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Feels on Wheels: What It's Really Like Running a Food Truck

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Six months into operating a new food truck, I put out a job advertisement:

"HELP WANTED - We need the following: the tactical adaptability of a Navy SEAL, the flexibility of a master yogi in regards to scheduling and heat tolerance, an addiction to adrenaline and semi-organized chaos, the ability to work investment banker hours without the investment banker pay. Helpful but not required: a sense of humor that is a cross between Tina Fey and Andrew Dice Clay. You should probably like pirates. Required: A desire to succeed in the culinary industry."

My truck, American Meltdown, serves gourmet melts and grilled cheese, or you could say fussy grilled cheese and nostalgic grilled cheese. During our five-and-a-half-year existence, I've learned that it takes a special person to drive around a loaded 15,000-pound vehicle and work in its confines—and like it.

For one, food truck chefs work in a space akin to a good-sized walk-in closet­—with poor ventilation, so it gets hot. Fans of Bikram yoga will love the feel of a food truck from June through mid-September.

To be considered "chef-y" by the food intelligentsia but still approachable to the mainstream, your menu should change fairly often, with solid core items.

These days, food trucks resemble a pirate ship and a crew: a captain drives while a shipmate organizes events and the crew.

Our schedule was nebulous for the first three months. Henry, the first employee I hired, would ask at the end of each day, "Are we working tomorrow?" Oftentimes, a gig would not come through until the day before.

At our first food truck rodeo, Henry and I had prepped the entire menu three days prior at the Cookery. This was his first job in the culinary field, and my first managerial role and entrepreneurial project. Too bad I forgot to tell him which ingredients went on which sandwiches. The orders were piling in. Henry was on sandwich, I was on the griddle, and my wife, Alycia, was handling the window, using a bistro apron as a cash drawer because we did not have a register setup yet. Henry kept asking, "What goes on the 'Hangover'? And the 'Fordham'?" After thirty minutes of me verbalizing every ingredient, we found a rhythm, but the flow was soon broken by the griddle shutting down. (It turned out we had a faulty propane regulator.)

Ernest Harris, who owns the Chick-N-Que food truck, was among the first to ask how we did. I answered honestly—that we ran out of food three times. "You what!?" he responded, laughing. "You are a grilled cheese truck and you sold out of bread and cheese? That should not happen." I was embarrassed and have never forgotten Ernest's words. We have only run out of food one other time since then, during a twelve-hour service.

It's been a roller coaster ride. Some days, I'm convinced the adventure is just beginning, on others I think it's all over. In retrospect, my help-wanted ad was right, but I neglected one important detail. The business owners in the Triangle food truck and restaurant community have been as instrumental to our success as the people waiting in line for a grilled cheese. With its shared wisdom, repairs, and client referrals, the business community has taught me that teamwork is the most vital factor.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Feels on Wheels."

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