the Empamamas empanada food truck, my Starbucks barista said that her mom wanted to open one.

When I mentioned this to Swanz, she smiled knowingly and nodded. She gets that a lot, she said.

Swanz has owned Empamamas for about a year and a half, and has quickly found success in the Tampa Bay area and beyond. In May, her Cheez-It-encrusted grilled cheese sandwich was featured on Foodbeast, a national food blog, and a video Foodbeast made featuring her sandwich has been watched more than 400,000 times so far.

The 31-year-old half-Cuban, originally from Tampa, has worked in the hospitality industry for years, but says it's her Southern roots that she has to thank for her success with customers.

"It's easier to butter a biscuit when it's hot than when it's cold," she told me in her light twang, explaining her customer service philosophy.

It's her Southern charm that I remembered from our first meeting at a grilled cheese festival in 2016, and it's what drove me to reach out to her. My request was simple: Would she let me try working a shift on her food truck?

She agreed.

How it went: We started by prepping Tampa Girl empanadas, Swanz's signature item and a riff on the Cuban sandwich, at Your Pro Kitchen in South Tampa at noon. While Swanz used to roll the empanadas by hand — 600 empanadas for more than 18 hours for her very first event — she now uses a hand-cranked roller to speed up the process. We loaded a round of flattened dough onto the roller, scooped Tampa Girl filling — a mixture of salami, pork, ham, Swiss cheese, pickle and a special sauce — onto the dough and pressed it closed.

It was here that I got my first real taste of just how much work went into food trucking. We'd only rolled 40 empanadas, a fraction of what Swanz would need for the evening. She had already done the bulk of the prep work the night before, and said the truck was mostly stocked and ready to go. Rolling a few pans of empanadas had taken me an hour, and I had only rolled one of the three types she would carry on the menu. And I was exhausted.

Swanz took me for a drive in the bulky truck, which she said she doesn't normally drive over 40 miles per hour, and we filled up the propane tanks (two tanks at about 23 gallons each, for a total of about $180 every two weeks). Then, following her in my car, we drove out to Cigar City Brewery, where we were scheduled to sell food from 5 to 9 p.m.

It would be a nine-hour day from start to finish, but Swanz said she sometimes works double that amount.

As soon as Swanz opened the doors to the truck, I knew it was going to be a rough afternoon. It was 90 degrees outside and the fryers weren't even on yet. (She uses three, which burn at 350 degrees.) She gave me the simple task of readying the fryer boats for the empanadas, and I was cocky enough to think the rest of the afternoon would be just as easy.

I was wrong.

When two cooks, Matt Cornelius and Tyler Siegel, showed up, the truck went from cozy to crowded. Swanz had warned me that it would be tight, but I was constantly bumping into people and squeezing back against the counter to let them pass me. As a huge fan of personal space, I found myself shuffling toward the front of the truck, trying to stay out of everyone's way. (The two experienced cooks, who are on Swanz's payroll, worked with me to make sure everything was safe to serve.)

When we officially opened, I was stationed on the fryer; I was excited and thought I was ready, and then five tickets flew right in front of my face and I panicked. I tried handling the baskets, taking the raw, doughy empanadas from one cook, dropping them into the grease and plucking them out of the baskets before handing them to the other cook, but I quickly realized that I had no idea what I was doing. I forgot about an order of mozzarella sticks until they were nearly black. I forgot which basket I took an empanada out of and we had to slice it open to figure out if it was a Tampa Girl, a Cheeseburger in Paradise or a Cluck Yeah (at which point it was no longer sellable).

I lasted all of five minutes, if that, before moving off to the side. I was now in charge of tossing fries in a blend of Parmesan, rosemary and salt and pepper, and I managed that a little better. I tucked empanadas into their sleeves and readied the boats, handing orders out the window with a lot more confidence.

I have experience with expediting (readying food before taking it to tables in restaurants) and that helped greatly.

The verdict: Swanz said that when people ask her if they should open their own food truck, she tells them: "Don't do it."

Swanz insists it's something people should give a lot of thought to before making the leap, because owning and operating a food truck isn't easy. If people are interested in making a lot of money, she said it's not the business for them. If they're interested because they want to be their own boss, they should at least work on someone else's truck for a few months to make sure they can handle it. Because it's long days in barely tolerable heat. It's costly. It's dangerous.

One week, Swanz said, she grossed a 45 percent profit. The week before, she said, she lost $500. The ebb and flow of business, which is unpredictable, makes planning hard. Plus, different cities have different regulations, and different events have different rules. She said that it's a tough business to break into and stay in.

And she has seen food trucks go up in smoke — literally. At one event, she saw a food truck catch fire. At another, she caught guests smoking near her propane tanks.

She prepared me for all of that when I got on the truck. She showed me how to shut off the gas and where the fire extinguisher was, and she wouldn't let anyone light the fryers but herself.

She wasn't playing around, and that's because food trucking is not for the faint of heart.

But for Swanz, it's worth it. At one point, she stepped off the truck and was greeted by a woman who had reached out to her on Facebook. An empanada enthusiast, the woman had been following Swanz's truck, anxious to try a Tampa Girl, for weeks.

Contact Carlynn Crosby at carlynncrosby@yahoo.com.

     
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