Behind the Scenes with a Food Trucker: Your Questions Answered
Three months ago, Southern California's first Filipino food truck, The Manila Machine, rolled onto the streets of Los Angeles. Besides answering the general question of "What is Filipino food?" the launch of our truck has also elicited a number of more specific queries.
In addition to the few questions raised from some of my previous posts for Serious Eats, The Manila Machine inbox has been flooded with inquiries in regards to the food trucking business. I've been asked everything from "Where do you go to the bathroom?" to "How does one start their own food truck?"
So seeing as this is my final food trucker post on Serious Eats, I figured I'd answer some of the most frequently asked questions of me and The Manila Machine. The following questions were all raised from actual blog comments, real emails, and in-the-flesh customers walking up to The Manila Machine. Hopefully my answers can demystify some of the more arcane acts of food trucking--like where I take a wizz.
A Few Questions from Serious Eaters
Question: via @mh275: "where do you go to the bathroom???????"
Answer: I don't. At least not during a shift. Seriously. Things are so hot and hectic on a food truck that there is little time to even think about visiting the little boy's room. And remember, I'm in an enclosed box standing in front of a sizzling griddle, a bubbling fryer, and a steamy steam table--I do a lot of sweating, thus reducing the need for a bathroom break.
Q: via @HamburgerHelper: "And now having read a second posting here about how hard the work is and the downsides of running a food truck, is there any upside besides having people enjoy your food? I am truly curious, are you making a good living, or just getting by and hoping to do bigger and better things? For all the hard work and terrible hours, you deserve to be paid well for what you give the community who anxiously awaits the truck. Just wondering what you get out of this besides the satisfaction of knowing you provide the community a good service. And THANK YOU!"
A: Honestly, HamburgerHelper, the only REALISTIC upside to operating a food truck is indeed having people enjoy our food. As I've mentioned in previous posts here, food trucking is an incredibly competitive and difficult endeavor in Los Angeles. Granted, we've only been in business for three months, and things are going relatively well, but it is really and truly grueling work. Of course, we'd like to do bigger and better things, but right now, we are focused on serving the best food we can. As hokey as this might sound, I'm just glad people are learning about Filipino food--and for me, there is great satisfaction in that.
Q: via @phillamb168: "Is it weird that I think this sounds incredibly fun? I do have the same question as HamburgerHelper - how's the pay?"
A: It's not weird at all that you think food trucking sounds like fun, phillamb168. A lot of it is fun. I mean, I'm actually living out some crazy dream of mine by cooking the food of my culture for a living--crazy! As far as how the pay goes, first take into consideration all the food costs, the labor costs, the truck lease and maintenance costs, and then factor in that you have to split your profits with however many business partners you have. Yes, if all goes well, the pay can be good, but you shouldn't get into the food trucking business for money alone.
Random Questions Asked by Customers at the Truck
Q: "Is anything on your menu healthy?" (Yes, this really happened. Someone actually walked up to a food truck and perhaps wanted a bowl of bulgar--not that there's anything wrong with that.)
A: Actually, everything on our menu is made with quality ingredients. Sure, we serve chopped pig's face, pork belly, and spam, but everything's good in moderation, right?
Q: Are you guys actually Filipino?
A: Um. Yes.
Q: When are you going to serve beer?
A: Probably never. Serving alcohol from a vehicle is perhaps illegal in many places--even in Los Angeles.
Frequently Asked Questions via Email
Q: How did you conceptualize your menu?
A: The Manila Machine menu is the result of two food bloggers (myself and my business partner, Nastassia) brainstorming and cooking and brainstorming and cooking. Nastassia and I exchange ideas and taste test any concept or recipe before serving anything from our truck.
As far as the sweets on the truck go, Nastassia makes a mean calamansi tart, leche flan, and pan de sal bread pudding, among many other tasty goodies.
And many of the savory dishes on our menu originated from my own recipes that have appeared on my food blog. Everything from the lumpia, to the pork belly adobo, to the sisig, to the beef tapa on The Manila Machine Menu have all appeared on my blog in one way shape or form over the years.
Q: How much does it cost to start up a food truck business?
A: Before starting The Manila Machine, I asked the same question of other food truckers and the answers I received ranged from $15,000 to $80,000 for initial startup costs. And yes, I can confirm that range:)
Start up costs for food trucks in Los Angeles vary greatly. It all depends on if you lease or buy your truck, and on what kind of food you'll be serving. But in short, starting a food truck business is not as "cheap" as you may think. Of course, starting a food truck is less expensive than starting a restaurant, but a great amount of capital is still needed. Money aside, the cost in time and sanity alone is ginormous--I've aged 5 years in the last three months, and I'm also now completely nuts.
Q: I want to start a food truck of my own. Can you just give me a few words of wisdom and advice before I do so?
A: This is perhaps the question I get asked the most in regards to food trucking (besides where I go to the bathroom). And it's a good question to ask.
Before launching The Manila Machine, I also asked this same question of other food truckers. And you know what the overwhelming answer was? Nearly everyone I asked advice for said something along the lines of: "Don't do it. Don't start another food truck. The work is too hard. Keep your life and enjoy what you have."
I'm not kidding. That was the advice I was given. And for everyone else that asks me for that same advice, I'll also say the same thing: "Don't do it. Don't start another food truck. The work is too hard. Keep your life and enjoy what you have."
OK. So if you still want to go against that sage advice, and if you're anything like me and the many other crazy "nouveau" food truckers out there, at least heed the following:
- Understand that starting a food truck business will be THE hardest thing you will ever attempt (this is coming from someone who has no professional cooking experience and has never worked in a restaurant). You will never see your family. You will likely dream/have nightmares about prepping meat, angry customers, random ingredients, and anything else involved with your new venture. You will have some bad days.
- Don't start a food truck business expecting to make a million bucks, or hoping to meet Tyler Florence in various cities across the country. Of course, I want my own business to be successful and profitable--but there's more to it than that. Understand that you must have a lot of passion for the food you will be serving. Believe in your concept, and have faith that people will enjoy your food. There really and truly is something special about feeding people and putting smiles on their faces. You will have some good days.