How we opened a food truck in 6 days
The most common question we get asked is, “How long have you been planning to open a food truck?” The truth is we never planned on opening one, but one of Kristen’s favorite past times is dreaming up business ideas. She has lots of them. And she’s bought web domains for each, like seeds with the possibility of one day sprouting into passion projects or side hustles. A food truck was a seed she planted a few years ago, but one that we crossed off our list when reviewing the risks and tradeoffs that went along with it.
So what changed our minds? We decided to get engaged. Huh? Wait, let me explain.
The usual heteronormative traditions never felt right for us. So in the spirit of continuing to experiment with the norms of our relationship, we decided to step away from a traditional proposal.
Kristen is a planner. She especially loves planning for her close friends and family. So naturally she was experiencing major #FOMO around planning a proposal. I, on the other hand, had felt a lot of pressure to plan an elaborate surprise for someone who gets anxious about being surprised.
So instead, we decided to plan an engagement trip to Japan, based on another tradition we’ve baked into our relationship — the baecation. A baecation is a trip based on the team and leadership workshops Kristen facilitates at work, but she’s tailored it to the dynamics of life partners and in a vacation setting. At least once a year we go on a baecation to get in some R&R plus one on one time. We review our relationship and our individual goals, then set new goals for the upcoming year with a plan of how we can best support one another. The format had worked well for us in the past and we thought we could use the same framework for a two-way proposal. It was a HUGE relief to do something different that felt more like us, and not do it alone.
Why Japan? We have always, ALWAYS, wanted to go. It’s our one dream destination with the longest list of local sights we want to see *ahem* robot cafe *ahem* and food we want to try. And we’ve waited through seven years of scheduling and financial challenges because we’ve always wanted that trip to be one we did right. One without a budget. One that we could savor, similar to the way we strategize and build anticipation for our last bites whenever we eat.
We planned this trip for December, for the week that would be our seven year anniversary. September came along and we realized we had better get started on logistics. I was approved for the time off, we went ring shopping, and talked about what we’d like to do on this trip. Over lunch a few days later, we continued our discussion, which then evolved into a conversation about what role our careers would play in our next chapter together.
I had the opportunity to take on a head chef position at Google, but was feeling conflicted because I also enjoyed the pop-ups we had been hosting together. But Kristen helped me recognize that I am at my best when I have a single focus and I realized that I'd eventually have to decide which opportunity I wanted to pursue and grow in next.
I loved my job at Google. I had everything I wanted there — a team that felt like family, a manager that became a mentor and friend, a partner in crime that I shared my day-to-day with, a stable schedule, and a kitchen that encouraged creativity and sustainability in their practice. But at the same time my heart was pulling me more towards running a business full time.
Since I had never been in business before and it was hard to picture what that would be like, Kristen ran me through three potential business models. We compared some back-of-the-napkin math with what kind of lifestyle we wanted to commit to in the next five years. We ruled out continuing popups because financially it was more risk than we wanted to take on. And we ruled out a brick-and-mortar because we didn’t want the pressure of that schedule and overhead. The food truck option came out as a slight leader, but we had concerns… the constant moving, the marketing effort, and — possibly the toughest challenge — San Francisco’s strict permitting process.
At that point Kristen knew that continuing to discuss the hypothetical would quickly lead us straight to “no.” The next thing she said scared the shit out of me, but it was also so her. “Well, let’s throw this out to the universe. If I can find a truck right now that is turn key, I’m going to buy it.”
She went on Craigslist and the fifth listing down was an ad for a turn key truck. It literally said in the headline, “SF approved turn-key food truck / trailer — $40000 (SOMA / south beach)”. We looked at each other, freaked AF, and rationalized that the post might be old and chances slim. Kristen emailed anyway and we got a response within minutes asking if we could meet that weekend. It was a Friday.
What happens next was a waterfall of fortunate events. That Sunday we met with the truck’s owners, Matt and Ben, who run a specialty udon business (Kristen’s favorite noodle! More signs from the universe?!). We learned that the truck had a permanent spot at the SoMa StrEat Food Park… which happens to be a 7 minute walk from our apartment, and also where we hosted our very first pop-up together. This mitigated our other original concerns around location and marketing.
A few weeks pass because we were both busy at work, we had a wedding to go to, more life happens, etc. But in between, we discussed what the implications of really doing this would be on our schedules. We met Matt and Ben again, this time with the food park owner, Carlos. At that point we’re out of excuses. Every reason we had not to do it was met with a surprisingly seamless solution. That day we finally decide to buy it and commit to SoMa StrEat Food’s big lumpia festival, Lumpia Palooza, as our first day of business.
We signed papers three days later but I struggled to put in my two weeks notice. I thought through that list of why I loved my job at Google. I wasn’t ready to walk away just yet. I thought hard about how I could make both work. I would take a week off to train our new employees. They would run lunch service at the truck while I ran lunch at Google, then I’d leave each day in time to run dinner service with Kristen.
I was stubborn. But Kristen reminded me that if I ever wanted to go big and develop a food business of my own, this would be an ideal time to experiment. And I should give it my all and give myself a fair shot at succeeding. Even my chef and mentor told me to leave and “fly the coop.”
So I do it! I put in my two weeks and we receive the keys on a Sunday. We’re left with six days to turn everything around to open the following Saturday in time for the festival. I was still committed to a full-time schedule at Google, so during that six day transition Kristen took the reins solo and it was like she was on a reality show.
We look for a commissary kitchen. We buy a commercial freezer and hire a company to do a deep clean. We submit an application for a business loan, start designs for the truck’s new vinyl wrap and reach out to companies for quotes. Kristen gets attached to the idea of putting a 10-foot, 3D, light-up attachment of our new pineapple logo onto the truck.
We submit our health permit application, and start planning staffing. We research digital menu boards because we’re unsure of what menu to commit to. Upon closer inspection, Kristen notices the cleaners did a shit job and finds herself contorting her body behind the stove to pick up where they had slacked off. We book another cleaner to take care of the hood.
We apply for insurance and decide on a menu for opening weekend. Kristen discovers an issue with our gas line and learns that plumbers fix gas lines. We find an awesome plumber (we love you, Nick!) who prescribes the replacement of a large gas pipe which will cost us about $2k. Kristen gets stranded at the kitchen appliance store because all Ubers refuse her ride when they learn she is traveling with a new heavy grill. Already, it’s tough trying to handle Google work and wrangling business insurance, additional loan paperwork, workers comp, etc. Kristen and my mentor were right about focus and we weren’t even open yet! I rush out of work in response to Kristen’s S.O.S. and help with more deep cleaning.
There is a critical safety inspection at Google that I am in charge of. We pass with flying colors! It’s a huge relief being able to make that last inspection I’ll be a part of a success. Kristen makes sure we celebrate. We also receive and install the new freezer. The second cleaner comes with a van that is occupied completely by a monster pressure washer. Kristen finalizes artwork for vinyl wrap and confirms a local artist to help with the fabrication making of her giant pineapple. We learn we legally have to scale it down to 8 feet. Kristen is crushed. She takes it out with power tools on the grease, and copes by buying a bamboo fence she hopes to drape around the truck.
We register the truck with the DMV, which costs us another surprise $3k, finalize our paperwork with a local commissary kitchen, and visit the fire department where we learn we need to schedule an inspection before opening. We begin kitchen prep for the lumpia festival. We slightly freak out when we see 15,000 people marked their interest in attending. We decide digital menu board technology is complete shit and crazy expensive, so decide last minute to print out our menu signage.
The plumber comes to replace the gas line and install our new grill. Fire inspection happens about 3 hours earlier than expected, and the new vinyl wrap gets installed. Heavy traffic creates more issues with finalization of the already troublesome giant pineapple, and we are unsure if it will get installed in time for opening. The wrap installation goes smoothly but doesn't finish 'til midnight. (Thanks Tania + team at Custom Vehicle Wraps for taking such good care of us on super short notice!) We continue to menu prep for opening day and recruit aunties and friends to make lumpia. They are all now food handler certified!
We wake up super early to continue food prep. Our local artist saves the day and arrives slightly before opening (on his day off!) to install our pineapple.
We open on time! It’s chaotic. We sell out faster than we anticipate, and more family and friends jump on the line to help us prep more food as we run to the store to replenish ingredients. We revise the menu throughout the day to adapt to what ingredients we have left.
It’s insane and unbelievable, but we end the day with an empty fridge and full hearts. But not too long after closing, we remember we have to do it all over again. We get ready to prep for day two of business for the event we originally popped up at — Very Vegan Sunday.
We could not have anticipated the amount of encouragement and support we received from our family and friends. We now joke that it is our love truck where Kristen’s retired mom has an internship, Kristen’s dad is our unofficial business advisor, my mom and Kristen’s brother rotate as on-duty managers, and our closest friends are our “A-team” on the line. Every day we pinch ourselves because it’s still hard to believe that this seed has grown into a place that everyone we love is a part of.
And after telling this story countless times over the past few weeks, the next most common question we are asked is whether or not we are actually engaged…
The answer is, we are not! But we like to think of The Sarap Shop as our engagement truck and business baby. (Sorry to make you wait a little longer, moms!)
We still look forward to the day we’ll make it to Japan, but for now we’re simply enjoying this business honeymoon that’s overflowing with moments that really embody the dual meaning of sarap — a Filipino word that describes something as tasty and/or feeling good.
We'll be trying to post more about our journey as we grow this year. So if you're into food and business, follow our story on Instagram!