3 Lessons I Learned From Starting a Food Business

red food tent selling Taiwanese street food

In an instant, my summer was empty.

The internship I had curated for the summer of 2018 had fallen through at the last minute, and I was plunged into a pool of uncertainty.

I look back and see this as one of the best things that has ever happened to me. Why? It led to me starting my first business, which happened to be in food.

Wanaga Bings, my beloved Taiwanese street food stand will forever be a highlight of my life and a school of learning. Here are 3 lessons I learned from starting a food business.

Lesson 1: Food Depends on Humanity as Much as Humanity Depends on Food

polaroid photograph of family at a farmer's market food stand

Years ago, in a comparative literature class, I read the following passage from Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart that changed the way I think about food:

“A man who calls his kinsmen to a feast does not do so to save them from starving. They all have food in their own homes…We come together because it is good for kinsmen to do so.” – Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart

Food is so much more than something we chew and swallow, it’s how we come together and connect.

Without a doubt, the biggest driver of Wanaga Bings’ success was how we connected with our customers. Remember that canceled internship I faced at the beginning of the summer? It actually allowed me to accompany my parents on a genealogy trip to Taiwan, something I would not have otherwise been able to do. While there, I learned all about my ancestors.

I read a story about my great-great-great grandfather, 吳章地 (Wu ZhangDi), who immigrated from Taiwan to Indonesia to start a business. He called it 萬鳳龍 (Wan FengLong), which means “10,000 Phoenix Dragons”. The story is unclear about what the business sold, but it is clear about its success. For me, the biggest takeaway was that Wu ZhangDi was able to use his success to help many people financially.

Old photograph of chinese man with mustache
Wu ZhangDi, my great-great-great grandfather

When I returned from that trip to Taiwan, I again faced the reality of an empty summer. But it only took me a few hours of meditating on the story of Wu ZhangDi to decide to start a business myself. The startup process needed to be relatively simple. I instantly thought of food. One requirement I gave myself was that I needed to use my business to do good, just as Wu ZhangDi did. To remind myself of that purpose, I named the business Wanaga, after his (Wan, again, being the Mandarin word for “10,000” and naga being the Indonesian word for “dragon”).

After a couple weeks of perfecting recipes and gathering permits, we opened. The crowds loved it, and it wasn’t just about the food.

We offered a discount called “The Reconnect Discount.” The discount gave a dollar off to anyone who reached out to a friend or family member they hadn’t connected with in a while. I felt this was a great way to honor the purpose and origin of my business. After all, we would not have existed had I not reconnected with Wu ZhangDi.

We opened in the farmers market in June of 2018 and sold out in the first week, and then in the second, and then in the third. New customers turned into returning customers who turned into fanatics. To us and our customers, our famous “bing”, or green onion pancake, did not only come with egg, basil, ham and cheese, it also came with a huge side of humanity. People enjoyed the food, but more importantly, they connected with the brand.

Man taping "sold out" sign on foodstand
Opening day at the farmer’s market.

The success of food truly depends on humanity. Connecting with my ancestor and my customers, and encouraging them to connect with their loved ones made our food that much better for all parties involved. Most people have experienced this. Think of your best meals. Who were you with?

But this food-humanity connection can be felt even at a table of one. I’m no stranger to going to a restaurant alone. In fact, one of my guilty pleasures is to go to a new restaurant and just enjoy the experience in silence. This connects me with humanity, as the food I’m enjoying was just made by passionate hands on the other side of the counter. Foodservice is hard work, and thinking about the person that made my food always gives it more meaning.

woman holding street food in front of a food stand
A delighted Wanaga Bings customer

Earlier this year, I was leading a branding meeting for what would eventually become FoodSpot. We were discussing how we wanted our brand to “feel” to our community. Our VP of Sales, Dennis, piped up and said, “You know, when you think about an animal’s most vulnerable state, it’s when it’s eating. That’s why sharing a meal with someone is so special, I guess.”

When we give, receive, and share food together, all of our defenses fall away, and we are just left with our humanity.

Lesson 2: Labor is Costly

In the 3 months Wanaga Bings was open, we ran a lean operation and made healthy profits. Our cost of ingredients was ultra low, the permits were reasonably priced, and we only sold under a tent at temporary events. We paid a very low fee to a local Brazilian kitchen to use their kitchen during off-hours (more on them later). All things considered, our margins were very large for a food business, but I could never evade the need for labor.

3 people working at a foodstand
My sister and friend operating the business with me.

Even with two sisters and a brother-in-law working for “equity,” I still needed to hire friends, and even strangers, to keep the business running. I wanted to be a good employer, so I paid above minimum wage. Compared to the industry, my labor was very, very inexpensive, but it was still a huge expense for my micro operation.

Labor was costly in other ways, too. Dragging my sisters and friends to a restaurant at 5am every Friday morning wasn’t exactly great for our relationship–neither was me throwing a few fits about forgotten ingredients or slow set up speed.

Today, food operators face a labor shortage that is unprecedented by times past, and this is just the beginning. Operators are looking to new ways of production that require less people, but even these new technologies bear a cost. I don’t know how I could have run Wanaga without the goodwill of family and friends, and I cannot imagine what other food operators are going through now.

Lesson 3: Passion Isn’t Enough

Lucy had always dreamed of opening her own restaurant. When she met her husband Scott and moved to the U.S., that dream was bolstered by a desire to share her culture with the local community. When they had saved enough from Scott’s architecture job, they took out loans, built out a restaurant on University Avenue in Provo, UT, and opened Lucy’s Brazilian Kitchen. It was in this kitchen that I spent many early mornings prepping food for Wanaga Bings.

man holding box full of balls of dough in a restaurant kitchen
After an early morning at Lucy’s Brazilian Kitchen

Lucy and Scott weren’t just a provider of space, however, they were also a source of inspiration. When we weren’t in the kitchen, they were: Scott marinating steaks at one prep table while Lucy carefully made dough for pão de queijo at the other. I remember taking my parents to the restaurant when they came to visit. Lucy’s passion and Scott’s commitment showed in their beautifully prepared dishes and warm service.

But even this wasn’t enough.

One day, I asked Scott and Lucy about their experience running a restaurant. They told me how the resurfacing of the sidewalk outside their storefront decreased foot traffic, and that people were dining out less in general. On top of this, their rent was increasing, and their workers were demanding higher pay. As a result, the restaurant was losing money, barely making it with funding from Scott’s full-time job. This opened my eyes more to the harsh reality of foodservice. I truly hoped they would succeed, but I knew the odds were stacked against them.

In the years since that summer, I’ve wondered how Scott and Lucy were doing. At the time of this writing, I look up Lucy’s Brazilian Kitchen on Google. Their digital profile still exists, but it now dons a slim red banner that reads “Permanently Closed.”

For Wanaga Bings, our firecracker summer eventually came to an end as the farmer’s market winded down. I was faced with a choice to open a brick and mortar location or close the business down. Fans begged us to find a location, promising they would come support. I nodded and said I’d try, but I knew it would be nearly impossible on a college student’s budget and schedule. I had all the passion, but it just wasn’t feasible. With that, my beloved food business came to an end.

man cooking food for customers at a food stand
Our last day of operation in October 2018

Today, food operators need more than passion for their craft, or even an altruistic desire to feed employees, customers, or guests. They need innovation. With an ever changing landscape of consumer behavior, labor supply, and food costs, operators need new ways to stay relevant and running. FoodTech presents promising solutions that allow operators to reach today’s demanding consumer with lower costs and less labor.

In my short time as an operator, I fell in love with the foodservice industry and gained a profound respect for operators. I joined FoodSpot because it offers a smart vending solution that democratizes fresh food for both the creator and consumer: it lowers the barrier to the next location and empowers operators to grow on their terms. It’s exactly the kind of solution that food operators around the country need at this moment, and I’m honored to work with our team to empower them with it.

If your fresh food business would be empowered by our smart vending platform, please reach out at sales@launchfoodspot.com.

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