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Buddha Belly - Food Truck Interview

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EricW //
A few months ago Paul, from Buddha Belly, who I knew from my days of owning a transportation company, called and asked if it was actually me working with food trucks and who owned FoodTrucksIn.com!!! He seemed excited when I said it was, indeed, me and proceeded to ask alot of questions about starting a food truck. He said that he was pretty certain that he wanted to open up an authentic Chinese street food, food truck.
 
Over the past 4 or 5 months I've been able to follow his progress, from that very first contact until the day he opened up for his first street service. 
 
After those months of work, Paul and the truck recently hit the road. I showed up toward the end of his first week to enjoy some lunch and ask him some questions.
 
It was great to chat with Paul and get a very candid look into what it took to get his truck onto the road. I am happy to think that I may have contributed in some small ways, and to share his trials, tribulations, and successes of the entire process..
 
Eric: So, this is your first week! How many times have you been out so far?
 
Paul:  Today is my 4th service. 
 
Eric: So, we are sitting outside your truck at the culinary campus of Johnson & Wales University where we both went to college. Have all 4 of your services been on the street so far. 
 
Paul: Actually, my very first service was last Saturday at Chinese Drgaon Boat race. The event was attended by about 3,000 people. We were also at an event on Sunday. Today is my second day doing street service. 
 
Eric: Your very first day on the road was at an event with 3,000 people? Were you ready? How long were you there? How many people did you serve?
 
Paul: I wanted to feel like a seasoned pro when I hit the road. We prepped all day Friday and I only got two hours of sleep. I was as ready as I could be. We served about 150 people over the 8 hours during our first day. We made it through the day but it was not smooth and easy.  Not only was it the first day on the road, but I had my sister and a friend helping me, and it was the first time we ever worked together.  We spent a lot of time trying to work out kinks as they came up. Being out for the first time and at a large event, there were a lot of kinks.
 
Eric: Tell me about your experiences that end with you opening up the window for the first time. What motivated you to open a food truck?
 
Paul: So, what motivated me is my personal interest in China and their food.  I’ve traveled to China twice and each time I have returned to the states I am always surprised at how hard it is to find authentic Chinese food. I recently graduated with a bachelor’s degree in International Business where my eyes were opened to such things as market research, market demand, and market niche. I did the research and found the needed key elements that make a business unique and profitable; so I decided to try my hand at self-employment in with a mobile food business. I had also found evidence that the food truck industry is expected to triple or quadruple over the next few years. Although my education led me down this path to believe that there is a real opportunity and demand for authentic Chinese food that is not being met, it was several factors that drove me to committing myself to this venture.  
 
Eric: So you were primarily motivated by the opportunity to meet the demand of the market niche?
 
Paul: Actually, it is much more complicated. I was only 20 when I had my son. I did not have the opportunity to go to college.  I had to work hard to support my family. I was always happy to work hard to make a living. Over the years I had a lot of driving jobs including driving trucks, limousines, and busses. I worked for a company doing ventilation duct cleaning for restaurants, I have been a dispatcher, and have had numerous other jobs. I have always had a desire to work for myself but never felt that I had the skills, knowledge or education to be successful. It led to an even stronger desire to go back to school and get a college education.
 
Eric: So when did you do that?
  
Paul: In the winter of 2008 I took my first class at JWU; just one! In 2009 I made the commitment to go to classes full time while still working a full time job. I graduated in May of 2013, a long hard 5 years of my life but totally worth it!
 
Eric: I am not sure how the food truck fits into this timeline?
 
Paul: Being in school really changed my thinking and changed me overall. I went back to school thinking that it would give me the tools and opportunity to get a better job and make more money, but during my education there was a shift and I found myself having a stronger desire to use what I was learning to do something for myself and put it to practical use.  Being in school gave me the confidence to pursue my thoughts of doing my own thing.
 
Eric: Ok, so why a food truck?
 
Paul: Again, many factors. One being that my wife is from China and that meant help from someone who knows what they are talking about. Secondly, there's an opportunity. There's a very large influence of Asian students here in the local college community, and it's very hard for them to find authentic food from home in this area.  I wanted to start a business to fill that void, but was not in a position to invest a huge amount of money, and didn't want to put up collateral to get a loan. Starting with a food truck was something I could afford to do with my savings. I could go on and go.... do you have all day?
 
Eric: Sure, but let's ask another question! From the time you decided to start the truck to the day of your 1st service how long did it take?
 
Paul:  It took me 4 long, hard working months.  In some ways I am amazed at how quickly it went, considering how much I actually did. First, there was the market research, then financial consideration, then trying to figure out if I had the abilities to offer a unique service in a field I had never worked in before, all while making sure product wouldn't suffer and I could stay true to being “authentic”. Then, after all of that, to seek the support needed to start a business, and the many steps that need to be taken. Business license, Food Safety Managers course, insurance, permits, inspections, and all with-in a regulated industry! Once that was achieved, the real work started: finding a truck itself is no small feat. Once I did find a truck, I actually found a better one and now had two, then trying to re-sell the first one! I worked on my truck EVERY day, all day! I had to alter what I bought to fit my needs and, to do so I had to first learn about and then actually do some work on the electrical, plumbing and drainage as well as equipment installation and so many other things before even working on the recipes and menu.
 
Eric: I know how hard you worked during those four months! It is really pretty impressive. I know people that have searched for the right truck for over six months and have taken well over a year to get on the road. How did you find the truck?
 
Paul:  I initially bought a 1989 GMC Diesel box truck that had electrical service in it but nothing else. It was $3,400. I immediately wasn't satisfied with it but wanted something I could turn into what I needed rather than sit on my hands.  I realized how much work it was going to need and was afraid I couldn't turn it into what I wanted. So I kept looking for a better truck.  I must have looked at 100’s of trucks on-line and went to see 5 trucks locally.  Just about everything was either too expensive or needed too much work. Finally, I found this truck I have today via Craigslist in NY. I got lucky and I knew it! At one point, I almost went to Texas to get a truck, but it was just too far away to take such a gamble, too risky. I am so happy the way it all turned out in the end! I love my truck! 
 
Eric: How many man hours do you think you spent finding and getting the truck ready?
 
Paul:  Whew! I can’t say how many hours. I bought the truck on 6/25 and from that moment on I spent every waking minute either doing food truck research, running to various hardware stores for supplies, running BACK to hardware stores for the correct supplies, planning lay-out, equipment sizes, generator draws, equipment research. Remember, I hadn't been in this field before so I spent many hours a day on the truck getting it ready until we opened on 9/6. There were many days that I worked all day long and felt like I hadn't accomplished anything.
 
Eric: With all that work is truck perfect?
 
Paul:  No, not at all. I bought the truck in NY and it was a vegan truck. It was set up well for what they were doing but not for my menu. I would say that 40% of the truck now is the original stuff that came with it while the other 60% are things I had to change or install.  To be able to afford to do everything I wanted I had to do it all myself.  Certain things like the fresh and grey water tanks could not be moved. Same thing with the propane lines for the deep fryer and griddle. I mean they could have but I wasn't comfortable messing with those. In a perfect world or with endless money there are a dozen things I would have done differently. But with the work that I've put into it and the way it came out, the result is that I have a functioning truck that I can use to put out great food, and can be profitable. Although, I am just figuring out that it is not winterized to get through the cold winter we'll have here. For me to stay on the road all winter it will be quite the project.
  
Eric: Tell me about your restaurant and hospitality experience?
 
Paul:  I have great people skills!  I have always been able to connect with customers in all of the jobs I've had. With that being said, I've never worked in a restaurant or a professional kitchen. There's a lot to learn, and I’m learning every day.
 
Eric: How did you handle learning to cook for the truck?
 
Paul:  I hate to sound like a broken record but research! A lot of searching the web, watching video clips, listening to webinars, talking with friends, conferring with anyone in the hospitality industry I knew or was able to meet. But, I also had a secret weapon; my wife is a great cook! I'm very lucky that she taught me what she knows about Chinese sauces and flavors; the authentic flavors that I wouldn't otherwise been able to perfect. Lots of the recipes I use were originally in Chinese and my wife not only helped me perfect them, but she translated them for me.  I haven't set out to learn how to become a chef, but I am committed to making the 6-8 items I want on my menu to be perfectly authentic.  There were many hours spent in our kitchen at home working recipes and then tweaking them and sometimes junking them and starting all over. 
 
Eric: How did you come up with your final recipes and menu items?
 
Paul:  Right now the menu is just 5 of the most popular authentic Chinese street foods. The hope is to expand to 8 items. I want to be able to offer 4-5 authentic Chinese dishes and a couple of popular Americanized versions.  As I mentioned, the recipes came from research and family and friends, and I'm trying to replicate the flavors and foods that I experienced during my visits to China.
 
Eric: Did you do anything special to prepare for serving to the public?
 
Paul:  Yes, after weeks and weeks getting the truck done and passing the State inspection, I started to practice and tweak the recipes for neighbors and close family. Once that was complete I decided to do two “friends and family” services in my driveway.  I wanted to practice and experience everything that goes into opening your window so that you can serve the public. I am so glad I did that!  Those first two practice runs were really challenging. The first day I had no systems in place and even though I thought I was pretty prepared it turned out that I was not able to open the window to serve people until 2 hours after I had planned.  It was really tough to time and figure out how to work on 2-3 orders at once and how to take orders and prepare the food at the same time.  That first night I felt very fortunate to be surrounded by people that knew me and were very patient.   The second night was better but still not good enough to open for the public.  Going through those first nights in my driveway really kept our first day open to the public from being a total disaster.  
 
Eric: Well I have been fortunate enough to try your food a number of times, and it is quite tasty. 
 
Paul: Thanks. 
 
Eric: Has the food truck community been welcoming?
 
Paul:  Very simply, "Yes!" Everyone has been easy to talk with, offering advice or helping to spread my name out there. I should have mentioned it earlier but I also was not a very “social networking” capable person which is a MUST in this industry. And, thanks to FoodTrucksin.Com for making that a bit easier for me!
 
Eric: Is it ok if we check back with you in six months and see how it is going?
 
Paul:  Sure that would be great, I look forward to it!
 
You can learn more about Buddha Belly and visit them in and around Providence at http://www.foodtrucksin.com/buddha-belly