Not too long ago, food trucks used to be a west coast curiosity. Today, if you live in any major American city, it’s practically a given that you can find anything from corn dogs to kimchi being served at a nearby street corner. But how does one create their own food truck? What does the life of a food truck entrepreneur look like? Shortly after arriving in Oakland, I spent a day with Zak; the 28 year-old mastermind and manager behind Doc’s of the Bay. Serving hefty, richly seasoned burgers and sandwiches since 2011, Doc’s has already garnered a loyal following in the Bay Area and snagged several choice foodie awards. Read on to learn how Zak’s truck evolved from a brain hiccup to a black angus-on-bread institution.
Me: So how exactly does one wake up one morning and say, “You know what? I’m gonna open my own food truck!”
Zak: You know, I’m still not sure. Before I moved out here from the east coast, I had some kitchen experience working in a chain of lodges up in New Hampshire. When I got to Oakland, one of my first jobs involved cooking on another food truck and at this cafe that was very poorly run but still doing decent business. It was one of those moments where I thought, “Jeez, I could do this.” And eventually, the idea for Doc’s just came to me, really. I had wanted to start my own business for a while, and I was still young enough to not know any better. So I figured I might as well give something a shot while I didn’t have any dependents. Initially, the truck was spearheaded by myself and two friends. (The said friends have since moved on.)
What was it about food trucks in particular that interested you? As opposed to…say…a more traditional restaurant?
The food truck craze was really catching on in the Bay Area right around this time. And from my insight to the restaurant industry, it seemed like starting a truck would be a lot more economically attainable and sustainable than a building up a brick and mortar business.
Describe the Doc’s cooking method. How did you develop your burger recipe?
Each summer, I used to drive from New Jersey to California. And I had this restaurant book called Road Food with me, by Stern. They recommended a burger shack in Salina, Kansas called The Cozy Inn. So I went there and they served the best cheeseburgers I’ve ever had. In the backroom, you could see cooks shoving onions into a food processor and then blending them with ground beef. That was it, other than a little salt and pepper. They’d make these balls of burger meat, and then literally smash them onto the griddle. It gives the burger this great, flavorful char without overcooking the meat inside. And basically, this way of cooking was adopted for creating the Doc’s burger.
Cool, so you had a dream. How did you go about realizing it?
First, I had to get to the point of admitting to myself that I was actually going to do this. It took about seven months of moping around. I finally tried saying it out loud to somebody and it was that situation where you’re worried they’ll be like, “Start a food truck? That’s fucking stupid.”
Did you have to weather much skepticism when you started sharing the idea?
Actually, not much! It was almost the opposite outcome, where I told someone about the idea and they’d say, “Oh, you should totally do that.” Then you gain more confidence, and your pitch evolves into, “I’m writing a business plan for a food truck.”
What was your business plan for Doc’s? Had you ever done anything like this before?
No, not at all. It was extremely different from anything I’d put together before. I started my research by calling people who ran other food trucks, hoping to get some concrete budget numbers and sales projections etched out before I sunk any money into the truck. And that alone was very difficult; getting other people involved in the industry to talk to me. Especially since I wasn’t in the business yet. In fact, now that I’m in the business, I can definitely understand how easy it would be to lose track of some unknown voicemail to the effect of, “Hey. I’m interested in starting a food truck. Do you have half an hour so I can pick your mind?”
Did your initial research embolden or shake your confidence?
What I learned quickly was that food trucks are a bleeding-edge industry. And a lot of them still don’t understand their own sales projections, profit margins, or even how much money they invested to get their truck up and running. Not to mention, how much money they had squirreled away just in case.
How much money did you have to save or raise in order to start Doc’s?
Well, the truck itself as easy to figure out. i just went to the truck store, essentially, and found that a refurbished, middle-of-the-road food truck would cost me $35,000. Then the wrap (exterior artwork/decals) would be another $4,000. And then you need a professional kitchen to prepare the food in each morning, before loading up the truck. So you have to factor in rent prices as well. I assumed these would be the bulk of expenses to create Doc’s.
Did this give you the momentum to start planning your truck?
Basically. From that point, writing the business plan was almost like anthropology. Most people don’t speak the food truck language, there’s no scientific research being done on them, and there’s very little to compare your plan to. A lot of it is guess-work. So I just went about projecting sales, costs, and profits, most of which were based on a completely unrealistic work-life balance. (laughs) Originally, the truck team wasn’t going to be working too much, which is definitely not the case now!
How many do hours do you put in per week, on average?
These days, I could be looking at 60 hours, but I usually put in about 50 and say, “‘good enough.”
What kind of food licenses did you have to acquire in order to legally sell Doc’s sandwiches?
All kinds! You’ve got to incorporate your business. We’re a LLC – to this day, I still have a pretty vague understanding of what that means. Each license almost always requires something else. You need a LLC to get a seller’s permit, which you need to apply for a health permit. The state of California is pretty cash strapped, and for a while, getting these documents from them was like extortion.
So the fees are climbing?
The fees are exorbitant. I think California has actually been ranked the number one worst American state to do business in. They just ding you everywhere they can. The Board of Equalization (which collects sales tax) requires a $2,000 deposit in order to do business in California, which they claim is just in case you can’t pay your own sales tax. But still…the idea of taking $2,000 from the cash flow of a brand new business because the state can’t afford to pay its own taxes still strikes me as bullshit. And then there’s the inefficiencies at state level. We literally had to drive to Sacramento to ask for our incorporation papers to be returned, because we needed them to secure a loan that would cover some of the Doc’s costs.
Was this loan your primary source of funding?
It was one of several. You can’t get a loan without having a decent amount of money to put up front, and I sunk a lot of my own savings into the startup costs for Doc’s. The loan covered the truck, I paid for the wrap, and pretty much everything else since. But now, the truck is finally starting to pay for itself.
How long did it take – post-opening – to get to the point where you were coming out even, financially?
The truck stopped being a money sink after about two years. I’m no longer so sure that food trucks are that much cheaper than small restaurants.
Okay…so, flash forward to opening day: how have you been getting word about Doc’s out there? What are the inaugural clientele crowds like?
We hadn’t done much outreach other than telling our friends about the truck. We had an opening party in our driveway, which was pretty well attended and got us some startup cash. The first day serving to the public felt crazy. We didn’t know what we were doing at all, and the work was very stressful. The opening weeks were a learning process.
How often do you spend time thinking about the long-term future of Doc’s, as opposed to…say…the next month?
Less and less, really. The truck is old and we often have pieces of machines breaking down, or unforseen labor shortages. As a business owner, it makes sense to be thinking extensively about the big picture, but the fact is, Doc’s is still growing. And with that growth, we’ve made mistakes. Part of my role is to ensure damage control and make sure that we learn from each mistake.
What challenges do you imagine yourself facing in the next five to ten years?
Doc’s is a fairly viable business and right now, I can support my lifestyle with the truck. But it’s going to have to grow substantially if I’m going to support myself plus any dependents that might come along down the road.
I think about that a lot. The whole evisceration of the middle class thing seems entirely real. Especially in the Bay Area where a lot of jobs are going to extremely well-trained professionals in technical services who get paid a ton of money and consequently drive up living prices around the city; to the extent where things become unaffordable for everyone else and people get pushed out. It’s tough to even think about these issues if you’re not taking care of number one, and I think a serious challenge for Millennials is going to be retaining consciousness. You see more young people who are very conscious of social and environmental matters, but it’s going to be hard to put theory to practice without being able to support yourself.
“Millennial” has become a loaded word. What does it mean to you?
First, I don’t think our generation is lazy. Most Millennials I know are extremely hard-working, and it’s just like anyone else: you get thrown in the big pool, you have to start swimming. But I do think there’s a fixation on working smarter as opposed to harder. And using tools that we have available to do our jobs more effectively and lead healthier, more balanced lives. I’m guessing that a lot of Millennials aren’t expecting to have the disposable income that our parents did. We grew up in a bubble, and I think anyone who’s not in the tech sector making hand over fist has been embracing that reality. I almost wonder if that where this sudden, renewed interest in growing and cooking your own food has come from.