Chef Bruce Pinkerton has 30 years in the restaurant business. When he expanded to the food truck business, his key objectives were to create a new revenue stream and grow his brand. He was different from many other mobile operators in that he already owned an established café on Elliott, serving up lunch to employees of F5 and Big Fish Games.
Last seen on its way to its new owners in the Tri-cities
Named by Seattle Magazine as one of the best pasta dishes in Seattle right up there with the likes of Spinasse and La Medusa, and having Top Chef alumni talent Simon Pantet running the kitchen, Urban Nomad sounds like the model food truck success story.But despite reaching the two goals he set out to achieve within six months, and even having strong business during traditionally slow winter months, he decided to close up shop early this year.
"I am proud of opening one of the first pasta trucks in the United States," Pinkerton explains, but "simply put, the truck did not fit into my long term vision. It was a hard decision."
Although Pinkerton is a seasoned businessman who had done a ton of research before opening up his sparkly green truck, there were unanticipated challenges.
Originally thinking it would be a perk to be able to leverage his café's kitchen for cooking food for the truck, it ended up being hard to balance the volume in the kitchen. It was almost like determining which child to feed more food.
Also, he finds the best trucks are the ones where the owner is physically on-board all the time. "Owners will work hard, be proactive and creative about sniffing out new spots and events for trucks, and stay motivated without requiring an additional salary." Due to Pinkerton's commitments to his brick and mortar, that wasn't an option for him.
The food truck scene in Seattle has more than tripled since Urban Nomad first opened about a year ago. "In 2012, the city relaxed their rules and we saw a growth in trucks, but along with that growth comes with it a huge learning curve for both brick and mortar and food trucks." Pinkerton says some of the restaurants do not think trucks and brick and mortars can coexist peacefully. He claims a South lake Union small business is notorious for unjustifiably calling in food inspectors, who arrive at the peak of the lunch hour. "That is an example of another obstacle food truck owners face."
When asking Bruce whether or not it's harder to run a business with walls or one on wheels, without hesitation he said the latter. "Imagine a standard restaurant, then add the logistics of moving the truck, transporting the food, prep, an arduous inspection process, the thrill of driving a big lug of a vehicle down the road, and you can see there won't be much time for anything else."
Would he discourage prospective food truck operators from setting up shop?
"Absolutely not. People have this romanticized view of Western entrepreneurship, but if you don't have food service industry experience or business experience, and you don't consult with people who do, you have a long road ahead of you."
Tips? He says success isn't overly complicated. Aside from coming up with a sound business plan:
1) Get creative. Pinkerton opened a pasta truck because he wanted to break the mold of menu line-ups that only included food people could eat with their hands like sliders or tacos.
2) Do your homework. Get a sense of all the challenges you could face and build a plan around mitigating each one. For example, parking in a "pod" (i.e. a cluster of trucks gathered in a lot or an alley somewhere) is great for visibility and volume, but they are also more expensive. A private lot where there is a cross-marketing opportunity for both businesses such as Chuck's on 85th that primarily sells booze is ideal.
3) Have a plan for communicating your opening and your whereabouts.
What's next for this native of Canada who moved to Seattle over a decade ago? A second brick and mortar. He is staying hush-hush about it until the plans are finalized, but here's a hint: He is looking to open in a happening neighborhood just beyond the Center of the Universe (begins with a B, lots of Scandinavians and condos.)
Urban Nomad is survived by its elder sibling, Urban Café in Queen Anne.