Food cart frenzy
Growing a business sector 56 square feet at a time.
(page 3 of 3)
John Pickle and Jennifer StCyr are in their third season with Pickle Jar BBQ & Pie at the top of State Street. Their idea grew from a love of cooking, entertaining, and experimenting with foods on the grill. “He was a vegetarian,” StCyr says of her husband. “I corrupted him.”
Pickle Jar BBQ & Pie, owned by John Pickle and Jennifer StCyr, is in its third year of operation. Photo courtesy of www.hankr.us
Urged on by friends and family, the couple began to explore the idea of making a living from their passion. “We like being around each other,” she states. “Together we’re one whole brain, so we started looking at opening a restaurant but that was out of our reach. A food cart made sense.”
They also purchased their cart from Caged Crow in northern Wisconsin. “We made some mistakes,” StCyr admits in hindsight. “Looking back, I would not have gone all-electric. We operate solely off a generator now, which is good and bad, but it weighs a ton. Propane would have offered more versatility.” They made it through the competition their first year but were on the waiting list for year two. “You can lose your position every year,” StCyr warns.
They rent cooking space at the FEED Kitchen, which allowed them to install an electric smoker. “Our pork shoulder smokes for 22 hours but we’re only charged for the time we’re there,” she notes. Their sandwiches range from about $7 to $9.
Thus far, StCyr has been impressed by the sense of community within the city’s vending community. “We’re definitely glad we did this. Overall, we’re a lot happier. We’re working more and making less but the rewards [are numerous]. We love everything we make. We’ve gained weight, so there are detriments, but our food reminds people of home and grandma.”
The couple talks about opening a restaurant one day. “Food carts are a great way to test ideas, but you can expand either by adding another cart or doing catering, or you can be like Rocky at So-Ho. You either stay mobile or put down roots.”
So, how’s it going?
“Rocky” is So Pak Ho, owner of So-Ho, an Asian fusion restaurant in Fitchburg that started as a food cart and still maintains one. Ho grew up in Hong Kong and moved here when he was nine years old.
He launched his food cart in 2012 but was always intent on opening a restaurant. Over time, his food cart menu expanded from lunch to dinner. Now, as part of Let’s Eat Out!, the cart continues to prove its worth around town while his restaurant thrives. “It was always my idea to open a restaurant, but the food cart was a smaller risk and smaller investment,” Ho explains, saying he started the food cart with relatively little business experience.
His original plan was to open a second food cart that would be supplied by the restaurant, “but the food cart market is very saturated,” he notes. “There is a lucrative side to it but it’s not always as easy as it looks.” The city’s food cart culture is growing fast, requiring more dedication, he explains. “I’m working a lot harder this year to compete. The restaurant is doing well and the food cart has proven lucrative, but I won’t do a second one.”
He has no regrets thus far, saying he wants to continue growing his portfolio. “You can’t just make money in the summer and drain it in the winter. I wanted to be more consistent and the restaurant provides that.” He may even consider opening a second restaurant soon.
“I think most people with food carts aspire to open restaurants or a store,” Ho says. “But then, I know people who own a restaurant and want to downsize to a food cart. It’s all a risk. Food carts are tricky business in Wisconsin because of the weather.”
Ho currently employs six people and will add three to four more in summer. “I have a food-cart guy now,” he says, and there are times when the cart is busier than the restaurant. “We’re selling convenience.”
He also emphasizes the importance of having a network of friends. “You have to save a lot of money to start in this business. It’s all hard work, and networking is important. Friends make up for about 25% of my sales, and when they have to drive to your location, that says a lot.”
Kay-Tee Olds has a broader vision for her food cart. The owner of several startups in town, Olds ventured into the food cart business in June 2016 with Rodeo Wagon, a cart located where West Washington meets the Capitol Square. A horse lover, her menu was inspired by visits to horse shows and rodeos across the southern U.S. Rodeo Wagon sells breakfast burritos, open-faced beef sandwiches, and “a ton of cornbread,” with most items selling for between $7 and $9.
As an experienced businessperson who took part in the city’s focus groups, Olds suggests that decision-makers could be more supportive of food-cart owners. “There seems to be a lot of support from the food-cart community and the city’s development team to allow food carts to vend on private properties, but the process creates a real barrier,” she says.
She’s heard of some cities over-regulating food carts to such a degree that the licenses are being sold. “That hurts the equity piece, and demographics shift from minorities to corporations.”
Madison’s food carts are owned mostly by women or minorities, Olds notes. “[Food carts] offer a huge opportunity for first-time startups. I’d hate to see that shift in the other direction because we are too restrictive.
“The joke in the food-cart industry is that if you can make it profitable in Madison, you can do it anywhere.”
Regulations can differ from city, to county, to state. “We’ve now replaced the sink and water heater in our cart, the generator, and cooling units, which met Milwaukee’s standards but don’t meet Madison’s,” Olds notes, but those frustrations are behind her because Rodeo Wagon, she says, has turned the corner and is now more efficient.
“A food cart is still a really low-risk investment,” she acknowledges. “Much less than a brick-and-mortar restaurant would be.” Hers was built in Kentucky. She spent about $25,000 on the cart and has hired a managing operator to run it.
Olds recently discovered that the carbon footprint food carts leave can be significant because of the amount of power they consume and the to-go containers and disposables they often distribute. Attempting to be more earth conscious, she is exploring the possibility of going solar or using propane to keep Rodeo Wagon functioning.
She pays for city-provided electricity but also supplements the cart’s energy needs with smaller generators that require less gas. With the help of locally based True Coffee Roasters, she created a custom-brewed coffee that is served in eco-friendly cups and lids. “I just think it’s the right thing to do.”
Unlike other owners, Olds’ aspiration is not to expand the business with a second food cart or grow into a brick-and-mortar restaurant. She hopes to replicate a food cart business model elsewhere with the end goal of creating more jobs and opportunities for future entrepreneurs. “I want to take this into other markets and team with entrepreneurs because I like to support startup communities.”
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