Whether you’re craving a cappuccino, a breakfast sandwich or you’re in the mood to try a unique Asian fusion dish, all three can be found morning, noon and night truckin’ around Milwaukee.
Milwaukee’s food truck scene has been gradually gaining traction, but women-owned food trucks are particularly on the rise. Not only are women succeeding in a male-dominated industry, they’re also bringing creative concepts that weren’t found in the existing market. Three such businesses that recently broke out into the Milwaukee’s food truck scene include Nimble Coffee Bar, Lumpia City and Eggs & Bakin’.
The food truck owners all had one thing in common. They had reached a turning point where they were no longer fulfilled with their current work situation and wanted to take their career paths in a different direction.
After working in coffee shops for 10 years, Lisa Vaccarello took her years of experience, including knowledge gained at coffee industry events, and put her idea in motion to open Nimble Coffee Bar.
“I wanted to see how much of a coffee experience I could deliver on a truck,” Vaccarello said. “Coffee has always been a low-ticket item compared to restaurants. To me it doesn’t make sense that a coffee shop would pay to rent a restaurant space when people are spending less and the customers are staying longer. I was just kind of like, what if?”
Nimble has now been open for a couple of months and is currently testing locations around the city. The coffee truck has most recently been spotted near MATC’s downtown campus and Marquette University serving up espresso drinks, Kickapoo coffee, assorted mini Bundt cakes and breakfast sandwiches.
The next new kids on the block are Samantha (Sam) Klimaszewski and Alexa Reyes, owners of Lumpia City. They’ve come a long way since they initially started their business in San Diego over two years ago. After leaving a sales position with a home improvement company in Milwaukee, Klimaszewski moved to San Diego, where she then met Reyes.
“Alexa introduced me to her traditional Filipino food and told me that her family would fuse the dish with carne asada and other things,” Klimaszewski said. “I then had the idea to put mac n’ cheese in the lumpia, being from Wisconsin.”
Both had the desire to start their own business, so Reyes brought her experience cooking Filipino recipes to the table, while Sam brought her previous sales experience in order to start Lumpia City. The business initially began as a pop-up operation in June 2015, but the overly saturated food vendor market in San Diego led them to move to Milwaukee in December 2016. Lumpia City upgraded its operation to a trailer and has been open for business since May of this year.
Erin Broderick of Eggs & Bakin’ graduated with a journalism degree from Marquette University, but went back to school to pursue her Baking and Pastry Certification from MATC’s culinary program. After 15 years of varied experience in the service industry, including a position as an assistant pastry chef, Broderick wanted to go a different route. A food truck seemed to be the best of both worlds, one where she could share her passion for providing impeccable service, and also serve something she created to the public.
After perfecting her technique with baking and cooking eggs in culinary school, Broderick saw a business opportunity with Eggs & Bakin’. She even had the name of the business from the beginning, wanting it to be a cute play on words.
“I looked at what was on the food truck scene in Milwaukee,” Broderick said. “I wanted to stand out. I didn’t see any breakfast and I didn’t see any healthy options.”
Broderick is wrapping up her second season as a food truck owner. Eggs & Bakin’ can be found serving up several varieties of made-to-order egg sandwiches and scratch bakery.
There’s a misconception that food trucks are a fun and easy endeavor, which is why many food industry professionals are drawn to the idea. And while operating a food truck is indeed fun for the owners, there were numerous obstacles and learning curves that they had to overcome in order to get their trucks up and running.
First, there’s financing all of the start-up costs. Broderick purchased the truck itself for $10,000, but then had to convert it to a full operating kitchen. The stainless steel equipment and installation added another $25,000 to customize it for Broderick’s business needs. On top of that, all food vendors have to pay fees associated with getting the required permits, licensing, and insurance coverage in order to be fully operational, costing an additional $4,000.
Fortunately for Broderick, she had some starting capital going into it so she was able to bypass some of the waiting game that is common with new business startups because she didn’t have to seek out a loan.
“The timeline itself was the biggest challenge,” Vaccerello said. “I had been working on the project for two years and there were a lot of setbacks. The loan was supposed to take a week and it ended up taking six months.”
Nimble’s contractor initially projected that the project would be complete in four to six weeks, but it actually took twice as long. Vaccarello also faced challenges securing adequate insurance for the truck, making it an emotional and frustrating process.
One of the largest barriers for Broderick was learning where to get all of the equipment, where to get it installed and what requirements were needed to meet health department standards.
“It took a lot of asking questions to strangers, talking to the city, learning what permits and licensing I needed, finding a location to park the truck, where to get a fire suppression system installed,” Broderick said. “It was really a lot of work, but to see the truck go from nothing to something was pretty amazing.”
Other challenges included learning how to drive the truck and the uncertainty of all the moving pieces that make it run such as the engine, the generators and the propane. If one thing doesn’t work, then nothing works.
“Having employees who have other jobs can make scheduling a challenge as well,” Broderick said. “It’s more difficult to operate on busy days with fewer employees.”
An important logistical detail is finding adequate parking. This includes, but is not limited to, spaces where the truck can actually fit, ensuring that parking meters are paid, and finding a location to store the truck. If spots are unavailable, it makes it challenging to guarantee a specific location of operation.
Though these start up challenges aren’t unique to women-owned businesses, the ladies did highlight instances where they felt underestimated and disrespected at times by males they encountered.
“In San Diego, my dad would help us on the truck,” Reyes said. “If people came up to the truck, they would assume that he was the boss and would talk directly to him. We would get people who would pass us over like we were just helpers.”
There were also times when male customers would hit on the Lumpia City ladies or wanted to take photos with them, creating uncomfortable situations when it was just the two of them operating the truck.
“As a woman, you feel like you have to say sorry or you have be nice, even when you’re getting disrespected,” Klimaszewski said. “You don’t always know how to be confrontational or upfront, and the challenge of that as the owner is that it could backfire on the business.”
Broderick used her strong communication skills to her advantage when walking into predominantly male-operated businesses like metal shops or mechanics.
It was not uncommon to get a “sweetie” or a “honey” from the men when they weren’t expressing utter shock that she could actually drive a truck.
“As a woman, I don’t think that I’m limited in certain ways, just physically,” Broderick said. “I’ve had to reach out to other male food truck owners at times to help me lift some heavy equipment on my truck and I’m grateful to them because they’re always willing to help out. At times though, I’m still talked to differently. I don’t think there’s the same respect given to me as a food truck owner or a business owner.”
Vaccarello mostly had positive experiences with professionals that worked on the Nimble Coffee Bar truck, but not without a little bit of pushback.
“Professionals that I worked with maybe expected me to not be as tough of a customer,” Vaccarello said. “I did have a very specific vision for what I wanted the truck to be and if I felt I was losing the grasp of the vision or they were trying to push the project through, I would come back and say that it wasn’t quite right.”
The Bright Side
Challenges aside, each business owner felt moments where hard work paid off. For all the women, getting positive feedback means everything as a food truck owner.
“The first day of business felt different from anything that I’ve ever done,” Vaccarello said. “Anytime a customer would order a coffee, I felt sincerely thankful for their business. It was very personal that they took a chance on a new business.”
For Broderick and Klimaszewski, seeing customers come back to their respective trucks or become regulars is a great feeling.
“I love seeing people follow me on social media and leave reviews about how great something was. It’s pretty incredible that I’m making a living off of doing something I really enjoy,” Broderick said.
Klimaszewski and Reyes said the gratification went even deeper than compliments or customers.
“The most rewarding thing about this is to know that I personally can overcome these challenges and keep this thing going,” Klimaszewski said. “We even had to move to a different state, but nothing has beaten us or broken us down to the point that we want to quit.”
Lumpia City and Eggs & Bakin’ both felt that Milwaukee was a great city to start a food truck because the scene has just recently begun to take off. Other cities with thriving food truck scenes are difficult to get a foot in the door, as experienced by Lumpia City back in San Diego. Milwaukee is still new, small enough, and less regulated than other cities, making it a more realistic city to start a business and keep overhead costs low.
In getting a closer look at women-owned food trucks, being a female in a male-dominated industry was not as much of a hindrance as expected. However, each business shared some advice for aspiring entrepreneurs as they pursue their business goals.
“It’s really important to have a business plan, especially if you have to take out a loan,” Broderick said. “Have realistic goals about where the business should be a month out, six months out or two years away. Don’t get discouraged if you’re not successful immediately and realize that money doesn’t always come right away.”
Klimaszewski mentioned the importance of having thick skin, being focusing on the goals and outcomes, and facing challenges head on as they arise. Broderick stressed the importance of not being scared to ask for help or ask questions.
“For me there was a lot of overcoming fear,” Vaccarello said. “Everyone has it, but the sooner you realize how ridiculous it is to be so afraid that you don’t even try, the sooner you can get going.”