If you ask Joe Dodd about the pig tattoo on his forearm, he’ll say it represents a change in his perception of food.
With a passion for cooking that began at age 16, Dodd set out to follow the best of the best and wanted to work in fine dining. But then he read Thomas Keller’s “Ad Hoc at Home” — the book made him rethink his culinary approach.
“It shows the more simplistic side of things and just utilizing a great product and making it taste really, really good,” says Dodd of Tampa, Florida. “You don’t have to do a lot to your food; you just have to have good products and know how to work with them.”
When Dodd goes to work in his food truck, Soul Food Street Kitchen, he takes that outlook with him — both figuratively and literally: That tattoo depicts the same pig that’s on the cover of “Ad Hoc at Home.” And just as that book changed his relationship with food, Dodd wants to change the public’s perception of food trucks.
“People still relate food trucks to ‘roach coaches,’ but that’s not it at all,” says Dodd. “A food truck is nothing more than a restaurant on wheels.”
Dodd has nearly a decade of restaurant experience and two years of food trucking under his belt. He took some time to talk about his journey from brick-and-mortars to the streets and about what the food truck business is really like.
Navigating a New Food Truck Business
When Dodd and his family moved from Naples to Tampa, he decided it was time to try something new.
He partnered with the husband of one of his wife’s coworkers, who had also relocated to Tampa from Naples. Both men were stay-at-home dads with experience in the restaurant business. They decided to start a food truck.
They came up with a perfectly punny name — Taste Buddz — bought a trailer, set up an LLC, designed their logo and signed up for a Food Truck Seminar hosted by Tampa Bay Food Trucks.
There they hoped to learn the tricks of the trade and get their business on the road. They definitely did not expect to be told their business was going to fail — but that’s exactly what happened.
Michael Blasco, the speaker at the TBFT seminars, told them their concept was too broad and that their trailer didn’t convey a clear message. For a new food truck, the branding is arguably more important than the food, since no one knows who you are.
“I left that seminar saying, ‘I hate this guy,’” Dodd says with a laugh. “I took that as a challenge.”
The partners decided to stick with their original concept and participated in their first event in July 2016. Despite the warnings, Taste Buddz didn’t fail — in fact, the duo made back their initial investment by the end of the year.
But while Taste Buddz didn’t fail, it came to an end about a year after its inaugural event. Dodd’s partner decided food trucking didn’t suit him and left the business.
As the sole owner of the food truck, Dodd decided to take Blasco’s advice from the year before.
He picked one culinary style and chose a name that made it clear what type of food his truck serves. Within two weeks of his partner’s exit, he had Soul Food Street Kitchen up and running.
On top of revamping the menu and changing the name, Dodd also invested in a trailer wrap, which covers the vehicle in a custom vinyl sticker. Now potential customers know right away what type of food his truck offers.
The rebranding was worth it — Dodd says his sales went up 30%.
A Day Behind the Wheel
Food truckers put in long days.
Lunch service typically runs from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., but the owners usually start as early as 7 a.m. in order to prep, travel and set up.
Once the lunch rush is over, everything has to be cleaned up and broken down. Some days they have double shifts. So after packing up from lunch, operators drive to the next spot and set up for dinner, which usually runs from 5 to 8 p.m.
Dinner days can run as late as 10 or 11 p.m.
Blasco says the long hours are one of the toughest parts of this business, along with securing locations — and the heat.
Yeah, can’t forget about that heat. Imagine sweltering in a small, enclosed vehicle full of cooking equipment. Now, imagine how hot it is at 1 p.m. on a July day in Florida.
Are you sweating just thinking about it? Ditto.
And the heat doesn’t just affect Dodd — it affects business, too.
“A lot of people don’t like to stand at food trucks when it’s hot outside, so summertime is slower,” he says.
Dodd likes to work at least four days a week, so when he’s not doing standard lunches and dinners, he takes catering jobs.
Catering makes up about 35% to 40% of Soul Food Street Kitchen’s business and about half of the overall profit. While the truck has a set menu of four to five items for standard days, caterings allow Dodd to branch out and make new items.
If there are leftover ingredients from speciality items, Dodd avoids waste by featuring the item at a lunch or dinner event as a limited time specialty.
Chasing the Dollar
Despite the continued success of Soul Food Street Kitchen, Dodd still thinks of brick-and-mortar as more his passion. The food truck lifestyle can wear on you.
“One of the negatives with food trucking is I feel the inconsistency in chasing the dollar,” he says.
With a brick-and-mortar, you know what time you open and what time you lock the doors. You have a set schedule. With food trucks, you don’t have that luxury — you have to be willing to deal with a sporadic lifestyle.
“Sometimes we will go 12 or 13 days straight,” says Dodd. “Then sometimes… it’s a job here and a job there.”
The inconsistency means that if you want to turn a profit in the food truck business, you have to commit to it 100% — part-timing just won’t cut it.
Dodd hopes to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant of his own, but that doesn’t mean he plans on ditching food trucks altogether. He would still like to run Soul Food Street Kitchen, but only for catering and private events.
Advice for Aspiring Food Truckers
Dodd says the best thing to do before starting your own food truck is to work in one for a little while.
“You have to do like a month-long ride-along to really get a full grasp of what happens,” he says. “It’s a fun business, but there’s a lot of work that goes into it.”
Aside from getting some experience behind the counter, food truckers should try to be original, he says. Skip the shortcuts and cook from the heart. And he imparts some wisdom that everyone — not just aspiring food truckers — should lock away:
“If you wouldn’t serve it to your mother, why would you serve it to anybody else?”
Kaitlyn Blount is a staff writer at Codetic. She once baked her mother a chocolate pie so rock hard, she couldn’t even cut it with a knife. Sorry, Mom.