Living the Food-Trailer Dream

Creating an entrepreneurial pathway for aspiring chefs.

By Kristi Willis

Most chefs dream of owning their own place, but the startup costs of opening a restaurant are insurmountable for many. Food trucks have become a way to pursue that dream with less overhead, and many female chefs are jumping at the opportunity.

Though she worked in managerial roles in restaurants and bars since high school, Lynzy Moran, chef-owner of the Baton Creole trailer and the newly opened Lady Luck trailer, never felt encouraged to pursue her dreams.

“The restaurant industry is still a male-dominated business and I was never told that I could be a young female entrepreneur,” Moran says. “It’s not all fun and games in the beginning, but the hard work does pay off.”

That entrepreneurial spirit is a key trait of the most successful foodtruck owners, according to Tiffany Harelik, author of the Trailer Food Diaries cookbook series, host of Trailer Food Tuesdays and one of the original contributors to ATX Man magazine.

“You have to have a willingness to work 80 hours a week, cook in a challenging environment and have at least one good recipe to promote to make it as a food trucker,” Harelik says.

Unlike a commercial kitchen, trailers have limited storage space, depend on propane tanks for the stove and have severe restrictions on graywater, the water that runs down the sink drain.

“In a brick-and-mortar, you don’t think about the water going down the drain, but in a trailer, you are obsessing over it because you want to use as little as possible,” says Erica Waksmunski, chef-owner of the Red Star Southern trailer. “You don’t think about the fact that you are going to have to carry 30 gallons of water off premises later or pay a very expensive service to haul it off for you.”

To learn the ins and outs of trailer operations, Waksmunski staged, meaning she worked without pay, in several food trucks before opening her own. She knew that leaving the world of fine dining for a trailer would be a big adjustment and wanted to make sure she was ready for the change.

“As much as I tried to mentally prepare myself, you aren’t ready for the heat,” Waksmunski says. “It made me proud that I could persevere like that six days a week in the hot sun. It is so hot, you can’t even imagine. You would have to go outside to cool off.”

Moran adds that as miserable as the summers are, the winter can be just as brutal. “The wintertime was almost more painful than the heat of summer,” Moran says. “Whatever temperature it is outside, it’s magnified inside.” So why would these talented women give up promising careers and the comforts of restaurant life to own and run food trailers? The chance to be their own boss outweighed any of the negatives.

That first year of owning a food trailer was one of the roughest years of my life,” Moran says. “It was awful, but I made it and now I couldn’t be happier that I’m my own boss and create the things I personally want to do.”  Waksmunski agrees.

“This is the most empowering adventure I’ve ever taken,” she says. “From idea light bulb to the time the window opened was 120 days, and I did it myself with the support of my family and a few friends.”

These women also appreciate having a direct connection with diners, something restaurant chefs don’t get to experience in the same way when they are hidden away in a kitchen.

“I have a background in bartending, and for me, this feels like I’m bartending with food,” Moran says. “Food should always be love, and it’s easier to do when you can see and talk to the person you are cooking for.”

For those thinking about opening a food trailer, Harelik recommends developing a straightforward menu that focuses on reliable quality and minimizing food waste.

“Keep it simple, establish your brand and marketing under that simple menu and be consistent with your hours,” Harelik says.

Moran and Waksmunski have found success by sticking to the food of their childhoods. Moran grew up in Houma, La., and serves the Cajun and Creole dishes she grew up loving. She also created a dish inspired by jambalaya as a draw to diners who might be looking for something out of the ordinary.

“I created the Jambalaya Baton, deep-fried jambalaya on a stick, to offer something different,” Moran says.

Waksmunski chose Tennessee hot fried chicken as the star of her traditional Southern menu, alongside other standards like pulled pork, pimento cheese, and biscuits and gravy. Unfortunately, she discovered that one of her favorite dishes was impractical to cook in the trailer.

“I took the greens off because they took too long,” Waksmunski says. “It was burning too much propane and generating too much heat to have that stove on all day.”

At the end of the day, both chefs encourage anyone considering opening a trailer to take the leap.

“Just do it,” Moran says. “It will be one of the toughest things you ever do in your life, but perseverance will take you farther than anything. People ask how I did it and I tell them I worked my butt off and cried a lot, but you can totally do it.”

“We have such great customers and they make it all worth the effort,” Waksmunski says. “I’m thankful to all the people who are patient with us when things go wrong and keep coming back for more.”

“The tagline for my book,” Harelik says, “is ‘Serving up the American dream, one plate at a time’ because that is really what food trucks are all about: chefs becoming entrepreneurs and living their dreams.”

 

Erica Waksmunski and Red Star Southern photos by Ryan Taylor. Baton Creole photos by Evan Mora.


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Food & Drink

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