National News: Running Food Truck No Easy Ride

By U-T San Diego Contributor | U-T San Diego


In 1866, Charles Goodnight, a cattle herder, invented the chuck wagon. In 1890, lunch wagons came to New York City to feed the workers on the night shift. In the 1950s, the Army got into the game with mobile canteens.

In 2013, the world has moved from roach coaches to gourmet food on wheels, geo-located on your smartphone and serving high-end specialty food, and people line up when they know it is arriving. The iron chef meets meals on wheels. The only thing missing is the jingle from the old-fashioned ice cream truck.

One of our favorite rules — No. 218: Relentless pursuit and grand passion will take you further than good grades — is particularly applicable to this business, which sounds glamorous from the outside but requires long hours and perseverance in order to be successful.

Marko Pavlinovic, owner of Mangia Mangia Mobile, usually works six days a week, 14 hours a day. On a recent Thursday, he started cooking at 6 a.m. at the Kearny Mesa commercial kitchen where he rents space. At 9:45 a.m., he left for MCAS Miramar, where he served Italian specialties such as spaghetti and meatballs and chicken parmigiana sandwiches from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Then he headed back to the kitchen to load up more food and drinks for his dinner stop from 5 to 8 p.m. The day ended with scrubbing pots and pans and cleaning the truck.

In 2002, Pavlinovic came to San Diego from Italy on vacation. He ended up getting a work permit and a job as a waiter. Two years ago, he started Mangia Mangia Mobile because he wanted to translate his love of food into a business. His mother and grandmother provided the recipes, and the initial capital was $16,000 in savings. He tried and failed to get a bank loan, so he rented a truck for $2,000 a month. By the time that he had paid the truck owner three months of rent in advance, made some interior modifications, painted the truck, purchased pots and pans, insurance and food, he had $350 left on the day that he opened.

In his second week of business, the Cooking Channel asked a well-known food blogger to identify the best food truck in San Diego. She recommended Mangia Mangia. “When they called, they said this is the Cooking Channel, do you want to be on TV? I hung up the phone because I thought that a friend was fooling me,” he said.

The segment aired eight months later, and his business has grown steadily since then.

Last year, he purchased his own truck with a $35,000 loan from Accion, a nonprofit lender that makes small-business loans between $300 and $35,000. A growing part of his business is catering, and future plans are to sell packaged items such as his asparagus lasagna at farmers’ markets and in local stores.

Like Pavlinovic, Jennifer and Chris Saint couldn’t get a bank loan when they started Sweet Treats Truck five years ago. Jennifer had been a residential real estate broker, and Christ, her husband, was a private investigator before he was disabled from a spinal cord tumor.

The Saints purchased a used truck with a $35,000 Accion loan that they have repaid. With their profits and a $30,000 loan from Certified Development Corp., they bought a second truck, so now they have one for ice cream and one for other desserts.

Sometimes your first approach doesn’t work, and then comes the infamous pivot. “Our original thought was to cater to people getting out of bars at 2 a.m., but then we found out that drunk people don’t eat ice cream,” said Jennifer. Their new focus became corporate events, and they have been profitable since their second year.

Unlike most other food trucks, the Saints do not make the products that they sell.

“We want to support other local small businesses and get their product out to the street,” Jennifer said.

With all the attention on celebrity chefs, more people are getting into the gourmet food truck business. When the Saints started, Jennifer said there were only a handful in San Diego, and now there are more than 60. But it is a tough gig, and trucks come and go, giving truth to the old saying, “If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.”