Moral support and a willingness to change help Chattanooga food truck overcome a setback

| by Elliot Maras
Moral support and a willingness to change help Chattanooga food truck overcome a setback

Jacob D'Angelo and his wife, Bryanne, overcame a setback to put their business back on a growth track.

One of the most important characteristics of a successful entrepreneur is the ability to turn a setback into a learning experience.

Jacob D'Angelo, owner of "Rolling J's," a food truck, catering and concessions business in Chattanooga, Tennessee, faced his test last year. His family-owned and -operated business was doing more than $100,000 a year when his food truck's engine blew out on him.

"We went from top sales in July to no sales in August," he said.

Jacob D'Angelo had a kitchen installed in a used truck
to launch "Rolling J's" in 2013.

D'Angelo, aided by his wife, Bryanne, and encouraged by a supportive community, reassessed his business and put together a different business model. The business recovered once he was back on the road in November, and he is now in the process of opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant, which he anticipates will more than double his existing business.

In the process of revamping his business, D'Angelo recognized the importance of establishing a reliable line of credit. He believes this has been a key to his success, and he encourages all food truck owners with hopes for expansion to do the same.

The hardest part of being an entrepreneur, he said, is adapting to change.

"We thought that we were identified by that truck solely, but we realized we weren't," he said.

Identifying an opportunity

D'Angelo spent more than a decade as a chef in various Chattanooga restaurants preparing Southern gourmet food before getting the itch to launch a food truck in 2013. At the time, he was one of a handful of Chattanooga food trucks, which were becoming increasingly popular in the area.

"I wanted to really work for myself for the first time, not feeling like I was preparing something that somebody else would get the credit for," he said. He also saw it as an easier and more affordable way to start a foodservice business.

The name, "Rolling J's" is taken from his first name, although it sometimes lends itself to a few cannabis-related jokes.

"We're doing this because we love it," he said. "I feel like that just rang it, ‘Rollin' J's.'"

He partnered with a colleague who provided him with a used, 27-foot-long Freightliner step van with a Grumman body. They took the truck to a metal fabricator who installed kitchen equipment. DiAngelo's initial investment was around $70,000. 

Food truck education begins

Then began his education in food truck operations. His first event was a fireman's festival.

"We actually did really good that first event," he said. The food truck pulled in about $1,500 in sales. The second event, however, only did about $50.

Jacob D'Angelo learned which food truck events are well attended
through a process of trial and error.

"It's a big process to learning what events make money, and which ones don't," he said. "You can't just park your truck in a parking lot and expect people to pull over and start buying food from you."

He has used social media, established a website and canvassed businesses. Once you establish a reputation, he said "the calls start to roll in."

Regulations have been a challenge, as Chattanooga has restricted the trucks from parking in public places. Fortunately, he's been able to find private properties to serve at.

The business grew steadily, posting double-digit yearly increases. They expanded into catering, and by 2017, the business was doing more than $100,000 a year, taking the truck out three or four days a week. Last year, the business increased by 25 percent over the prior year.

Disaster strikes

Then the engine died.

"It had just come out of the shop for a tune-up," he said.

It was a day D'Angelo won't forget. They were returning from an evening gig at a retail distribution warehouse when a rod shot through the engine as the truck was in motion. When the truck stopped, he saw all the oil draining out of the engine.

"When you get these old trucks, sometimes you just don't know what's been done to them before you get them," he said.

D'Agnelo's partner took the mishap hard and wanted out of the business.

While being able to buy out his partner offered him the opportunity to become the sole owner, he didn't have the capital to buy his partner out and buy a new truck engine. 

The catering side of the business and a concessions stand they had taken over at a local stadium were bringing in about half the normal amount of revenue. It wasn't enough to cover the cost of a new truck engine, which he pegged at around $15,000.

D'Angelo didn't get discouraged, though. The moral support from the community encouraged him to rebuild the business.

"The community has rallied behind us," he said. "If you provide good food and good service, they stick behind you. They get involved. They want to help you out."

"The breakdown really opened our eyes," he said.

Part two in this two-part series will explore how D'Angelo rebuilt the business, and the important role that establishing a line of credit played in his comeback.

Photos courtesy of Rollin' J's.

Topics: Business Strategy and Profitability, Equipment & Supplies, Food & Beverage, Independent Operators, Staffing & Training, Vehicles

Elliot Maras
Elliot Maras is the editor of and

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