Seattle pair parlay Korean taco truck into brick-and-mortar chain

| by Elliot Maras
Seattle pair parlay Korean taco truck into brick-and-mortar chain

Roz Edison, right, and Kamala Saxton were influenced by Kogi BBQ food truck in Los Angeles. Photo courtesy of Marination Mobile.

Roz Edison and Kamala Saxton didn't plan to become foodservice entrepreneurs. Edison was an academic advisor in the construction management department at the University of Washington while Saxton was a graduate student in sports management.

Marination Mobile provided the foundation for a 4-unit restaurant chain in Seattle. Photo courtesy of Marination Mobile.

When the two friends learned about the Kogi Korean BBQ food truck, launched in 2008 by chef Roy Choi in Los Angeles, they caught "food truck fever." 

"Kogi's success in L.A. not only made us hungry, but also inspired us to talk about what there was in Seattle," Edison said. "At the time, the Seattle food truck scene had not really developed much." 

"We had a set of professional skills," Edison said, as well as a network of contacts that were supportive of their ambitions to start a food truck. "We have a lot of friends that like to eat," she said, along with some who worked in the foodservice industry.

Their food truck, Marination Mobile, became one of the first food trucks in Seattle when it launched in 2009. Little did they know at the time that they would expand to four brick-and-mortar sites and employ around 150 people.

They did know the type of cuisine they wanted to provide: a Hawaiian Korean taco truck, which would be unique to the Seattle market. Saxton is half Hawaiian and half Korean.

After doing some field research on food trucks in Los Angeles, where the industry was more established, they had a good idea what type of investment they needed to start a truck of their own. They did not wish to release numbers.

They ended up purchasing a used food truck from BG Catering Truck, a food truck builder in Santa Ana, California, with new kitchen appliances, including a flat top, burners, a steam well and a fryer.

In addition to tacos, for which there are six varieties, they served kimchi fried rice, and sliders on sweet Hawaiian buns.

Early success

Edison and Saxton immediately found that office buildings and businesses were generally welcoming of the truck at lunch time. They were surprised by how many people would stand in the rain to wait to eat tacos.

"It allowed us to get started and get a little bit of money," Edison said, which allowed them to make improvements to the vehicle. They upgraded the electrical system and did some mechanical repairs to the truck.

"In the beginning, it was fun to connect with these businesses and organizations," Edison said. 

They posted their schedule on Facebook and their website and made a point of not changing the schedule once it was posted.

"We were always at the same location on the same day," Edison said. She said maintaining a consistent schedule and menu were key to the truck's success. 

They kept the truck at night at a kitchen commissary and hired a mobile truck washing service to clean the vehicle periodically.

Washington State at the time required food trucks to prepare food in a kitchen commissary. Their first commissary was the kitchen in the back of a coffee shop.

A lucky break: 'Good Morning America'

The duo caught a lucky break when they were featured on "Good Morning America" shortly after launching the truck in June 2009.

"It kind of kicked off the momentum that lasted for a couple years until the rest of the food truck market caught up to us," Edison said. She credits much of their success to the truck's unique menu. Word of mouth has proven to be the best possible advertising.

"It was a blast," Edison said, looking back on the first two years when people were just discovering food trucks. "People enjoyed it." They would serve as many as 350 people in a three-hour period.

They did not participate in food truck festivals, which require a participation fee. In addition, the types of food sold at festivals is not conducive to the margins and volume that Edison and Saxton wanted to make.

There were no food truck booking services when they started the business, and the company has not had any use for these services once they became available.

Edison and Saxton were able to recover their initial investment in the truck in the first year, which is much faster than the industry norm.

They began taking catering work within the first year.

Over the next several years, they upgraded to larger commissaries.

In retrospect, Edison thinks Marination Mobile was fortunate that it came into existence at an opportune time.

Expansion into brick-and-mortar

The positive customer response to the truck encouraged them to start a brick-and-mortar restaurant. They opened their first brick-and-mortar restaurant, Marination Station, leasing a building that had been used as a smoothie shop after a year and a half. The restaurant gave them a way to extend their unique cuisine to consumers in a densely populated part of town where they could not take the truck. 

Once their first brick-and-mortar restaurant was established, they were able to host catering events at the restaurant.

While the restaurant required longer hours than the truck, it had the advantage of not having to serve large numbers of customers all at once.

"It was like a bigger version of our truck," Edison said. "It's a different vibe; it's a longer day part," in addition to having greater capacity. They were also able to extend the menu and serve alcohol.

The truck had already created some awareness of their brand, and they promoted the restaurant's opening on Facebook.

They anticipated a two-year payback period for the first restaurant. They were able to cover the restaurant investment using their earnings and their savings.

The second restaurant, Marination ma kai, came about two years later, in 2013. Marination ma kai is larger and overlooks the Seattle waterfront. Two more restaurants, Marination 6th & Virginia and Super Six, were added in 2015.

The business will continue to expand this year, but Edison did not wish to reveal yet what type of expansion will be next.

The immediate goal is to sustain the health of the existing business. The owners are documenting operational procedures.

The hardest part of the business is finding and retaining qualified staff.

"We just want to be the best company we can be so we can still be here in five or 10 years," Edison said. "We're very proud of being a very diverse, open minded company. We try to be a role model."


Topics: Business Strategy and Profitability, Customer Service / Experience, Equipment & Supplies, Food & Beverage, Franchising & Growth, Staffing & Training



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

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