Insights / Interviews / Food Truck vs. Brick and Mortar: These Restaurant Owners Share Why They’re Staying Mobile
Food Truck vs. Brick and Mortar: These Restaurant Owners Share Why They’re Staying Mobile

Becca Russell and Jeremy Hansen opened their first food truck in 2017 and haven’t looked back since. They started with Pidgin Hole, serving up island-inspired Asian fusion fare, like coconut shrimp and sweet and savory shoyu chicken, all across Portland. After seeing success, they opened a second truck this summer, this time focusing on sandwiches. And the couple doesn’t plan to stop there.

Like anyone in the food truck business, Russell and Hansen have endured their fair share of truck-related challenges. The couple lost almost two-thirds of their event-centric business when COVID-19 hit. Last year, they faced truck temperatures as high as 150 degrees during a heat dome. And they’ve steadily had to keep up with the high competition inherent to Portland’s thriving food truck scene.

Yet, Russell says the benefits of mobile restaurant life have outweighed the cons, and they have no current intentions of transitioning to a brick and mortar. Russell sat down with us to share what draws her most to the space and her top advice for finding success within it. 

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Tell me about the inspiration behind Pidgin Hole and what led up to launching a food truck business.

My husband and I have always been in the industry. We met working in a restaurant in 2007. It was the classic back of house, front of house romance. I was the bar manager, he was the line cook, and you know where it goes from there.

Prior to our food truck, my husband had been working for another food truck, and we just got to a point where we wanted to do something of our own. We talked about starting a restaurant and went to look at a few spaces, but ultimately decided with his experience in food trucks, that was a better route for us. It was an opportunity not to be shackled to any mortgages, leases, [or] overhead and instead be in full control from the get-go.

The cuisine is inspired by the food Jeremy grew up on. His grandfather was from Hilo, Hawaii but moved to Portland and was a chef in Portland for 30 years. Jeremy grew up cooking alongside him with these industrial-sized woks he had in his home kitchen. So Pidgin Hole is a nod to Jeremy’s heritage, and we named it after pidgin, the dialect. No one language stands out. It’s a way for people from many cultures to come together and figure out a way to communicate. We call our cuisine an island-inspired Asian fusion, but really it’s not pigeonholed into any one cuisine, but influenced by many. 

Given Portland’s robust food truck scene, what strategies did you guys take from the beginning to stand out?

Many of Portland’s food trucks are stationary in cart pods. Some cart owners love it because you go into a pod, and that pod has a reputation that brings people to it. But you also have many other carts you’re competing with. 

We wanted to specifically stay mobile so that we could go to big events, be hired for catering, and bring our truck to where people are. That’s an anomaly at this point in the food cart scene in Portland, so that’s been a way for us to stand out in itself.

When COVID happened, we had to completely change our business strategy. Our booking agent was really smart. We had been doing a lot of business complexes, but when people were staying home, that didn’t make sense. So we went to apartment complexes instead. Had we been stationary, we wouldn’t have had the ability to be nimble like that.

Is having a booking agent common in the food truck world?

It’s up to each operator’s discretion. We really like working with a booking agent. They book about 60% of our business, and I do the other 40%. [Our booking agent] does all of the coordination and communication, and takes care of a lot of the headache for us. She seeks out viable properties and gives us a schedule. I know some truck owners don’t want to pay the commission, but it’s a relatively low fee, and we see it as a necessary business expense to make sales we wouldn’t otherwise make. 

The commission rate varies – I have one booking agent I work with regularly, but I have a couple of other agencies I go through. I would say if I’m paying more than 10% commission, that’s too much.

What other tactics do you think are important for driving success from a food truck?

My husband is the culinary genius, and he always says, “Do one thing, and do it really well.” There’s no reason to go really broad. Our menu has gone through a few iterations, but we’ve always kept our main entrees, like a Hawaiian shoyu chicken, a Caribbean mojo pork, and our Kalbi-glazed cauliflower vegetarian option. They’ve been in different iterations, like tacos, and we’ll also run specials, but our main thing is rice bowls. 

The other thing that’s helped us is we’re a high-volume food truck. We have the capability to push out comfortably between 100 and 120 meals per hour. Pretty commonly we get rave reviews about how fast we are and how high quality the food is still.

We built out our cart with a complete kitchen inside. We’ve got every piece of equipment you’d find in a commercial kitchen, so we have an oven, stovetop, flat top, and fryer. Every bowl is made to order, but fresh everyday, we make large batches of oven-braised meat ahead of time. When people order, we’re ready to push it out.

What went into the decision to get a second truck? I’m curious if you considered expanding your business the more traditional route with a brick and mortar.

We launched our business always with the goal to have multiple concepts under an umbrella business. Now when we’re doing rotations, we can go to some of these bigger business complexes twice in a week, whereas if we had Pidgin Hole One and Pidgin Hole Two, it’s still the same food. When we do night markets, we can have both of our trucks side by side, and we’re not in competition with ourselves. That’s how we can grow. 

The truck allows us to stay more flexible. For us, it’s the ability to keep control of our own schedule, to participate in some of the awesome events that celebrate our city’s culture, and the constant change of office views. Restaurant people are restaurant people for a reason. We’re not 9-to-5 workers. There’s a lot of appeal in the ability for us to constantly be on the move, and everyday is different. We get to go to some beautiful wedding venues. A few weeks ago, we were at the top of this very remote mountain with an incredible view of the Columbia Gorge – we would’ve never got there had we not been hired by this wedding coordinator.

Plus we may only go to a location once a month, so when we come back, people are very excited to see us, and that’s always rewarding. It’s rewarding to make people happy.

Food truck life has built-in challenges, an obvious one being the weather. Have you found any tricks for dealing with super hot temps and/or cold weather?

Last winter, my husband got me a pair of electric socks as a joke, but let me tell you, I wore those things all winter long. There’s no insulation in the floors or walls, so I literally wear electric socks, snow boots, snow pants, a big winter jacket, a hat and scarf, and gloves I can use on the touchscreen computer.

The hot weather is more of a challenge. With all the kitchen equipment, you’re generating a lot of heat inside the truck, and you can put an air conditioner in there, but for what? To heat it up with your stovetop? So we just deal. Cooling towels, lots of hydration, fun jokes with the team, getting to be at really cool events, seeing smiling faces – that’s what makes it worth it for us.

We had a heat dome in Portland last year where the truck topped out at 151 degrees. This year, we haven’t had huge heat domes, but we’ve had a warmer than typical summer. I can remember one day in particular – the thermometer measuring the temperature inside the truck only goes to 120 degrees, and it topped out before noon. You just have to stay hydrated and lean on your fellow team members. We’re like a little family, and we hold each other up through it all. 

Every once in a while we’ll stick our head in the refrigerator. My husband has had to put the iPad in the refrigerator because it shut down from being too hot. We’ve figured out how to keep the equipment cool, but not necessarily us, but we just try to keep the morale high.

What would you say have been your other biggest challenges?

Definitely COVID. We probably lost two-thirds of our business in 2020 compared to 2019. Staffing has been an issue, and then rising food and fuel costs. We’re not shackled to a lease but we are dependent on what’s in the stores. We can’t find cucumbers, and they’re a staple of our rice bowls. The price of chicken has been outrageous. 

How important would you say social media is for your business?

I used to put a lot of weight on social media, but what I’ve learned over the years is that followers don’t equal dollars. What’s more important is relationships, whether that’s with vendors or other food truckers or event coordinators. It’s also people who find us through our website – our email list is more important. 

It’s fun to be a part of the online community, and I do think there’s an aspect to that that gives you legitimacy. People want to see what your food looks like. But I don’t put as much of a measure of our success on it now.

Any other advice for prospective food truck operators?

Just do what you love. There’s a lot of different ways to do food. As long as you’re creating a product that you believe in and doing it really well, people will believe in you. And then relationships, relationships, relationships. Get out there and talk about what you do, tell people who you are.

Also get advice. That was a huge piece for us when we first started. We talked a lot with a food truck owner that we admired. If you can, find a mentorship with someone that’s walked the road ahead of you. If you don’t know where to fix your generator, ask your neighbor. If you don’t know where to get insurance, ask the next guy. Even though we’re all independent and live in our own little tin cans, there’s a community available to you.

Where do you guys see yourselves continuing to grow in the future?

We plan to have other food trucks, and we’re potentially looking at expanding into different areas of the country.

Grace Dickinson is a reporter at Back of House. Send tips or inquiries to grace@backofhouse.io.

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