Today's food trucks are a hot, growing segment of the food industry. They're gourmet kitchens on wheelsfast, efficient, mobile with varied menus bringing ethnic flavors and fusion cuisine to a hip, urban clientele. When Lauren Smith '08 graduated from CMC, she had no plans to ever join this industry. Why would she? As an international relations major, she expected that her future career would take her into the field of human rights.
But as she considered her options, Smith became involved with the plans of a fellow grad a friend from Pomona College -- that centered on bringing good-tasting, high quality cuisine (like classic burgers or skirt steak with roasted mango and Hatch chile) to Bay Area foodies. The result of their partnership is a new food truck, Doc's of the Bay.
We caught up with the 25 year-old Dallas native before the start of a busy work day to ask her what it's like to run a small business on four wheels.
Q: Your post-grad plans changed so much: Do people ask you how you switched from a career in human rights to the food and catering industry?
A: Absolutely, that's a question I hear all the time, especially from CMCers! (laughs) That's because most CMC grads are so wildly successful, and usually in finance or law or government. There aren't too many going into the food industry , that's for sure! That said, everyone's been so supportive. There's a strong Claremont community in the Bay Area and everyone has been great about coming to the truck and getting the word out about us.
Q: What did you do after graduation?
A: I wanted to travel before getting a real job, and then I planned on pursuing a career in human rights upon my return home. I was thinking about working for an NGO or the UN doing international human rights law. I've always loved cooking, but I never thought of making a career out of it.
Q: Why not?
A: All my life I've enjoyed cooking, I even started a catering company one summer during college. But I never thought of it as an end, it was more just a means to make people happy. When I was presented with an amazing culinary opportunity after graduating, however, I figured, why not? I've got the rest of my life to pursue my career goals. One of my friends at CMC, Emery Mitchem '07, is from Ojai and he and his family are good friends with Anna Thomas, the author of the "Vegetarian Epicure" cookbooks. I have always loved her cookbooks and Emery was kind enough to connect the two of us. After meeting in Ojai one afternoon near the end of graduation, she asked me if I would be interested in helping her finish her new cookbook. I moved to Ojai the day after graduation and helped edit and work on recipes with her. I had a fantastic experience which set the bar for my life expectations quite high.
Q: So that's when you decided to go in another direction with your career, right?
A: Not yet! (laughs) I did some other things first I backpacked through Southeast Asia and lived in Cambodia working for a human rights NGO for a while and from there I went to San Francisco and took a job as a finance paralegal in a corporate law firm. I was still thinking about a career in the legal profession. Ironically, it was the smartest move I could've made before we started Doc's of the Bay.
Working there gave me unique insights into what we'd need to run a small businessnot just which state forms and legal documents were important, but also how to have the right professional attitude. I was working with a wide range of people, and my job included speaking with executives on the phone all the time. I learned that I can talk to anyone, and that's the kind of confidence you need when you decide to run a business of your own.
Q: It took a bit of persuading to get you to join Doc's of the Bay, didn't it?
A: (Laughs) Well, yes. My friend, Pomona grad Zak Silverman '08 was working in a caf? in Berkeley and started doing research about food trucks. The whole industry was just burgeoning and it seemed liked the perfect time to enter into the market. Zak was working on the business plan and I was just consulting. Soon, several microfinance organizations were interested in the business and I realized that this business was actually going to be a reality. Zak (deftly) convinced me to quit my job I was also working 70-hour weeks and looking for a change and join him in this endeavor.
Q: Did you ever figure out why food trucks are becoming so popular?
A: I'd have to say it is because of the low capital requirements to start up as a business. In this economy, it's an ideal model because there are fewer barriers to entry than there are for brick-and-mortar businesses. For young people like us, it serves as a very good litmus test to see if we can build and maintain a successful business.
Q: What other advantages does a food truck have that a brick-and-mortar restaurant doesn't?
A: Your business model is more flexible. You can go straight to the demand rather than supply clientele in one location. To run a food truck, you have to understand your target demographics and then get out there and find them.
Q: You've mentioned the advantages of running your own business. Now, how about the disadvantages?
A: Well, I joined the business in February and it's been the longest seven months of my life! (laughs) A part of that has to do with the permit situation in the Bay Area. We've had to fight against competitors, the City of San Francisco and various communities in order to get our permits. We haven't always been successful, unfortunately (our permit application in the Haight was denied due to community objections).
Another thing is that when you're running your own business, there's no time card. And the fruits of your labor are very obvious. If you put a lot of time and attention into your food or another aspect of your business, the results will immediately show. Failing to put enough effort into an aspect of your business will also become immediately apparent. It is so different from my previous job at the law firm: There were so many layers between what I did and what was turned out as the final product of a deal. There are no layers anymore!
Q: One last thing, Lauren. Where did the title of the business come from? What does "Doc's of the Bay" mean?
A: We asked our friends and family to suggest names for the business, and somebody found this great excerpt from Steinbeck's novel Cannery Row. It talks about how Doc, one of the main characters, likes hamburgers and wants to know what a beer milkshake tastes like. It seems a little esoteric, but there is something funny about it that is perfect for us.