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UpendED interview series: Jerome Chang of DessertTruck

"There’s nothing magical about a truck that’s going to make running it easier. It is not easier. The overhead is not necessarily lower."

In front of Cathcart & Reddy, all that remains of its mobile predecessor is an emblem of its likeness that juts out beneath the awning. Conspicuously dubbed, DessertTruck was a grandaddy in New York City’s gourmet food truck movement. Its 2007 debut came before the rise of the New York City Food Truck Association and a slew of sweet competitors. Two years later, a brick and mortar arm by the same name was introduced at 6 Clinton Street in the Lower East Side. In February 2012, the truck was retired for good, and DessertTruck’s storefront began rebranding under the name of Cathcart & Reddy. Jerome Chang, co-founder and executive chef of both enterprises, talks about the bittersweet business of running a food truck in New York City, and why parking the truck for good was one of the best decisions he could have made.

How did DessertTruck start?

My background is in fine dining. I’m 36 now. I started the truck over five years ago. I’m of a generation where we really don’t buy into pretension and status based on superficial things quite as much as the previous generation. I was working at white table cloth restaurants. I didn’t necessarily subscribe to that kind of lifestyle or culture.

My last job before I opened the truck was as a pastry sous chef at La Cirque. I just wanted to be able to bring high quality desserts to the masses in a very approachable, casual, and more affordable way. No one had done that before.

Didn’t you say that you had a law background, too?

I was a lawyer for a year.

It seems that a lot of people who have background in law end up doing food trucks.

You’ll find lawyers in every industry. Lawyers always dream about changing careers.

You said you wanted to be more connected with the food, but why via a truck specifically? Why not just start with a smaller restaurant?

If I had opened up a pastry café with the menu that we had for the truck, which consisted of a warm chocolate bread pudding with bacon creme anglaise or a molten chocolate cake with sea salt, olive oil, ganache and candied pistachios, or a milk chocolate mousse with a peanut butter cream center and caramel popcorn…if you walk into a coffee shop or café and then see that the primary menu is composed of these desserts, you would probably think it’s a little weird.

People still, even after we’ve opened this brick and mortar shop, and it’s been over two years, people still find it a little unusual or unique. There’s something about a truck that automatically breaks down barriers. There’s something about it that opens people’s minds. Not everyone’s open to trucks, but if you’re willing to walk up to a truck, your mind is already very open. It was easy to introduce this kind of gourmet menu at these prices through a truck. It’s not necessarily because it was cheaper. It was just more fun, the attitude of it and all that.

A lot of people have been telling me that costs for launching a truck were way higher than they ever expected. So, was it actually cheaper?

No, it wasn’t cheaper.

What were your startup costs for the truck?

Realistically, the truck itself was about 60 grand. But the startup costs, especially for our gourmet menu that requires a lot of components and probably more storage than the average truck, realistically were about $140,000.

Did you start with any staff?

It was just me and my business partner. This was back before the crash and a lot of that we were able to put on a credit card.

When did you launch it?

In 2007. It was retired in February 2012.

What came about with you deciding to transition away from the truck?

The cost of it, the headaches. This is in New York City, though. Every city is different. Running a truck is going to be different from city to city to city because every city has its own ordinances regulating trucks. But New York City is one of the worst, I think, based on what I’ve heard.

What were some of the trials and tribulations you had over that period? You had a pretty good run.

It was a great run. Trials and tribulations…again, not (being) rich, so $140,000 was already way over budget. That’s number 1. Number 2, we were using a used truck which was unreliable, so it had a lot of breakdowns. That was a big headache. And it wasn’t just the truck. You have generator issues, too, always. If you’re going to have a generator running a lot of your power, you’re constantly going to have problems.

And why is that?

Generators are not built to be running 16 hours a day or 12 hours a day, seven days a week. At least the size that we’re talking about.

So how often were you having to take the truck off the road for repairs?

I don’t know exactly, but a lot. Anybody who followed our truck definitely knows that we were out of commission on a regular basis. And then also the weather. Once the weather’s bad, we thought, okay, let’s try it the first few months. If it’s raining we’d go out and see, because we didn’t know if people would come out or not. But people are just too scared. They just don’t come out. We made very few sales (in the rain).

Did it help at all, dealing with legal problems in the city, to be a part of the New York Food Truck Association?

That came much later. That food truck association didn’t start until, I think, three years in.

As far as having the place now, what is better about having a brick and mortar establishment versus a truck?

Predictability. When you have a problem with a food truck, you don’t have a lot of service providers out there to fix the problem quickly and efficiently. So if there’s something wrong with your generator, you’re going to have to find a way to either unmount it from the truck and drive it over to a repair guy, or if you’re lucky enough — and I don’t know anybody like this — find a guy who’s going to come out to your truck wherever it’s parked to fix it, or you have to drive the truck itself to a repair guy. So that’s one tiny little example of the issues you have to deal with for a repair. But if you have a restaurant or a café and you have an oven problem, you have a gazillion different service guys competing for your business who will come out. Yeah, they’re not cheap, but still it’s going to get done probably within 24 hours.

Is it that the market hasn’t evolved yet to deal with the problems within the industry?

The market will probably never evolve because there will probably never be enough trucks to have a service provider that will make house calls for a generator issue, for example. A lot of trucks are very unique in the way they’re built out. You have to have someone who kind of knows what they’re doing with your truck.

Do you see the issues involving truck licensing regulations in the city getting any better since you started?

A lot of the licensing regulations here don’t make sense. It seems like it’s getting worse. That’s just my opinion, but I have never really been able to keep up with every single change that has been happening with food trucks. I almost feel like an outsider now. It’s worse partly because it’s so many out there. A lot of people who are not foodies who don’t read Eater every day or don’t read the food blogs every day, they’re just going to say, ‘They’re a heck of a lot of trucks now. So cool, but it’s hard to distinguish between the two. And, oh, by the way, I remember the city was really trying to crack down on them.’ It’s just a really mixed bag of public perception which is not all that great, I don’t think.

Do you think having the truck helped with marketing and getting the brand out there?

Oh yeah. Totally.

What did you think of participating in fairs and popups like Madison Square Eats and other food markets around the city?

In our first year and a half, we used to do that all the time and we used to be really excited about it and it was a lot of fun to go to these different events, whether it was a fundraiser or a booth at a fair or a truck fair. In the end, it just seemed like more work than it was worth looking back on it. It didn’t seem to strengthen our brand and…I don’t know what it was. It just didn’t seem worth it. We definitely didn’t seem to be making any money from it, or a lot.

You’re rebranding the restaurant as Cathcart & Reddy. Just curious, but what is that about? Why the name change?

Because we don’t have a truck anymore. And again, even recently, just doing a catering event under our old name, people got us confused with other trucks. You can blame our name. That’s fine. I understand. Partly we started with a not very strong brand name, but people still get confused despite all the press that we’ve gotten. [Side note: Cathcart & Reddy are the surnames of Susanna Cathcart-Garcia, Chang’s business partner, and Sandesh Reddy, a pastry chef and supporter of the enterprise.]

Do you think it’s hard to break into the industry, especially in New York City, as far as competition goes and maybe cliques and getting a good space? 

No, but we were lucky. We were on the front end and we were able to find a really busy corner that no one had claimed. And our business was always at night. We were very different from a lot of other trucks in that 85% of our revenue came around dinner or afterwards. It’s not lunch. We were never trying to fight for Midtown, although we tried Midtown occasionally. We never really had to fight for spots or wanted to fight for spots.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to open a truck? Honest advice.

The honest advice is really, everything that a business mentor, or the SBA, or the SBDC tells you about what you need to think about when opening any business, you gotta think about it and apply it to your truck business, too. The same principles apply. Ultimately, at the end of the day, it is running a business. There’s nothing magical about a truck that’s going to make it easier. Especially in New York City, it is counterintuitive. It is not easier. The overhead is not necessarily lower.

You can find a way, but it’s going to take a lot of legwork, a lot of research, and a lot of hard work, thinking, sitting down, and managing what your day is going to be like every single day. Please, please, please, if you haven’t been in the food business before, volunteer or something for at least six months just to see what it’s like. That’s one thing that helped us, I think. I’d been trained as a chef, worked in restaurants for a long time. That helped a lot in dealing with a lot of the nuances of running any hospitality business. Know your city’s rules and regulations and don’t assume that because you’re a truck you can get away without paying taxes.

I remember when we first started, we got an angry e-mail because we’d been getting a lot of press, and I guess this was a business owner pissed as hell at us: ‘We don’t like you because you don’t have to pay taxes, blah, blah, blah.’ I’m like, dude, we collect sales tax. I don’t know why you think we don’t have to collect sales tax. There are a lot of weird ideas and myths about trucks out there. Please don’t think it’s easy, at all.

Would you expect someone who’s just starting a new, small operation to be in the red in the beginning way more often than they’re in the black?

Oh yeah. Again, a lot of the same business principles apply. Expect to be in the red. You might get lucky, but don’t rely on luck. You’ve got to rely on preparation. If you’re lucky, that’s icing on the cake. We were lucky. Take it from me. We took for granted the kind of success that we had. We’ve been doing it for over five years. It’s been in people’s consciousness for over five years now, so don’t expect to automatically get a lot of press anymore, anywhere I think.

Are there good resources that people can use to find out what to do and where to source, or is it really about networking?

I’m one of the worst people to ask about that. When I started, there were no other gourmet food trucks out there. I just did a lot of embarrassing question asking, pounding the pavement, asking street vendors who were mostly reluctant to say anything to me. It was a lot of luck and a lot of asking embarrassing questions for me and a lot of it was also experience from restaurants. I knew who the vendors were, too, just based on the restaurants where I’d worked.

Did your law background help at all?

 Not really.

Where do you see this restaurant going?

I want to see if we can do more catering and retail.

Would you ever go back to a truck later?

Only if someone else ran it and they had a crapload of money, and it was just sort of a side project or hobby for them, and they just wanted to have their kicks for shits and giggles.

You mean, you’d franchise it out for someone else to run?

Yeah, something like that, or just have me consult. I would never want to do day-to-day management of a truck again. No way.

UpendED interview series: Sister Moon

“I knew in the city food trucks were how a lot of people were making money and I was like, I can do the same thing, but with jewelry and fabrics and oils and other things.”

Some experiences in mobile entrepreneurship are more eclectic than others. Such is the case with Nicki D’Agnostino, aka Sister Moon, a 29-year-old hairstylist from Grafton Lakes, a rural town outside of Albany, NY. Last year, inspired by the popularity and mobility of food trucks, she and her business partner turned a 1975 Shasta caravan into a traveling, Arabian Nights-inspired clothing store. Here’s the story of how the Gypsy caravan store came to be, why it’s currently up for sale, and why her ride on a wave of SunshineAndMoonbeams was way more exciting than your average venture. You can follow Sister Moon on Twitter


When was the project started?

It was last summer. We were going to a lot of festivals and we wanted a way to be able to travel, have an amazing summer, and see all the music we wanted to see for free. We needed a way to make money to do that. So, we figured we’d take the caravan on the road.

When did you get the idea for the caravan? I thought it was so beautiful how you retrofitted the interior.

Thank you! You know, I just had this vision of it being a vintage trailer of sorts. I grew up on the road with my parents and we had a cool conversion van that was always towing something along. I had this idea that whatever it was, it needed to be towed. At first it started out that we were going to get a VW bus. We looked at so many different kinds of vehicles, with an engine and pulled — we looked at everything. I found this 1975 Shasta camper and I just fell in love with it.

Let me get a little background. Did you have a store before?

No, I was a hairstylist for many years, and I traveled and did fashion shows. I also studied color and I painted for a long time. It was just sort of the next phase of what I could create. I collaborated with another woman, Sister Sunshine, and the idea came about between the two of us.

What was the name of the caravan store?

The store didn’t really have a name. We called it The Sisters of the Light. It was just supposed to be an essence, a movement, not a store.

 

What was the path of the tour?

It was unknown initially. And, like I said, we knew when we started that we wanted it to be a journey. What happens on a journey is that you just flow with it. So we were seeing where it was taking us rather than us planning anything. Our first outing was the Furthur Festival in Saratoga Springs. We got a really amazing group of talented artists together and piled in my van and drove the caravan up to Saratoga and camped out for the day. So many people wandered to our space. We’d just set up and it didn’t look like a store. As soon as they came into the caravan, they saw gems glistening from the windows and beautiful Brazilian bathing suits and paintings from local artists. It’s really cool inside and you kind of just want to hang. So you sit and talk with people and they want to look at your wares and talk about them, and you eventually, hopefully, make a sale because you gotta make some money.

From idea to first outing, what was the timeline on the launch of the store?

It happened really quickly. I came back from Mexico in February. We went to Coachella in April. From May to June, we did complete renovations on the Shasta and that took us about a month. We were on the road right after that.

How long were you on the road?

We did a whole summer, up until October.

Did you adhere to any sort of business model?

It really wasn’t legitimate at all. I don’t want to try and say that I did things by the book. The whole concept of the way we ran our store is illegal in New York. You can’t actually sell anything out of an RV trailer and call that a business. It’s completely illegal. Fortunately, our initial idea wasn’t ‘let’s have a store on wheels!’ It was more like more like, let’s do something to generate a positivity and beautiful love and magic and do what we like doing all at the same time.

How did you get the stuff to sell?

Sister Sunshine is an amazing bikini bathing suit designer. She’s worked in New York City for many years. She and I met, and we just started collaborating, making jewelry, and book and crystal hunting. She made all of the bathing suits that we sold. She’s also a collector of beautiful things from all over the world. I’ve collected vintage for many years, so I had already had everything that I needed to sell stashed up and she did as well.

From what you said earlier, I was thinking that you had wares from a collection of local artists.

We had local artists paint on the inside of the caravan and another guy who’s a metal artist made all of the hanging racks and our dressing room.

You had a dressing room in there, too?

Yeah, it was cool. He made a circular metal piece that we attached to the ceiling and put these beautiful draperies around it. It was kind of like a shower circle ring.

That’s amazing. What is his name? I’m curious about his work.

His name is Matt Hart.

Tell me more about the elaborate décor inside the caravan.

We are obsessed with gypsies of sort. Moroccan gypsies, Indian, you name it. We spent a lot of energy just researching those places and the fabrics and the colors. Sophie (Sister Sunshine), just from being in the city and running all over collecting beautiful swatches, had so much fabric and we needed to put it to good use. It became our ceiling, which was the main attraction of the whole caravan.

The year before, I had worked really hard at my business as a stylist. I did everything under the sun. Photo shoots, fashion shows, private work at a salon, you name it. I did everything and I just saved a bunch of money. All of a sudden I had this money that I wasn’t really doing much with it, and then the idea for the caravan came about. So I had earned just enough money to purchase the trailer and then do the renovations on it.

Do you mind talking about the purchase cost of the trailer and the renovations and retrofitting costs?

I really didn’t keep track of that. I probably spent about $1,000 because we already had our material for the inside. We already had all of our wares. Really, it was just sort of transforming…creating a sort of smoke and mirrors of what we wanted to be a gypsy caravan.  There is no lighting. It’s completely skin and bones with the most amazing veneer. I reinforced it the inner shell of the caravan. The thing was rotted to hell. It’s a 1975 model.

Did you get the Shasta off of Craigslist?

I’d been typing in the type of trailer that I wanted for a long time and I was looking all over the place. Finally it brought me to this guy on Craigslist and that lived about an hour and a half away in Amsterdam. I show up there and he comes out and shakes my left hand — he’s got one arm — and basically this was his carton trailer. It had just been sitting there forever. But the outside of it — the paint, the old-school striping— just everything about it was exactly what I needed. I didn’t care what the inside looked like. I knew I could change that.

Are you saying that all of your expenses amounted to $1,000 or that the caravan was $1,000?

I’m not really discussing how much right now just because I’m trying to sell it. But I can tell you that my initial investment on that 1975 Shasta camper was not even half of what I invested. I was pretty smart about it. There was no other was I could get one within my means.

I guess what I’m interested in are the retrofitting costs (i.e. the metal work).

That did cost a bit of money, but because we’re old friends, we help each other out.

I think it’s more about him (Matt Hart) being about to generate his love and his respect for what we were doing. He cared about the cause very much.

For someone who wanted to launch a venture similar to yours, what would you say to them with respect to money?

Get your friends together that are talented and collaborate some energy that’s amazing in this world. It can’t always be about a money factor. I can’t borrow money, I have no credit, I live off the land. I don’t pay taxes. It’s that sort of thing.

In general, what would you suggest that someone budget for a project like this?

I would say, budget what you feel is credible to your lifestyle. You have to be respectful of money. You can’t count money that you don’t have. You have to be a smart person, but at the same time still be passionate, and it’ll come to you. You many not have it initially, but someone will see the passion of what you want to do and the universe will grant that to you if it’s meant to be and then you accept its gift.

How many festivals did you make it to with the caravan?

Last year, I think we did seven to ten venues. For all of October, we were at Saratoga Apple Farm for the entire month. It was amazing. People come from all over came through. They come from the city and they brought their families, so it was our most lucrative spot financially. On weekends, we made more money there than we did anywhere else. We definitely got a lot of chicks to buy our bikinis at the festivals. That was huge. We went with things that we knew people would like. We also did face painting and tarot cards. There was a lot that was involved.

All inside the caravan?

Yes.

Would you take the caravan back out on the road?

I kind of see it as a stationary at this point, having people come to me. I’ve taken it a lot around the Albany area where I live, where I know a lot of people. I still see people being able to come to it. I recently moved up right next to the peace pagoda in Grafton Lake, so there’s a lot of people that come from all over the place to visit the peace pagoda. So I’m hoping, if I don’t sell it, it’ll be a part of this other bit of land.

Why do you want people to come to you now instead of taking it out on the road?

It’s money. I can’t afford the gas. I have a 1982 conversion van. It’s a dual gas tank vehicle. I’m not generating enough income to do that kind of traveling again. We sold off everything, all of our collections. What we had is gone. So, at this point, I don’t have any way of generating that gas money to move it around.

Have you have any legal vending troubles (fines, police, etc.)?

We never took it into Brooklyn, although we had many invites from a few artists that wanted us to come down with it. But we never took them up on it because, honestly, I couldn’t see driving that thing down the Westside Highway. I would be really scared for it. It would be out of its element in a way. But when you’re in more of a rural outskirt, outside the city area…we never ran into any trouble. We never even thought about it, actually.

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