A mission to help leads a Texas family into mobile food

| by Elliot Maras
A mission to help leads a Texas family into mobile food

Anna Hutto wanted her family to start a food truck to raise money to help people in impoverished countries. Photo courtesy of the Hutto family.

If you're going to get into the food truck business, Austin, Texas, might not be your first choice. Last month, Midway Food Park closed after five years, citing market saturation.

The Melted Truck mainly serves office buildings in Austin, Texas.

Austin especially might not be your first choice if you have no foodservice experience. Or if you happen to live four hours away in Tyler, Texas.

But when Dr. and Mrs. Steve Hutto's teenage daughter, Anna, said she wanted to start a food truck in Austin to raise money to help impoverished people in third world countries, the Huttos didn't think they had much choice.

"She really begged us to do this," said Anna's mother, Nanette. "When your kid has a passion, you just have to go with it."

Two years after launching the Melted Truck in Austin, the Huttos' journey has taken them through two managers, the acquisition of some hot dog stands and an intense food truck business education. 

The journey began four years ago when Anna took a trip to the Dominican Republic and decided she had to do something to help the poverty stricken people she saw near the Haitian border. She got the idea to start a food truck while visiting Austin and finding herself fascinated by that city's food truck culture. Her idea was to have a food truck and donate the profits to an organization called International Justice Mission, which works to reduce poverty, human trafficking and violence in third world countries.

Consultant gives direction

The Huttos, with no foodservice industry experience, began researching food trucks and came across a consultant in Austin, Eric Silverstein, who had built his food truck, The Peached Tortilla, into a brick-and-mortar restaurant and a full-service catering business.

"He was the perfect person to teach us how to do it correctly," Nanette said.

Silverstein instructed the Huttos in developing a menu, purchasing a vehicle, outfitting the truck with a kitchen, hiring a manager and lining up food suppliers. They invested $120,000 to launch the Melted Truck, specializing in slider sandwiches.

"The truck was built, the menu was developed, then it was just a matter of getting on social media and getting the website designed," Nanette said.

The first manager they hired was an experienced chef who was able to arrange work sites for the truck to serve on a scheduled basis. The truck launched in June of 2016.

A new manager brings new focus

The manager was a good chef, but he did not have the business management experience that the truck needed. In January of 2017, the Huttos replaced the manager with an executive chef with extensive catering experience. This second manager was able to build a significant catering business, which proved more lucrative than serving employees at work sites.

"For us, the goal is to build that special events and catering arm, because we think that's where we're going to get more revenue and profit," Nanette said. "There's less waste, and because it's such large quantity, it's more of a revenue stream."

In addition, the amount of food and labor needed for most catering work is more predictable than serving food at work sites at meal times.

The Melted Truck established successful relationships with three catering management companies that find catering jobs for foodservice providers in exchange for a percentage-based fee: ZeroCater, ezCater and Cater2.me.

Close to half the company's business is now from catering, Nanette said.

"They expect very high standards, and you can very easily get booted off their lists if things don't turn out well," she said for the catering management companies.

An expansion into hot dog stands

In 2017, the company added a hot dog stand business.

In March of 2017, the Huttos came across an opportunity to purchase a well established hot dog stand business in downtown Austin called The Best Wurst. The business was available at an attractive price, and it had a loyal following.

While the Melted Truck serves customers at office buildings during the day, the three Best Wurst carts serve urban locations in the evening. Both the Melted Truck and Best Wurst menus are used for serving catering clients.

A second management change

While 2017 brought better revenue, the Huttos did not feel costs were being sufficiently managed. So rather than hiring a new manager, they decided to assume management responsibilities themselves, a change that requires them to be in Austin on a weekly basis.

"We've decided we're going to just put people in charge of different siloes of each business instead of being manager over everything," Nanette said. "We're going to step in and be managers."

They also hired a social media manager, making a total of seven full-time positions for the two businesses, not counting Steve and Nanette.

Nanette Hutto thinks the mobile food business is hard but rewarding.

Steve, in addition to being a gastroenterologist, has business experience, having launched businesses in the storage, agriculture and real estate industries. Nanette, for her part, has a Ph.D. in human and organizational development.

"We're operating under a new model and we have our fingers in everything," Nanette said. "We might be able to go back to a management model, but right now, we're taking over." 

Year three brings hope

The family is now looking forward to its third year in the business.

"It's a tough business, and a tough business to be profitable at, but it can be done," Nanette said. "It can be very rewarding and you meet a lot of great people, and I love the whole creativity of it." One of the greatest rewards is seeing the joy on peoples' faces when they're eating your food.

Daughter Anna, who is presently spending her senior year of high school in Italy, is contributing blogs to the website and will take a more active role in the business when she returns.

In keeping with Anna's vision, they plan to contribute all profit from the business to International Justice Mission.

Topics: Business Strategy and Profitability, Customer Service / Experience, Food & Beverage, Independent Operators, Operations Management

Elliot Maras

Elliot Maras is the editor of KioskMarketplace.com and FoodTruckOperator.com.

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