Twin Cities entrepreneur finds fast success with gluten-free food trailer
Auntie M's is operated by O'Konek family members (from left) Abby, Cameron, Brian and Myndi. Photo courtesy of Auntie M's.
As someone who needs to eat gluten-free food for health reasons, Brian O'Konek knew there was a demand for it.
What he didn't expect was that his gluten-free food trailer, Auntie M's, would be so quickly embraced by Twin Cities customers when he launched it this spring as a side business to his custom graphics shop.
Auntie M's, which serves Midwestern fair favorites like corn dogs, funnel cakes, funnel cake sandwiches, cheese curds and onion rings — all of which are certified by the Gluten Intolerance Group — is already doing much better than expected.
Since opening in March, the trailer has been active every week, mostly on weekends.
O'Konek has been pleasantly surprised to discover how far people will travel for gluten-free food. At every event, some customer will have driven for long as two or three hours. A customer at one event traveled six hours.
"We're doing something right," he said.
Meeting a need
By providing a trailer that serves food with Gluten Free Food Services certification, O'Konek has been able to address gluten-free consumers' common fear about dining out: having no control over food preparation.
|The gluten-free food logo has proven key to the food trailer's success.|
GFFS certification gives diners the assurance that a foodservice provider understands the requirements for gluten-free food preparation and follows established procedures that will keep them safe.
O'Konek, who has celiac disease, began following a gluten-free diet six years ago when he was diagnosed with the autoimmune disorder.
He was inspired to launch the trailer after visiting the Minnesota State Fair and realizing how few gluten-free options were available for fairgoers.
Assisted by his wife, Myndi, who brought experience in the food concessions business, O'Konek prepared gluten-free funnel cakes and corn dogs and sold them from a pop-up tent at a county fair to gauge customer response. It was overwhelmingly positive.
Finding the right vehicle for success
O'Konek knew that if he were to operate a mobile gluten-free business, he would need a mobile kitchen. Setting up a tent and transporting the food to the location was too labor-intensive.
He also knew that he wanted a trailer rather than a truck. If a truck breaks down, the business is out of operation until repairs are completed.
"If I'm going down the road and my van breaks down, I can get another van and keep pulling my trailer to the event," he said.
Another advantage of a trailer over a truck is that it provides better support for fryers, which need to be on level ground."I don't know if you could get a truck level enough to use some of our fryers," he said.
Southern Dimensions Group in Waycross, Georgia, built the trailer for O'Konek. He selected and installed the kitchen equipment himself, seeking input from the local health department.
The trailer has an upright refrigerator, a prep refrigerator, an open-pot fryer, a corn dog fryer, a funnel cake fryer and a mixer.
At his graphics shop in Paynesville, Minnesota, O'Konek was able to design a wrap for the trailer featuring the Auntie M's logo, which includes a drawing of Myndi.
The trailer was ready to roll in mid-March, three months after being hauled from Georgia to Minnesota. In all, the investment came to about $35,000.
"I've always been a do-it-yourself kind of person," said O'Konek, who has been self-employed for just about all of his working life. "I've always done my own thing. Once you've worked for yourself for so long, it's really hard to work for anybody else."
|Gluten-free corn dogs have been a best seller.|
GFFS certification was critical
Certifying a food item with GFFS requires the provision of comprehensive information about ingredients. O'Konek uses flours and cornmeal that are already certified.
"There are a lot of operating procedures and stuff that we have to have on file to make sure, if something was to happen, we can take record and follow up with them," he said.
"All of our products are our own recipe," he said. "All of our stuff is made from scratch right on the trailer." Most of the ingredients are sourced online and through Sam's Club.
|The trailer offers a variety of funnel cake desserts.|
The 6-foot GIG logo on the back of the trailer and a smaller version on the side have been a major help to the business.
At a test event, the food was not yet GFFS certified, which meant that O'Konek had to spend a lot of time explaining to customers that the food was truly gluten-free.
"We spell it out pretty clearly to give people that peace of mind," he said of the GIG logos. "Having that certification has been huge for us. ... [Otherwise], you spend your day answering questions and trying to validate yourself."
Another advantage O'Konek had going for him was a supportive family. As with the graphics shop, the food trailer has been a family affair, including Brian, Myndi and their children, Cameron, 15, and Abigail, 13.
Once the truck was up and running, O'Konek had to "learn the ropes" — finding the best events and locations. Part two of this two-part series will explore the next phase of his mobile foodservice education.
Elliot Maras is the editor of KioskMarketplace.com and FoodTruckOperator.com.