Editor's Note: This is part 2 in a two-part series chronicling David Choi's journey in the food truck business.
David Choi has a story that will seem familiar to many food truck operators. The need for a commissary turned him into a brick-and-mortar restaurateur.
After launching Seoul Taco food truck in 2011, Choi's food truck serving Korean and Mexican food steadily grew, as noted in part 1 of this series. Before the end of his first year, he needed a commissary.
|David Choi works with artists to add local feel to his restaurants.|
"As we ran out of room to prep, we needed our own commissary," Choi said. "I just wanted a place we could prep for our food truck."
He invested $70,000 to turn an 800-square-foot building in St. Louis, Missouri, into his commissary, which doubled as a restaurant.
He hired eight more employees in addition to the two he already had, and pretty soon he was serving 800 to 1,000 menu items a day.
Food truck provides a foundation
Operating a food truck proved a great foray into a brick-and-mortar restaurant. The restaurant, with its additional space, seemed easy compared to the pressure he was used to from working on the truck.
"We could average doing a hundred tickets in an hour, or an hour and a half," he said, reflecting on the skills he and his two employees honed working on the food truck.
One learns to improvise preparing and serving food on a truck due to the restricted space, he said, compared to a restaurant.
Choi gradually expanded the restaurant's menu. Seoul Taco offers a Korean-Mexican spin on classic nachos. One nacho option combines corn tortilla chips with queso blanco, green onion, roasted sesame seeds, kimchi and sour cream for a unique flavor combination.
Meanwhile, he replaced the overlay for his truck. The first overlay he bought cost around $2,500, but it peeled off after a year and had to be replaced.
"In year two, I spent $10,000 for an overlay with Vinyl Images, an acclaimed Missouri company known for its long lasting wraps," he said. "At the time, we were the only food truck (in St. Louis) to do a chrome wrap, which has a mirrored film to it."
"I think it's important to get good quality vinyl wrap, even though you pay a little bit more," he said.
Growth continues, restaurant expands
Two years after opening the restaurant, Choi needed more space and relocated to a 4,600-square-foot building, also a former restaurant, that could seat 160, doubling the number of the first restaurant. The renovation ran about $300,000. Choi took out a 7-year Small Business Administration loan to cover the cost.
The second restaurant came three months later in Columbia, Missouri, a college town about an hour and a half west of St. Louis. He used an SBA loan for that restaurant as well.
The third restaurant came a year later, in Champagne, Illinois, followed three months later by the fourth restaurant in downtown Chicago.
It was around this time that he launched his second food truck, also based in St. Louis. This time, he purchased a larger — but still used — food truck. He's now preparing to open a fifth restaurant in Chesterfield, Missouri, later this month.
Honing the local flavor
Inspired by the brand's "street" roots, Choi collaborates with local artists to bring the excitement and vivacity of urban culture to each restaurant.
He also incorporates both Mexican and Korean themes in his interior design. The Chicago location, for example, features a street-art inspired mural of "luchadores" — Mexican wrestlers — practicing Tae Kwon Do — a Korean martial art.
Future growth ahead
Choi, who now has 50 full-time equivalent employees, runs a very profitable business. The trucks, for example, each bring in about $250,000 per year, while the restaurants average more than $1 million each in annual sales. These numbers have inspired Choi to plan for growth, but he understands that he can't move forward without the right people.
The hardest part of the job is finding the right management and employees to take ownership of the truck, he said.
Elliot Maras Elliot Maras is the editor of KioskMarketplace.com and FoodTruckOperator.com.