This week in our career-advice column, a food-truck operator tells us what it takes to keep the chow on the road.
Name: Shontelle Pinch
Job: Co-owner of the Gourmet Bitches (with Bianka Matchett)
In 30 seconds or less, tell me what you do all day at work.
I run a gluten-free food truck. I cook, and Bianka does all the business stuff.
What’s an average day on the truck like?
On every one of our workdays, something happens with the truck. We do all the cooking on the truck, including all of our prep and, because we’re a truck, we have to go and pick up the stuff from all our suppliers, rather than get deliveries. Within the truck itself, you have gas lines, water lines, propane lines—you have to worry about your generator not working, and your staff showing up on time, and not cutting yourself during service. Then you’ve got to roll right into operation. And after, it’s cleaning the whole truck: taking it all apart, and spraying everything down with a hose. Right now, we’re doing two to three concerts a week at Molson Amphitheatre, so our days start at 9 a.m. in the morning, and we don’t finish until after 1 a.m.—and that’s with no lunch breaks!
Where did the idea for Gourmet Bitches come from?
Bianka wasn’t in this line of business at all; she was a medical aesthetician. I was in social media and marketing, but I’ve worked in hospitality before. We’ve been best friends for the last eight years, and our friend told us we should do something with food. I basically said to her, we need to start our own business. We tossed around a few ideas, and then a friend of ours went to New York and told us about all the food trucks there. That was last summer and by November I had incorporated us.
What were some of the initial challenges to getting the business off the ground?
We had to have the truck made in Alexandria, Ontario, and we thought it would be ready at a certain date, but it took three more months. We got the truck in April, but couldn’t get on the road until June. Initially, we thought we were just going to do lunches as a food truck, and have a 9-to-5 schedule—Bianka has an 8-year-old, so she wanted more time. But now we’re doing 15-hour days; we just filmed Eat St. last Wednesday. She’s doing more of the administrative stuff now, and I’m the one on the truck. Soon it will be a well-oiled machine, but right now there’s a learning curve.
What’s your food philosophy?
Neither of us have any official culinary training, but we know what we like and what we wanted to deliver to people. I’m gluten-free and Bianka’s not, but I said that going all gluten-free would be what would set us apart. Everything we cook has a lot of spice and flavour; being gluten-free doesn’t have to mean dull or boring. We’re trying to educate people that you can eat healthy and not sacrifice on flavour. Everything is made with fresh ingredients, and made by us—we don’t use any processed foods. We have a bit of a gluten-free following, but we don’t put [the gluten-free label] on the truck. We like having people coming up and trying our food, and then being surprised when they find out that it’s gluten-free.
How did you and Bianka go about selecting a menu?
Everything we cook on the truck is from our travels. Our Balinese tostada came from my trip to Bali last year, and all the flavours are from there. Every one of our dishes tells a story about our lives. Our ceviche, for example, is inspired by a food truck in Miami. Our kale salad—the one that was in the Toronto Star—is from Bianka’s ex-boyfriend, who introduced us to kale. The other things were items that we added because we wanted to have street food–type things. We do a chicken wing, which I came up with the night before we were going to serve 500 people. I had never made it before, but I threw some coffee, ginger, and coconut together for a dry rub, and everyone loved it at our media event!
How do food trucks get permits from the City?
They don’t give you permits. We’re licensed only to do events. You can’t park on the street; you can’t go into parking lots where other people are paying for space. It’s very difficult. It’s hard to make a living not being able to do that. There’s the fry trucks at the university and at City Hall that have had these licences for decades, and the City just doesn’t seem to be budging. It’s sad that the City will give licences to a truck that just serves French fries, but not to people that are actually making good, healthy food. You go to New York City, and there’s trolleys of food everywhere, and you can go up to trucks and buy fruit—it’s not all hot dogs. Right now, we do events in people’s homes, charity events, birthday parties, weddings—anything at all.
What advice would you give to someone interested in launching their own food truck?
I would tell them to make sure that they can find a place where they can park at everyday, and generate revenue on top of all the events. They should research the area and find out what revenue they can make and what the demand is. You need to find out how much you need to make to survive. Also, make sure that your product is good, and that you are ready to work. I used to manage a restaurant, and that was so much easier than this. At a brick-and-mortar restaurant, you can manage the constant flow every day. With the truck, you’re dealing with a machine that can break down on you, that has propane and gas lines that can break, a battery that can go out—and it’s a moving vehicle, so all the fryers and food inside are going to move. You’re driving around and the whole back of your kitchen can start flying around!
Who came up with the Gourmet Bitches name?
A friend of ours, actually—he said, “You girls are sort of bitches, but in a positive way.” And we wanted something that was catchy and would work with our branding. It reflects the way we conduct our daily lives: We’re in an industry where it’s all men, but we’re all women on the truck. You don’t know how many times people have said to me, “Shontelle, just get a guy on the truck. He’ll be strong and be able to help you lift things and fix the propane tanks and gas lines.” And I always say, “no,” because the whole vision is about empowering women. It’s about women being able to take whatever they want to do and just do it. Some people have actually sent us hate emails about the name, which is crazy—it’s a playful, fun name, and we have it spelled backwards on the truck so as to not offend. We’re making fun of men who call women bitches and, at the same time, we’re standing up for ourselves and showing that we can do whatever men do.
What are your favourite and least favourite parts of your job?
For me, feeding people is my favourite part. Bianka says it best; she told me, “You love feeding people, and now you get to do it for a living.” The part that’s the most challenging is being able make a decent living. Right now, because of all the restrictions, it’s very hard.