Martin Setiantoko attended culinary school in Malang, Indonesia, and dreamed of opening his own restaurant. When he moved to New York at 24 with only $150 in his pocket, his dream seemed far off. But he set aside part of his paycheck as a dishwasher every month for almost five years until he had enough to open a restaurant in Virginia.
It was hard. Setiantoko said that during the first six months, he was broke and his body hurt from working so much. It took three years before he saw a profit.
With his profits, he expanded his business, but instead of opening another restaurant, he bought two trucks, from which he sells food curbside at lunchtime in Washington. That decision really paid off: Most of his income now comes from his trucks.
Setiantoko also made a smart marketing decision. Instead of parking his trucks and waiting for customers to try the food he made inside them, he took his cooking outside. He prepared his best dish, saté — a popular Southeast Asian dish of grilled meat served in a sauce — in the open to entice people with its aroma. It was almost all of the publicity he needed. “That’s the beautiful thing about food trucks,” he said. “You don’t have to do the marketing.”
Today, Setiantoko still has challenges, which he defines as space and time. He runs his restaurant and trucks out of one kitchen and divides his time among three locations. Business ownership is stressful, he said, but it’s worth it “to see a long line of people waiting to try my food.”
When Facebook employee Krysia Zajonc left the social media giant a few years ago, she wanted to work in the food business. In 2012, she co-founded Local Food Lab, an incubator for food-related startups that has built a network of 2,500 entrepreneurs from 60 countries. Most of them are restaurant owners or food producers.
Recently named to the 2015 class of Forbes magazine’s “30 under 30: Social Entrepreneurs,” Zajonc shares her advice with ShareAmerica readers.
Your food business should …
make sure there is a need for your products. It sounds obvious, but it’s often overlooked. Ask yourself, “Do people want what I’m selling? Or am I just trying to sell it because I love it?” So many times people have a family recipe that they love, and they rush out to sell it before making sure it’s something the market will love.
Don’t make the mistake of …
thinking you will get rich in this industry. Food is a small-margin business. Just as Mr. Setiantoko loves seeing a long line of people waiting to try his food, your reward must come because you love feeding people and working with flavors. Don’t go into it wanting to be a billionaire. That is a bad attitude.
A risk-free way to test your product is …
to host a public event, even in someone else’s restaurant. Mr. Setiantoko was clever to bring his cooking out of his truck. I’ve seen people borrow a truck from another business and rebrand it for a day with their menu. It’s so helpful to do an event and test a menu to learn people’s responses. If the food is popular, you start building a following.
If you are not plugged into a network, feed friends of your friends (who are removed from you enough to give honest opinions). Their feedback can inspire you. Marketing officers of giant companies say that if they had a million-dollar budget, they would spend 80 percent on sampling events.
Your best financial friend is …
crowdfunding. Get good at managing an early-stage email list. You can use it as a base for crowdfunding later. There are about 1,200 crowdfunding sites around the world.
Go planet-friendly, for example …
Exo, which makes protein bars using protein from cricket flour, finds that the ingredient is cost-effective and environmental. Exo broke nto a crowded market — there are hundreds of brands of protein bars. Food companies that tweak ingredients and manufacturing to be more environmental are gaining loyal followings.
Always remember …
any startup business is fraught with failure. There are no perfect scores. As you go through ups and downs, remind yourself why you’re passionate about food. That’s one of the smartest things that Martin Setiantoko did.