I didn’t necessarily think it would be easy, but starting my own food cart for Madison Wisconsin is not as easy as I thought, and I am not open yet! I officially open the Ugly Apple next week! The city of Madison website has tons of information but there was a lot I had to learn on my own. And there’s a lot of doubt. The upside of the cart plan is the start up is about one tenth of what a new restaurant would cost and I can get up and running relatively quickly. It’s still a lot of money though, and if you are going it alone (like I am) it is a lot of work. There are things I never thought I would have to learn about (like RV equipment and internet security) and lots of things I knew I’d have to know, but didn’t realize the detail (like insurance, labor laws, and effective blog posting).
First of all, is has been fun so far. I’ve been cooking since I was in high school (approximately 15 years) and it’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. I have other interests, but food is universal. Everyone needs it. It’s where we share our closest moments with family and friends. It helps when we are sick. It is connected to some of our most treasured memories. I love food. I’ve wanted to work with food my whole life. Some people get famous cooking, some people get rich. I don’t think I will get to be either, but I am so psyched I will get to cook my food for people who will enjoy it (I hope) and try to make a difference along the way.
Second of all, if you want to start a food cart (or anything else for that matter) make it be something you don’t mind thinking about at least 80% of the time. This cart had basically consumed my life, and I don’t mind. I love it. If I didn’t love it, it would be awful. This seems like an easy thing, but the thing you love and are willing to do all the time has to be something people need or want. It also has to be different enough from what other people are doing to keep you in business.
At this point I am mostly speculating that The Ugly Apple fits that criteria. I did some research, got a lot of good feedback, and I jumped in the deep end. At some point you just have to go for it and hope it works out.
But there’s more than hope too. There are tons of small business resources out there. In Wisconsin, especially Madison and Milwaukee, the Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corporation (WWBIC) has been a valuable resource. They have classes that are free or inexpensive, and so many people who have been there and can help, suggest, reference, and listen. They also give loans. They are an amazing organization.
I thought about crowd sourcing. It seemed weird to ask for money without giving a tangible thing in return. Since I wasn’t open yet, I didn’t know exactly what I could offer beside theoretical sandwiches and an honorable mention on a “Wall of Awesome”. This seemed lame. Then I found Kiva. Kiva is a crowd sourcing loan site. They help people all over the world do things way more important than start a food cart but they helped me anyway. You can choose the amount you need but it helps to be specific: who you are, what your business is, and what the money will specifically buy. Kiva reps guide the borrowers to craft a compelling loan page and there are tips on the site about how many people to contact and when to try to get enough lenders to reach your goals. I think a lot more people who contributed were comfortable giving me money because they knew they would get it back.
Thirdly, I know very little about building. When I was a kid, I helped my dad assemble furniture and theater sets for school plays but that’s about it. I wanted a great cart so I commissioned a builder from upstate Wisconsin, Caged Crow Fabrications, to build my cart. They have built other carts for Madison, all unique and fun. They did an amazing job on my cart. Just based on sticker price there are cheaper options. However I was looking at it as a space that would stand out, start a conversation, be a surprise, and have all the technical aspects to be safe for food service. Under that criteria, it was definitely worth the price.
Also important in the discussion of building vs buying a cart is the Madison regulation about mobile food. In Madison there are currently no food trucks, only carts. I heard a rumor that might be changing soon, but not for now. The carts must be no more than 56sqft and the smallest premade trailers I found were 6’x10′. There might be smaller out there somewhere, especially with the tiny house movement gaining momentum, but not that I found when I needed it and I really fell in love with the work Caged Crow does. Check it out, they do some really cool things!
To make everything you need fit in 56sqft and be mobile, RV equipment turns out to be the best stuff for the job. Water filters for coffee might be a whole other post so I’ll skip that for now. Everything inside the cart moves around and has to get strapped down or netted before going anywhere. Also working on a slight angle is a little hard to get used to. Thinking about how much gas, propane, and water I have for a shift is something I never had to care about before as well as lining up a 2 ton trailer and driving a full size pickup with the trailer attached. Parking the trailer. Getting used to getting the trailer and truck to go where you want them to all the time. That last one I have Not mastered yet. Much more practice needed there.
Mobile food is so much different that restaurant food. But it is fun! Maybe more fun? I think that is completely dependent on the restaurant and the cart in question. I’m having a lot of fun with The Ugly Apple. I’m gonna let it ride for now.