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An interview with Wafels & Dinges founder Thomas DeGeest
Thomas DeGeest is the Brussels, Belgium native and former IBM management consultant turned pastry jockey who founded Wafels & Dinges in 2007. At the time of its launch, the gourmet food truck movement in New York City was in a stage of infancy. The crumbs from these tasty Belgium-inspired treats helped to pave a path for an entire movement that would go on to receive international attention. In 2009, Wafels & Dinges was awarded the Vendy Award for Best Dessert, the zenith of two years of bitter work and sweet determination. Like other famous food trucks such as DessertTruck and Big Gay Ice Cream Truck, Wafel & Dinges will open a storefront in Lower Manhattan in the fall. Later this summer, a Wafel & Dinges test kitchen with tours and waffle making activities will also be opening to the public, satiating the foodie voyeur needs of the masses.
Here, Thomas DeGeest gives us a rundown on what Wafels & Dinges is up to, and how the business is growing by leaps and bounds…
Have you eaten lunch or ice cream from a food truck and thought there was something missing? I have. Where’s the wine truck? It has been found in the south of France.
Amy Lillard, an American who is living the dream of making wine in the Rhone under her La Gramiere label, recently posted a picture to Facebook of her newly refurbished wine truck. She details the conversion of the Citroen on her blog saying that the truck will serve as a mobile tasting room…
If you’re interested in getting a look at the underbelly of the mobile vending circuit, a public hearing is being held this month in which you should attend. The New York Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is holding a forum on July 19th from 10am-12pm at 125 Worth Street, New York, NY 10013. The purpose of the meeting is to overhaul and amend sections of the Chapter 6. rules for Mobile Food Vending as outlined by the department. Those rules include adjustments to restrictions surrounding commissaries, setting boundaries for the sizes of carts, and fees, fines, and permissions with respect to general operations.
As a mobile vendor, you have many options for experimentation. If you’re not at the point of showcasing out of a vehicle or doing a pop-up in one of the major fairs around the country, look no further than your own backyard to beta test an idea.
BBQ Films, the cinema social club in New York City, is an excellent example of a pop-up that plays by its own rules, gradually expanding as audiences grow. Outstanding in the Field is another case of a pop-up that grew out of the experience of a smaller concept. It has since grown from a pop-up of sorts to a hybrid pop-up and mobile vehicle venture, traveling the country and setting up events along the way via a big red and white bus that was sourced from Sell-A-Bus.
If you want to go big, you have to start somewhere. The best thing about mobile entrepreneurship is that, not only is it scalable, the concepts are typically malleable enough to replicate across different venues for an array of audiences.
UpendED interview series: Caroline Ballhorn of Tin Can Studio
“People responding to Tin Can Studio has never been an issue. People love trailers. People are so drawn to them. Even if they don’t understand what you’re doing in it, they’re happy to be there. That’s been a real amazing part of the project.”
In a fortuitous state of affairs, I discovered the existence of Tin Can Studio by way of a random post in my Twitter feed. Following the link to an article from The Scout, I first saw the shiny silver 1971 Streamline Prince trailer that was in the process of hosting the second go-round of an underground food series called Eat Together.
Hot on the trailer…er…trail, I contacted co-founder Caroline Ballhorn, an artist and Vancouver resident, to quizzically ask her about the beautiful vehicle, and how it operates. Tin Can Studio is an enigma. It is neither an eat-in food truck, nor a pirate radio station, nor an artist’s studio, nor a concert venue. It can be any one of those things at any given time, a malleable community center with a hitch.
Tin Can Studio can be followed right here on Tumblr. I highly suggest perusing their Flickr for beautiful shots of events that they’ve hosted thus far. If you’re in the Vancouver area and desire to host an event in a mobile space, you’re in luck. Tin Can Studio may be available to rent in the near future.
Being in art school at the time, I noticed a disconnect between the art I was doing in school, which was largely conceptual, and my life outside of school which was meeting all these amazing, artsy people that were not formally trained.
Tin Can Studio came out of a desire to create a hub for people to connect and share their secret artistic lives. I got the idea for the project proceeding my final year in school.
I decided to do Tin Can Studio as my senior project, but I knew that I couldn’t do it all by myself. My studio mate suggested that I talk to a design student at the school for assistance. I reached out to my friend Brodie Kitchen, who I’d only met briefly beforehand. I was like, “Hey you! You’re in design, right?” I then told him my idea, that I wanted to make a mobile space that’s both a project space and also a community hub. I also wanted the project to be something that I could continue after I graduated from art school.
Brody received a Millennium Scholarship a year or two before which had grant money associated with the scholarship for a community-based art project. He was like, “I’ll do a quick write-up, we’ll secure the grant money, and then we’ll buy a trailer.” I was like, okay. Here we go.
It became our full-time thing. In October 2009, we found the perfect Airstream trailer on Craigslist. Brodie was in industrial design and had trained as an electrician, so he was really qualified to do the stuff that I couldn’t do.
We were dealing with the physicality of renovating a trailer in the school’s parking lot while being full-time students and having jobs. During that time, we got to experience the program from different angles. We held music events in the beat-up shell of the trailer that we were renovating. We wanted it to be an active space while we were building it, and it became that for students and teachers. We had some teachers come out and sit there and tell us about what Emily Carr was like 15 years ago, that they had a mobile print mobile and how sad it was that things like that weren’t happening anymore.
We graduated in spring 2010, having completed the build out on a shoestring budget using sourced materials and volunteers. For our grad show in May, we hosted 10 days of programming, sometimes two shows a day, including the shadow puppetry act “Mind of a Snail.”
How do you monetize the project now?
It hasn’t been profitable, but we’re at a breakeven moment. Right now we’re sitting on a little bit of money that we’ve saved from different events, including fundraisers. We’re talking a small amount. I have maybe $500 that we’re sort of like, “We could spend this on upgrading the electrical system, we could spend this on promotions, or we could take ourselves out for dinner!” Drawing on the resources of friends, we haven’t had to go too much into the hole, but I feel like I’ve been on this precipice for the past year or so where I feel like either I need to invest a semi-significant amount of money in Tin Can Studio to get to a point where it would be easy to run.
What logistical challenges have you faced?
Right now, it’s difficult to move it around because we don’t have a dedicated vehicle, which means you can’t park it on the street unless you pay for a parking spot or figure something else out. Luckily it’s not been too bad. It was parked in front of my house, for example, and my neighborhood happens to be a creative hub. It’s been able to operate there and have a decoy vehicle not even attached to it be parked in the front of it to avoid ticketing. The tickets that we have received we’ve managed to pay through crowdsourcing.
How has Tin Can Studio evolved since its inception?
Brodie’s stepped away from the project. He’s more involved now with other projects that he’s doing. It’s now run by me and Jenny Lee Craig. She’s more of an administrator and an event planner.
I learned a lot of lessons last year running Tin Can Studio. Last year, we did a pirate radio station thing. We’ve been doing a lot of other elaborate, short projects with different artists that take a lot of planning, which are mostly just labors of love. I’ve come to the conclusion that that’s not really sustainable. It doesn’t make sense for me to be involved in 10 elaborate projects that aren’t even my personal vision. To me, it’s about figuring out what the balance of being involved in those projects is and then stepping away. I’d also like to allow the trailer to be rented out as long as I’m comfortable with what the content of the project is.
Our first project this summer was a repeat of the Eat Together events that we did last summer. Last summer, I was way more involved — I was a food runner, I was helping with prep. I was helping out how in the way that you would help out a friend. This time, I was hands off with it and it was really successful. They artist/chefs from Eat Together were also able to pay us a portion of the profits from the dinners.
Do you have the change the build out for every event, or is it just a matter of redecorating?
It’s redecorating and sometimes adding or changing furniture. We had to build some tables for the Eat Together dinner party. The challenging part is securing a vehicle, trying to borrow one or figure something out without having to pay money, because renting one gets really expensive very quickly. You can do things for awhile without permits and without a business number.This is something we were unsure about the whole way, if this is actually a business. I think, coming out of art school context, we both wanted this to be an artist run center. But even an artist’s center has a business model.
Do you see this as a for-profit business, or do you just want to break even? Do you envision this project becoming more expansive?
I would like it to, and I think I’m finally at a point in my life where I’m not afraid of that idea. I’ve never been afraid of having a business, but for some reason, this project has felt wrong for it to be driven by profit. Do I want it to make money? Of course. The question for me is if I want this to be my full-time gig. I’m not really sure because I do a lot of other things. Up until recently, I had a pretty heavy full-time job which I think also contributed to my burnout on the project. I’d be doing art with people with mental health problems and addictions, and then I’d come home and run this other project.
How do you figure out a budget with outside people who want to run projects in Tin Can Studio so that you’re adequately compensated?
We haven’t been. It’s been mostly people that we know who come to us and we work together. In a really DIY way, we figure out how the event is going to happen, and how to do it in a way in which we’re not going to lose money.
What is the mobile scene like in Vancouver?
With the proximity to Portland and the influence of Portland, I think there’s more of an interest. Vancouver is a really weird place when you start getting into by-laws and into stuff that deals with legislation. It’s one of the most legislated places I’ve ever encountered. You need a permit to go to a park and set up a tent for your family to have a picnic.
Just recently they’ve allowed food trucks to exist. It’s basically a lottery system. It’s like, “We’re going to license 10 food trucks!” and then a bunch of people apply. I think it’s just burgeoning in the stronghold of the city on what’s permissible. I think the pressure is put on by the incredible cost of real estate. In terms of a “scene,” there’s a handful of food trucks. People like them, but they struggle, I know. I think because Vancouver is so rainy, when it rains people go home. There isn’t too much of a street culture.
How does the seasonality of your location are affect your business?
When it’s raining, it’s hard to even engage with people because everybody’s feeling it. The winters are very cold. In the winter, using Tin Can Studio as an open space works sort of, but you really need to have someone in there directing the activity, otherwise people aren’t just going to go in. I did some experiments with just having a sign out that said “Come in, use the space” and observing from a distance to see if people would go in. People are too polite here and don’t want to barge in and step on toes. I’m thinking that, in the wintertime, we should offer it as an artists’ residency in conjunction with another space that has bathroom facilities and things of that nature.
Here is a guide that I penned for Inc. on establishing a small, traveling circus. You may find that there are distinct similarities to the business aspect of operating a pop-up shop or taking a retail vehicle on a cross-country tour.
At the Meetup on Monday, mobile vendors had the pleasure of speaking to Jerome Chang, owner of Cathcart & Reddy and the former DessertTruck. Chang gave us an exclusive interview last month, detailing the costs, trials, and tribulations of opening a food truck in New York City. Whether you’re purchasing a brand new food truck, hiring a t-shirt printing company to do custom apparel for your staff, or simply purchasing ingredients from local markets, it all carries a cost. Here, he provides us with a more detailed breakdown of the costs associated with the launch of a new food truck venture in the city of New York.
As some of you may know, Mobile Food Vending Unit Permits (i.e. food truck permits) have a government wait list that’s backed up by many years. While a legitimate two-year truck permit will only cost you $200, if you want to get your business started in this decade, it will cost you around $15,000 to purchase one from a secondary seller.
While it’s customary to start employee’s hourly salaries off at $12 at his brick and mortar location, the average rate for the truck was $16 due to the time it took for employees to obtain their mobile vending licenses and to consistently provide the manpower necessary to work the long hours on the truck itself.
A cost breakdown by Jerome Chang:
Truck — $50,000 (purchase cost plus basic retrofitting)
Mobile Food Vending Unit Permit (bought on the black market) — $15,000 (2-year permit)
Commissary — $500 (per month); $6,000 estimate per year
General Liability Insurance (for the business) — $3,500 (per year)
“You need general liability insurance to operate in a commercial kitchen.”
Truck Insurance — $2,000-$3,000 (per year; $2,500 estimate per year)
Commercial Kitchen — $2,000-$5,000 (per month; $36,000 estimate per year)
Workers Comp — $7,000 (per year for 3 employees)
“You’re combining two things insurance companies hate - moving vehicles and hot food.”
Accountant — $350 (per month; $4,200 estimate per year)
“Most business owners are doing a million things. Having an accountant look at your books objectively is highly recommended.”
PR professional — $1,500 (for 3 months; $6,000 estimate per year)
Grand total food truck start-up costs for year 1:
Please note that the expense list does not include variable costs such as gas, vehicle repairs, food and paper products, marketing materials, and a host of other possible sundries. Budget for incidentals and miscellaneous expenses accordingly.