Rick Coleman is an author, entrepreneur and owner of Jackpot Chicken Food Truck – a Best of Cleveland finisher since 2016. He is also the author of, “So You Want to Be a Food Truckr?” to help other entrepreneurs help launch successful food truck businesses.
Rick also mentors young aspiring entrepreneurs.
#entrepreneur #entrepreneurship #SmallBusiness #FoodTruck #podcast #NEO #Ohio #SBDC
Transcript of Biz Chat Ohio’s podcast 2.4: Rick Coleman
Hello, everyone. Welcome to Biz Chat Ohio, the podcast bringing you big ideas for small businesses, and the best of small business news and industry trends from Ohio thought leaders. This podcast is made possible by Lakeland Community College, and the Ohio Small Business Development Center. I’m your host, Cathy Walsh, Director of the Small Business Development Center. And I’m joined by my co-host, Gretchen Skok DiSanto , Director of the Lakeland Community College Entrepreneurship Center, and Business Advisor for the Ohio Small Business Development Center.
So if you’ve listened to Biz Chat Ohio before, you probably heard me, Gretchen, talk about teaching entrepreneurship classes at Lakeland Community College. And to me, that role is more than a job or career. It’s certainly my passion, having worked in economic development for my entire career. And I’d like to say that the best part of those classes is me, but it really isn’t. The best part of those classes is when I bring in successful entrepreneurs to talk to my students about their experiences.
And one of my students’ favorite entrepreneurs is here with us today. He brings incredible energy wherever he goes, and is always hungry for the next challenge in business, no pun intended. And you’ll understand that statement when you hear who he is. So I’m incredibly happy that he agreed to talk to us today about his entrepreneurial journey.
Winner, winner, chicken dinner. Today, we’re joined by author and entrepreneur, Rick Coleman. Rick is the owner of Jackpot Chicken food truck, which he operates with his wife, Kristen, in the greater Cleveland area. Jackpot Chicken has been a best of Cleveland top finisher every year since it was launched in 2016. And Rick recently published the book, So You Want to be a Food Trucker, to help other entrepreneurs launch successful food truck businesses. Rick and his family live in Lake County. And in his spare time, he mentors aspiring entrepreneurs. So thanks so much for joining us today, Rick.
Thank you. Thank you very much, ladies, especially for this opportunity to come on this podcast today. Gretchen, again, I love working with you, and again, I welcome every opportunity to come out here and at least help out some aspiring entrepreneurs, especially in the food business.
The food truck business, much like the restaurant business in general, can be very tricky. According to restaurant MBA, just like restaurants, food trucks have a very high rate of failure with 60% going under within the first three years of opening. So what motivated you to go into the food truck business, and why chicken?
That percentage is probably spot on in regards to what I see in my industry every year. So many people venture into the food truck business, but they don’t really understand the time and everything that it does take to be successful and to have longevity in this industry. I chose to go into the food truck business because I come from a food service background, where I owned a sports bar. I had to carry out restaurant.
And in those two models, I was constrained by time. And so you know, you’re at your restaurant 13, 14 hours a day. You know, you’re sourcing food. You’re working all day. There’s always labor shortages, and issues like that. Something always comes up that just kind of takes you away from other things that you would like to be doing.
The thing that was so appealing to me in regards to the food truck industry is that I may start my day off very early, but I’m done by 1 o’clock, 2 o’clock almost every single day, unless I choose to take the truck out a separate time, a second time on that specific day. You know, and so for me, it’s given me the opportunity to maintain better relationships with my friends, my family. It actually gives me an opportunity to not just work my business, but kind of think it through.
And that’s one thing that I think people take for granted is, the opportunity to sit there and actually map out your vision, and your plan for the business. And it’s so hard to do that when you’re working 13, 14 hours a day. You’re so consumed by being– in regards to the restaurant business, being in your actual brick and mortar. By the time you get home, you’re just like the heck with it, I’m tired. And you just kind of move things on to the next day.
And so the food truck business gives you a lot of flexibility. I can take my kids to school every day. I can pick them up from school every day. I never miss any sporting events. Whatever it is, I’m able to attend, and I create my own schedule, which is great.
And the second part to that was, why chicken? To me, when you’re in the food business, there’s a lot of trucks that do pork, and they do burgers. But you know, I think you’re kind of limited on what you can do with the burger. You can turn a burger to be a cheeseburger, or a hamburger, or you can make it a gourmet burger. But with chicken, I appeal to such a wide audience.
You know, I could do different ethnic cuisines. One menu I can have a pulled chicken sandwich. I could have something fried. I can have a salad. You know, I could have a wrap. And so I can go to one event with one menu and appeal to an entire family. You know, whereas, if you’re limited to just the burger, there’s not much you can really do just with the hamburger. And so we’ve had a lot of success, because the options that we are able to present to our clients.
So let’s talk for a minute about the big picture of business ownership. Could you talk to us a little bit about some of the compliance and/or regulatory issues that are often overlooked? Or perhaps that maybe you overlooked that business owners should be aware of? And I know you’ve been involved in a number of different businesses. So if you can look at from that sphere, we’d love to hear what your thoughts are on that.
Definitely, definitely. The first thing I would say would be to find a mentor. Find someone that’s kind of been in your shoes before in regards to the industry that you choose to operate in, whatever that is. And they can be the first resource in regards to helping you navigate all the business regulations that you need to establish. But also, there are so many small business associations in Ohio that you can go to. And those are great resources as well.
Some of the most overlooked compliance issues that I see when I’m speaking with people that always want to venture in the business, they don’t understand the importance of establishing yourself as an entity, as separating your personal assets from your business assets. That is so, so important. You know, and you have to make sure you also create the right business entity, you know?
LLC doesn’t completely keep you separated from your personal assets. You might want to be an S-CORP or a C-Corp, or you’re going to be a sole proprietor. So there’s a lot of things that I think that in that regard that people need to do some research, and figure out what business structure is best for them. Also, the importance of insurance. I find a lot of people that operate their businesses, and they have no business insurance.
To me, that’s like business suicide. I mean, I don’t understand how people operate that way. Establishing workman’s comp if you’re going to be hiring staff, and you make sure those things are established, just so you’re protected, and your business is protected. Every day things happen. You just never know.
Establish the right business entity, business insurance, things like workman’s comp, paying your taxes. You are responsible for sales tax and things of that nature, you know. And if you overlook that, it piles up, and then it creates a whole other issue for you down the road legally. So those are some of the issues that I think are most overlooked in regards to people that are starting off their entrepreneurial journey.
I’m going to guess that there have been some hiccups along the way. Rick, can you share with us some maybe not so obvious lessons that you’ve learned as a small business owner?
My wife and I were kind of discussing this a few weeks ago, just some of the things that we wish we kind of knew before we got into any journey. And to me, the topic that kept coming up was, how important it is to have access to capital. You know, because everyone wants to get into business. Hey, you know, I have $50,000 in my 401(k). I want to take that out. I want to start this company X, Y, and Z.
Well, that’s fine. You might have the money to start up. There’s going to be a period of time where you’re trying to establish yourself and trying to grow You have to spend some resources on marketing and advertising. And you might be spending a lot of those funds before any income is coming in. And so if you don’t have established credit lines, or access to reserve capital, it is so hard to maintain and sustain in business.
And that’s one of the things that I learned early on in the game. So for me now, it’s like, I won’t get into any venture unless I know I can sustain at least a year or so without any revenue coming in. And so I think that’s a huge thing that entrepreneurs need to really factor into their startup costs, you know. How much capital will it take if I were not to generate $1 for six months, or 12 months?
You could even take that to personal expenses, because we see business plans where an owner is not taking in income yet. They have personal expenses that need to be paid too. So you can’t be shy about making sure that you have enough money up front to cover your personal expenses, your business expenses, and just being prepared for that at the beginning is a great piece of advice.
Well, let’s talk about this off season. But in preparing for this podcast, you may not be having an off season right now. But normally, the food truck business is slow during the winter. And I can only imagine how the pandemic has impacted you. But how do you keep the momentum going? Bad weather, COVID, you know, is there a particular marketing strategy, or a business tweak, or maybe something you’ve adopted that on social media that’s really been successful for you? So I guess what’s your secret sauce, Rick?
Our secret to the food truck game is simple. We’re accessible to people. You know, and so even for instance, last Thursday and we had that horrendous snowstorm, we were out. We were on the truck. And we had a killer day at Hillcrest Hospital.
And so you know, it’s just funny. People are posting all these pictures. And I’m sending pictures selfies of myself outside the truck, you know? But what we do is, not only do we vend at hospitals, which is a huge opportunity for food trucks in Northeast Ohio, especially during this time during the pandemic. Because a lot of the dining services have shut down in hospitals. So there’s very, very, very limited options that the staff, as well as guests have in regards to just going to grab a meal.
So we established a partnership with Hillcrest Hospital in Mayfield to where we park our truck literally right by the valet service. And I offer a convenience to everyone. So I have someone stationed inside the building, so they never have to come out in the cold. So I have someone that’s inside. They take orders. We cook on a truck. We run the food right inside to them. We give them an order number.
So to me, it’s all about creating that convenience, and that customer service that you provide for people. You know, and so we’ve done that throughout the winter. We established two contracts with Amazon, which is huge, you know. We have two of the Amazons here in northeast Ohio. So we’re able to go there on lunch shifts and serve the people, as well as neighborhoods.
So the neighborhood food truck scene is huge in the summertime. But what I said to myself was, these families still have these kids. They still have these busy schedules. And they’re still constrained by time. They would still purchase from a food truck in the winter.
So I established relationships with a couple of local PTO organizations. Hey, I’ll donate a percentage of my sales if you mark it that we’ll be in this specific neighborhood. And so we’ve done that like the last four weeks. And every week we sell out.
It might be on a Wednesday or Friday, but we give the guests an opportunity to email us, Facebook us, whatever they want to do with their order, the time they want to pick it up, or if they want to delivered, I always have an extra person on staff that could deliver the food within that development. So you know, you have to be creative. You definitely have to be creative. There’s so much money out here to be made in the industry, but specifically, the food truck industry in which I’m in.
That’s really interesting you’re going out to neighborhoods. You’re doing that at lunchtime, or is that dinnertime?
No, so the neighborhoods we do for dinner. And so this is something that’s very common during the summer months. Every neighborhood development in northeast Ohio has a food truck come. I mean, I probably do 50 or so a year. But now, again, like I said, the same opportunities are there in the winter.
It’s just are we willing to go out and embrace the elements, you know? And so worst case scenario, it’s cold. OK, there’s nothing we can do about it. The money is still there to be made. So we go out. And we’re there for like two or three hours, and it’s a wonderful experience.
Can you talk to us about what you’re doing to find and keep good people?
So it’s actually ironic that you ask me that. I’ve been mentoring a gentleman. I won’t disclose his name, but he’s a very prominent business owner in Lake County. He owns several restaurants. And he owns a huge sports facility here in Lake County.
And so him and his partners just ventured into the food truck business last year. And I would see them at different events. I would kind of talk to him. But we never really had a great relationship, because I didn’t know him.
So we have run into each other several times. And we finally had lunch the other day. You know, and it’s just one of the topics of conversation was on employee, staffing, and keeping good employees. I never have that issue, never, ever, ever do I have employee issues.
And I’m very thankful. It is definitely a blessing, because it’s all about how you establish your work environment, but also your pay structure, you know? And so what I always tell my staff is this, I’m going to take care of you. Do the work. Provide the service. You know, because a lot of times, they get a base pay, plus, they work off of tips. No different if they were in a restaurant.
And I always tell them, don’t worry about the money. Just worry about the service that we’re providing. Worry about the food that we’re pumping out of the truck. And if the money isn’t there, I’ll take care of you. And so because I’ve established that rapport with my staff, it’s like, we have 12 people that have been with us for years.
I mean, we have an opportunity coming up next week to be one of the two trucks at the All-Star festivities in Cleveland. And you wouldn’t imagine how many people have contacted me. Can I work? Can I work? Can I work? Can I work? I mean, these people have regular nine to fives, whatever the case may be. But the food truck industry is fun.
And my staff is able to make a lot of money. And so I make sure I pass along profits to my staff. We do end of the year Christmas parties. This year, I’m really, really, really working hard to do a end of season trip, you know? And it’ll be all expenses paid for the staff.
And so I feel that if you pour into people, they’ll run through walls for you. And they’ll do any and everything for you. So when I coach, I was always a player’s coach in business. I’m always an employee type of owner. I just say, it’s a partnership more so than I’m your boss.
Because a lot of people that I work with, they’re friends and family, honestly. And so even if we had a bad day, we’re going to get together later on that evening. And so it’s like, we always have to see each other. And I just want to make it fun.
You know, so I’m thinking to myself, now, this is really selfish. I got a 14 and 1/2 year old, Rick. He’s going to be ready to work soon. So how young will you hire? Have you ever had 15-year-olds?
Oh no, for sure. And so in our business, they can take orders. Order taking is the simplest process on the truck. And in terms of the staff, you make the most money. You take orders, and you get tips. You know, it’s a very, very simple process.
You know, my oldest son, who’s 18 now, but he’s grown up in the restaurant business. He was working at nine-years-old. You know, I’ve probably shouldn’t have. But that’s what it is. Small business, your kids work for you. And it’s a fun atmosphere. But definitely, definitely, your son can come work for us any time. We just purchased our second truck, which we’re building out this summer. So any time.
I’m going to throw a question in here, kind of going back to something you touched on in the first question I asked you. But you talked a little bit about having a background in food business before you started this. How important do you think that is? I know a lot of food franchises require that you have a background in the food industry before they’ll even consider bringing you on. I mean, do you have an opinion on that? Or what’s been your take on your background being in some food business, and bringing it to this? Is that a pretty necessary component?
In regards to the food industry, or any industry in general, I think you need to have a basic understanding of how things operate. But I’m a firm believer in– how should I put this? All your experiences are going to be what you need to learn. The experiences that you go through are going to be the teachers, right? So everything that you’re going through on a daily basis, there’s no book. There’s nothing that is like A to Z that’s going to tell you every experience that you’re going to go through, how are you going to handle every hiccup along the way.
And so in the food industry, if you do have a basic understanding of how a kitchen operates, you know, I think you have a slight advantage. But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with jumping into it. You know, because I feel that your heart, you know, and your passion is going to push you through.
And so if you have a passion for something, you know, especially in the food industry, might not know everything. But that passion, that desire is going to push you to learn more, to kind of be a sponge, reach out to people, and see what information you can get from them to help you be successful. I don’t have a culinary degree. I don’t have any of those things.
I wanted to own a bar, so I bought a bar. I had no bar experience. I turned it into a sports bar. Then I went to a carryout. Then I went to a food truck. I had none of those experiences prior to. I’ve always worked with kids. And I’ve always coached.
But I said, well, this is what I want to do. And so I have to make it happen, you know? And I tell people all the time, especially a lot of family members, you know, I want to get into the truck business. I have all these great ideas. And I always tell them, it’s not so how well you can cook. How great of a business person are you?
It’s not about– we’re not fine dining. It’s how fast can you push out a quality product, and provide great service. That’s the business. And so if you can communicate well with people, I think in any endeavor, you’ll be successful, because I think that’s one of the most overlooked aspects of business is the ability to not only verbally communicate, but also written communication. Because you have to deal with clients.
And I think that’s one advantage that I have over a lot of people in the food truck industry is that I’m very responsive, especially when it comes to signing contracts and things like that. I’m like on it. Because there’s another truck always that is willing to come in and take away your opportunity.
Well, and I liked when you were talking about some of the things you’re doing to keep your food truck moving this winter. Because it really sounds like you’re thinking not about what can I do so much, but what are my customers’ needs? In this, especially over the last couple of years, how can I meet their needs? And it seems like you’re really putting yourself in your customer shoes as far as still needing meals. Convenience is still important, or is maybe even more important. And you’re really thinking outside the box to meet your customer needs.
It’s not just about hey, what do we need to do. We need to increase sales. So a lot of people just think about pushing their service, or their product in the same manner, but just needing more people, which can be a lot of work. But you’re thinking, how can I meet my clients or customers where they are today. So I really liked that aspect about how you’re changing your business to meet the needs of your customer. I think the businesses that have done that in the past couple of years are the ones that are succeeding, and thriving, and doing well. So kudos to you for doing that.
s going to plug your book here a little bit. You wrote a book called, So You Want to be a Food Trucker. And it is sold on Amazon, and can be found at Barnes & Noble for anybody interested in picking that up. What inspired you to write that book? And did it do anything internally changing how you did business?
I love writing. Ever since I was younger, I never had an issue in college writing papers. I’d rather write a 50 page paper than take a test any day of the week. And so I always had a passion for writing. But I never knew truly how to put my words on paper. And I never knew what I was going to write about.
And so I started the book when the pandemic started. I just had all this free time. And I was uncertain to how it was going to affect my business. And so I said, you know, this two month period in which we were shut down, this is an opportunity for me to get this project started. And so I wrote the book in two months. But I was literally writing for about four, or five, six hours a day.
And I was making my wife read it, and edit it every day, you know. For her, it wasn’t a great experience. But for me, I enjoyed it, you know. And so my cousin, who is a self-published author of probably 20 books, she helped me go through the publishing process. One of my mentors also is an author as well. And so they kind of showed me the steps, helped push me, motivate me to finish the project, you know. And so now, it’s out there.
And it’s more so if people have read Rich Dad Poor Dad in the Robert Kiyosaki series, it’s more along those lines. It’s not like, hey, you have to do X, Y, and Z, these steps to have a food truck and be successful. But it’s more so like my journey in the food truck business, things I’ve learned along the way. And then I also get some tidbits that can help people be successful as well.
Well Rick, thanks so much for being with us today. We greatly appreciate you sharing your business knowledge with our listeners. As a reminder to those of you listening, Rick’s book is titled So You Want to be a Food Trucker. And you can find it by visiting Amazon, also at Barnes & Noble, or Rick’s website, which is roaminghunger.com. Be sure to like and follow Rick on Facebook and Instagram at jackpotchickenfoodtruck, all one word.
We’ll certainly include this info in our show notes, so that’ll be online at bizchatohio.com. But before we sign off today, Rick, do you have any small business resources that you suggest entrepreneurs stay connected with as they pursue continued business success? Like do you have any go to websites, or folks that you follow, social media, et cetera that you’d recommend?
The Chamber of Commerce is a huge one. There’s a lot of opportunities for people to go there and network with people outside of their industry. You know, because I think there’s a lot of useful information that you can gain from people just through conversation in regards to every aspect of business. But also, I’m a huge Facebook group guy. And so there is a lot of food truck groups that I’m a part of, and so you get to hear different perspectives from truck owners from across the world, actually. It’s not just here in the United States.
And then also, Twitter, I mean to me, Twitter is the most useful social media platform right now. And I gained so much useful information in the truck business from people on Twitter. It’s just a great way for us to communicate on a social media platform.
We’ll make sure that all of those resources are shared in our show notes. So thanks again for joining us. It’s been a real pleasure.
Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.
Thanks, Rick. Thanks for listening. Look for Biz Chat Ohio on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, or Spotify. And subscribe to receive our latest episodes and business blogs at bizchatohio.com. If you would like to learn more about the Ohio Small Business Development Center in Lakeland, visit our website at www.lakelandcc.edu/sbdc.