UpendED interview series: Lauren Loomis of Lulu’s Local Eatery
"The start up capital that you need for a food truck is a lot lower than a brick and mortar. To put a whole lot of money into a building that we would just be renting didn’t make a whole lot of sense for us."
Lauren Loomis, 26, is the proprietor of a unique brand of food truck — the kind with a garden on top! Lulu’s Local Eatery launched a month ago in St. Louis and specializes in locally sourced, organic cuisines. Loomis and business partner/ fiancé Robbie Tucker, 28, used a Kickstarter campaign to raise $2,786 to build the garden and resourcefulness to fund the rest. Here’s the story of how their young enterprise came to be. See the continuing story as tweeted daily from @lulusfoodtruck.
How did the concept of Lulu’s Local Eatery come together?
Robbie Tucker, my partner, fiancé, and co-owner of Lulu’s, have been together for six years. He and I were living together in Chicago, decided we wanted to start our own business, but weren’t really sure what that would look like. Then we got into sustainability and wanting to learn how to grow our own foods. We packed up and went to New Zealand and Australia for about a year, traveled our way WWOOFing: staying with farmers in exchange for free food and accommodation, learning skills and the meaning behind caring for your meal, understanding farm to plate and how your meal gets to your plate. It was really meaningful for us.
When we got back to the states, we had a culture shock about there not being a whole lot of fresh food in the States, it being hard to get fresh foods at an affordable price. I have a passion for cooking and I’ve been creating my own recipes since I was a teenager. I really wanted to do a farm-fresh food on-the-go concept. We talked about opening a café at one point. We moved to St. Louis because the cost of living is so low and it’s such a great, vibrant city and the food truck scene was really getting started. There’s now about 31 trucks here. It’s really robust and the community is really great. So that’s what we did. Now we have Lulu’s. Lulu’s Local Eatery is about four weeks old.
Before you decided to go traveling, what were you both doing professionally?
I was working for a corporation in human resources and Robbie was a jazz drummer. He still is, but he was more like a full-time freelance drummer.
Regarding the truck, why did you decide on a food truck rather than a brick and mortar establishment?
The start up capital that you need for a food truck is a lot lower than a brick and mortar. To put a whole lot of money into a building that we would just be renting didn’t make a whole lot of sense for us.
What were your start up costs?
I’d say probably around $40,000 to $50,000.
For the truck itself?
Our truck was $30,000 and it got retrofitted and everything.
So that bumped it up to $40,000?
Yeah. With our starting inventory with the materials and equipment and everything,
Was there any resource that you consulted or any specific people that you asked to help you learn how to run a food truck?
Essentially, a food truck is a restaurant on wheels, so we consulted a lot of our restaurant friends, people who work in restaurants and friends who own restaurants. We sat down with them and picked their brains about what their monthly expenses, how to get in touch with distributors, all of those questions. We basically utilized friends and people in the community. We started sending out emails to people in the community, letting them know what we wanted to do and asking them to meet with us. We sat down with farmers, vendors, café owners. We utilized the St. Louis Food Truck Association, sat down with the president of the association, and talked to him about what the climate was like, and what the typical day in the life of a food truck owner was like.
I recommend for someone interested in starting a food truck to sit down with someone from their local food truck association or go to one of their meetings. Start making friends everywhere you go. Tell people what you’re doing and start making friends. People want to help you. You don’t realize it, but they do.
Where there any online resources that you used?
Not a whole lot, honestly. I guess we read articles, but they’re not a whole lot of resources available.
Did you have any issues with sourcing materials or ingredients?
Not really. Missouri has an incredible local food movement, especially in the greater St. Louis area. There are food coops and restaurants that offer great local food. There were a lot of resources for us. Because we’re local and that’s our thing, people really wanted to support us because it’s a passion project. They were like, “Oh, cool. You’re part of the movement!” So we just ended up being really fortunate on that. But obviously we’re in the Midwest and we get a decent winter here, so it’s a seasonal business from that standpoint. We can only do so much locally in the cooler months. So that’s a barrier. That’s a challenge.
Have either of you worked in food service before?
We both have worked in restaurants before. I don’t have any formal culinary training or anything.
Did having worked in a restaurant help you at all?
Oh gosh, yes. Absolutely. I think before you get into the food business, you gotta go work in a restaurant just to get a feel for it. It’s a whole different kind of work. It’s physical. It’s kind of emotional, too, ‘cause you’re putting your energy into the food and all that stuff. It’s good for a lot of people, but it’s not good for everybody.
How was the truck funded?
We had private investors and we ended up getting a loan as well, a small business loan.
Did you get a loan through a regular bank?
It was through the Missouri Department of Economic Development. Through the economic stimulus plan, they have a federal pool of money, and I think they dispersed it among the 50 states. I know the money is available in Missouri, but I don’t know about other states. But I know that it is from a federal economic stimulus program and the goal is to help small businesses. We went though a really intense, lengthy application process, but ended up getting approved. That was fantastic.
Were your other private investors friends and family?
Did you put up any of the money yourself at all?
From the time you decided to launch until you got going, how long was the fundraising process minus the Kickstarter campaign?
I guess the time frame would be up to a year minus the actual launch; developing a business plan and then helping people understand what they’re investing in.
When going to friends and family for private investing, what did you find that they wanted to hear from you or see the most before they committed to investing anything? Did they want to see your business plan? Did they want to hear that you were going to give them something in return?
I don’t know, it would depend on the person I suppose. It definitely helped us to develop the business plan just to organize our thoughts. We sat down and were like, what’s our mission? What’s our vision, what do we actually want? What do we want our perfect day to look like? Once we figured out what what we really wanted and could see ourselves doing this for a long time, then we came to the table with the inspiration and the passion that we needed to convince friends and family. Friends and family, they love you. They want to support you, but they want to make sure that it’s the right thing. In the beginning we had a lot of ideas. But it wasn’t until we sat down and had these meetings and brainstorming sessions that we were able to develop the business plan around that inspiration and passion. According to our financial projections (aka as long as everything goes according to plan), Lulu’s will make a profit within year one.
How long did it take you to develop the business plan?
Start to finish, I’d say probably two months. We had other part-time jobs we were doing, so it’s not like we were doing it day and night for two months. It was kind of like a working document for two months.
When did your Kickstarter campaign run?
It was in April. It ended mid-April. We achieved our goal and built the garden the next week. April 25th was our first day of running Lulu’s.
Did you mainly use Kickstarter for publicity, or did you really need the money to build the garden?
We really needed the money. We couldn’t have done it without the Kickstarter.
How did you even decide to put a garden on top of the food truck? Had you heard of that being done before?
I read an article online about Busroots when I was in Australia, and I was like, “Oh, God. That’s so inspiring!” It was really creative. I just love people who think outside the box come up with creative solutions, especially for sustainability. I was really interested in that work. When we started talking about a food truck it just popped into my head that it would be awesome if we could take that concept of Busroots and put it on a food truck. We’re local and how much more local can you get than getting food from on top of your truck?
Did the money from Kickstarter cover the entire build-out process of the garden?
What are your plans for the garden?
We’re going to extend it. So, right now, it’s just on the front of the truck. We’re going to extend it to the middle section. I don’t know how many square feet that is, but it’s a pretty big area that’s going to be garden. We’ve already harvested some of it and we use it in our recipes and everything. That’s the plan, to just use it as we have been and get people excited about it. Just seeing people’s reactions as we’re driving down the street and when they walk up to the truck is just great.
What are you growing on it right now?
We have about 15 different kinds of herbs and we have greens and lettuces and a strawberry plant up there. With the second garden, I think we’re going to do even more greens this time. Probably a lot of kale and a lot of Swiss chard and arugula.
Did the publicity from Kickstarter help a lot in the launch of the truck?
Yeah. To be honest, most of the people who saw our Kickstarter were people we knew. But it ended up that a friend of a friend of a friend posted it and then it was passed on to a local news station and then they did a news story about the gardens and the truck and everything, so that ended up being a really great publicity opportunity for us.
So was Kickstarter a good experience for you in general?
My gosh, yes. I would really recommend it, especially for passion projects.
What’s a normal day like for you on the truck?
We’re required by law to work out of a commissary kitchen. We went to the commissary about 9 o’clock and then we had to load all of our stuff from our kitchen into the truck. We got to the spot around 10, and then we prepped ‘til about 11 and opened for lunch at 11. We stayed open until about 2. Then we came back and had to clean the truck, do all of the dishes and everything and get it ready for the next day, and then we came home and did a bunch of administrative stuff, and now (at about 7:30) we’re about ready to go back to the kitchen and prep for tomorrow. We prep at night so that we don’t have to worry about it in the morning.
So you’re running roughly a 12-hour day right now?
And is it just the two working on the truck now?
We usually have an employee. His name is Mike and he works with us on the lunch shift and sometimes during events.
Does St. Louis have a lot of problems with legal restrictions when it comes to vendors?
It’s definitely up in the air when it comes to St. Louis about what’s going to happen long term. We’re so new here, which is unique, I think. In other cities, it’s like food trucks have been there forever, but for St. Louis, it’s really within the last two years that they’ve popped up. They don’t have concrete laws put into place. There are separate permits for the city and the suburbs, so we currently only have a city permit. We can’t vend in a county in the suburbs. We’re forced to park 200 feet away from any brick and mortar restaurant or street vendor. We can’t park within 15 feet of a bus stop or a fire hydrant.
There are 31 trucks, so it limits the number of spots that you can park at. In St. Louis, there are lots of parking spots potentially, but it’s a lot different than New York. There’s a lot of unused space. There are empty lots and stuff that there are not any food trucks around, but you wouldn’t want to park there. It’s like the issue is now that there’s only a few select really good spots that food truck can vie for, so that’s why they developed the association. Everybody in the association posts their schedule in advance and then works together so that everybody kinda shares the business equally.
Tell me about your cuisine.
It’s basically a global, eclectic mix of dishes that focus on fresh, organic, local ingredients whenever possible. The most popular thing is the sweet potato falafel that we offer. We make everything from scratch, so it’s all really fresh and homemade.
How have you been marketing Lulu’s? What outlets have been the most helpful for you?
We’ve been utilizing social marketing a lot everyday. It is totally essential to this business. We’ve been tweeting our location, retweeting articles about urban agriculture and all that kinda stuff that’s important to us and our brand. People have been commenting about our food and Kickstarter. It’s been really wonderful. I can’t imagine doing this business without Twitter or Facebook.
How do you manage Twitter and Facebook when you’re working 12 hours a day?
I’m on my phone all the time.
What payment system are you using?
We use Square. I highly recommend it. We use it on our iPad, so we use it as an inventory system, like a register. You can charge sales tax and download reports. It’s really user-friendly.