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July 1, 2015

The Business of Food Trucks: An Interview with Scott Kaplan of Jerry’s Kitchen

About the Author
Erica Minutella

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If you plan on hitting outdoor art fairs this summer, you’re bound to run into a few of your favorite local food trucks along the way. In fact, the promise of a really good sandwich or noodle-bowl can be enough of a draw in itself. But if you’ve ever wondered exactly what it takes to keep these businesses sustainable, an interview with Jerry’s Kitchen owner Scott Kaplan breaks it down.
Can you give me a bit of background on the truck, how you started it?
In 2013 I was laid off from my corporate job. I had been in sales for like 12 years working for some large companies. I did some consulting for a couple months. I was always kind of a foodie, a home cook, but I had very little commercial experience. When I decided consulting wasn’t for me, someone reminded me that the food truck industry was really starting to boom, and maybe I’d have the opportunity to enjoy owning a different type of business than a restaurant. So I took the plunge and decided that was going to be my next move. I started the company early 2014 and then our first official event was in August. I learned that I’m not a commercial cook or a chef by any stretch of the imagination. I have an amazing 25 year food industry veteran chef who helps me. They’re mostly my recipes and ideas, but we collaborate. I get to talk about food all day.
How can you beat that? You’re relatively new to the food industry. But would you say that you’ve noticed the food truck industry evolving lately, with the expansion it’s been experiencing?
For sure. To give you perspective, I graduated from Drexel in 2002. As a poor college student, there was a row of grease trucks I really enjoyed. I’d get cheese steaks. It was cheap, it was good, it filled your belly. About five years ago, especially at Drexel, which has kind of been an incubator for successful trucks at 33rd and Arch, you started seeing these gourmet trucks. I think that’s when the second generation trucks started booming in this area. Now it seems like everyone and their mother wants a food truck. And that’s brought us to here. We have an amazing organization, the Philadelphia Mobile Food Association, who does great things for us as business owners and in terms of lobbying. I think for really creative people who are passionate about food it’s an easy entry to the restaurant biz. A lot of people do it part time. It’s a great way to test the concept. I’m married 13 years and I have three kids. It’s a little different for me. My sole focus has to be making this successful. If you’re single, just out of college, it’s a great way to get a start.
What are some of the practical steps to get started out?
I tell people you have to have two things. Like in any business. Money and balls. And it’s about confidence in yourself and the concept. Money can be your own or borrowed from friends, you can get financing. Get the cash and don’t skimp out on building your dreams. Don’t just say, “I really want to have a food truck, I have this amazing concept, and it’s got fireworks shooting out of it and neon lights. That’s really what I want it to look like but I can only afford a light bulb.” It’s just silly. You need to either build a truck or buy a truck. It has to be inspected. You have to have a presence. I was naive. I thought I was the most important person in the world. I thought I would show up on a street corner, open my window, and people would line up. It doesn’t happen. You have to have a little resiliency.
With the competition you’re seeing lately, how do you build your presence?
That’s where branding really comes in. Not just logos. I’m a fan of bold. I love wearing pink and purple. It’s something I feel like aesthetically is pleasing. The brand for me is the conveyance. Everything rotates around that. The attitude, it’s all about energy and fun. That’s really been key. Social media’s pretty important. People have to know where you are and what you’re doing. It’s all intertwined. And your food has to be good. That’s the key piece. If you don’t, people will call you out on it and never eat from you again. That’s how it works.
Were you ever called out in the beginning?
Yeah, here’s a perfect example. A guy who’s turned out to be my mentor, he owns a very successful food cart, he vends at Drexel when I’m there occasionally. I knew he was well-known. I engaged him on a couple of occasions and he came over to my truck and he literally tore me a new one. It’s the best thing that could have happened to me. He said, “You’ve gotta get this clean, your menus are terrible, they’re garbled, I can’t see the pricing, and by the way your price point’s too high. Imagine every surface that your customer can see. It’s gotta be sparkling clean.” If he hadn’t done that I wouldn’t have made the changes and I wouldn’t have had the perspective. I’ve made feedback a key component in my business.
I think everyone needs that when they’re first starting out in any path. It’s essential.
And I do the same thing. I’ve learned that I’m not going to sugarcoat anything. It’s not going to help anyone. Your food sucks, your food sucks. Make the change.
Speaking of branding, I read that Jerry’s Kitchen, the name of it comes from your grandfather. Can you tell me about that?
One of the most common questions I get on the truck is, who’s Jerry? Or they just call me Jerry. I tell them Jerry was my grandfather. He passed away about five years ago. The next question is, oh he must have been in the restaurant business? No, the guy loved to eat. He could pound a dozen Krispy Kreme donuts in one sitting. That’s what he was known for. But most importantly he was my mentor. An amazing kind of person. Just a guy I wanted to name my truck after.
You also have a slogan: Carnivores, vegetarians, vegans rejoice! How does that work for you? It’s pretty complicated to keep such a diverse menu going. Especially how importantly people take the gluten-free, vegan choices. How do you maintain that?
The backstory on that is I have experience. I was raised conservative, my parents kept a kosher household. My wife and I have a kosher house. My wife is not only kosher but very healthy food-oriented. So I’m quite used to preparing food that doesn’t mix certain things. But also keeping an eye out for healthy, flavorful things. She’s the type of person who’s vegetarian but hates to order a salad when she goes out. Be creative. And the reason I wanted to include all those categories in the tagline is I didn’t want there to be any confusion. I could have said, “Creative riffs on classic American food, oh and by the way we have options for vegans and vegetarians.” Unless you can’t be within 30 feet of bread, you can probably find something to eat on the truck. So the next step was – how do we develop a food truck that’s recognizable, yet going back to what my wife wants – approachable, but also delicious, and easy to cook, and cheap to make…
Oh, that’s easy.
By the way, my menu, when we rolled out, it’s a completely different thing, because stuff doesn’t work out. And I never worked in a commercial kitchen, so [I wasn’t factoring in] food cost and all that. The deal is you pick a couple good things in each category and that’s it. You don’t go crazy. Find out what people like and make it. And once in a while you throw a special in just to test. So what are our popular choices on the veggie side? Black bean and quinoa burger, vegan cheesesteak. Shocker, right?
It’s comfort food.
And it’s good. You don’t go to a food truck to eat healthy. This is not a low calorie option. It might be healthful. And good for you. But it’s not low calorie. I would say the biggest challenge is gluten free, believe it or not. I went into this thinking it’s a huge market, everyone’s gluten free, everyone’s concerned about bloat. Turns out not so much. Especially on a food truck where there’s probably cross contamination. Our deal is we have gluten free bread that we substitute for our sandwiches, and some of our veggie stuff lends itself to being gluten free. And tacos too use corn tortillas. But when someone comes to order a veggie item or gluten free, I always ask are you a vegan? Do you have a problem with meat touching the veg?
That’s fair. You have very limited space to work with. Do you think having those options gives you more opportunity in terms of getting spots at fairs and festivals? Because I know that when we’re planning events, we try to keep in mind: we want a vegan option, we want a this option, we want a that option. Do you think the fact that you have all those options contained, do people look for you?
Yeah, and there’s several ways to look at it. You have the folks who would get scared away by something like vegan. You have the people who are interested and intrigued, and the folks who are confused. I would say overall from a business perspective, it’s helped us. I think when people are looking for a food truck, it’s good.
Your station’s generally on Drexel’s campus. What’s the difference between working with college students and corporate events or an art fair. How do you approach your different customers?
I’ve learned a lot of kids are using the slang nowadays. I’m so old. Like “legit” is a thing now.
I use that one.
I do too. I throw a hashtag in front of it. Go all crazy. It’s night and day. What’s cool about being on a college campus is I feel like technology’s an important part of running your own business. I have access to the newest and most interesting apps and platforms. Kids talk about it because it’s an engineering and computer science school. And the kids that work for me have insight into that, and they’re smart enough to say hey that might work for you. On the other side, I’m dealing with drunk kids sometimes. I have a very flexible personality. I can be very goofy. I can be straightforward. And that comes from corporate sales. You have to be adaptable. College services is fun. I don’t make any money. Even if I have a great day. Again thanks to having a presence and doing some marketing, I’m getting more corporate gigs. That’s what’s going to sustain the business, that’s what’s going to be the bread and butter. And then I can take a risk and hang out on campus when it’s bitter cold. I think as a food truck in Philly we only really have like a six month season. What’s interesting is that the street service is starting to lead to corporate. That’s why you have to be consistent with the brand and the quality.
Can you tell me a bit more about how the catering side works? If people want to reach out to you for that?
We bring the truck, the equipment, smiling people, delicious food. One of the great things about food truck catering is you know exactly where the food’s being cooked. It’s 20 feet from you, but you don’t have to deal with a line. What we do is we cook it fresh. When your party starts everything is laid out buffet style. Food from a truck is the fastest way to serve people. Everyone’s happy with the ambiance of a food truck. And it’s priced per person. We have a more comprehensive catering menu. We do tacos, vegan cheesesteaks, regular cheesesteaks. And everything is made fresh, all the sauces are fresh. We also do trays for sales meetings. From 10 to 30 people. Again everything’s made fresh but delivered. This is the kind of stuff that gets me through the winter.
I read about some of the food choices you have on your website. And one of the things that struck me was the macarookie. Can you explain what that is and some of the other weird choices you have?
Essentially it’s a macaroon. I have long felt that the macaroon gets a bad rap. People don’t understand that it’s delicious. One of my sub-missions that I have is to expose people who might be adverse to some foods, but again make it approachable. Give it a shot, it’s not gonna bite you. This kind’ve came from that. It’s gluten free, it’s vegetarian. They’re huge. Basically it’s a flat macaroon. And we do everything from bittersweet chocolate to dried cranberry. It’s a fun side project for us too, when we have some down time. And the kids love it on campus. It’s 2 or 3 bucks.
When your coffee isn’t doing it anymore you need that.
Exactly. Get some evaporated milk in you. That’s the funkiest thing. And we do granola. Gluten free, vegan, recognizable, delicious. It’s pretty easy to make it. People love it. Again it’s a great grab-and grub go on campus. The vegan cheesesteak was a fun little adventure. We won a contest, were featured on the Daily News. We make our own seitan, we don’t cut corners. My chef is amazing. He kneads the dough, slices it, cooks it on a flattop just like you would a cheesesteak, sears the onions, homemade vegan cheese whiz.
How did you make your connection with your chef?
He found me. Folks in the industry don’t extend this as a resource for jobs. It’s not often we get emails from people saying here’s my resume. I was clueless in the kitchen. When this email came out from the Mobile Food Association, I interviewed him and asked him to develop some recipes for me, and he was really impressive. He’s cooked at Rose Tattoo, Penn Dining. It was kismet.
Sometimes things happen that way. You shouldn’t question it.
He’s been invaluable. He really has. You have to go into it from the business side with the mind of an executive chef.
You’re going to be working the Invisible River art festival. Can you tell me anything about that?
I was referred to the event by someone who shares commissary space with me, they were going to be there and the key for food truck success is promotion and people. The organization seems really interesting. My concept works in the art arena. The number of trucks works out, there’s going to be thousands of people there. It’s local artists and the organization each year organizes a creative way to display art. It’ll be floating down this river. I also like to support – people don’t remember that artists are business people too. And it’s harder for them because there are a million artists, and there’s so many people. Your stuff has to be really good, so I get it. It’s a crazy business.
You can catch Jerry’s Kitchen at Invisible River 2015 on Saturday, August 29. Or keep track of Scott’s roving adventures on Twitter.
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