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Side Hustle Series: I Worked on a Food Truck

by J. Money on Thursday, April 26, 2012

inside dos chinos food truck

(Guest Post by Jay as part of our Side Hustle Series)

Before I get into the details of my side hustle, here’s a little background. I’m a 31 year old college graduate currently working as a inside sales engineer in the HVAC industry. I’m thankful that I have a job that pays decently but I’m always on the look out for ways to make more money.

I worked on the Dos Chinos food truck from September 2010 to November 2011. At the time I worked out of my home office so I had the flexibility to take on side jobs. As long as I got work done at my full time job, I figured, why not make some money on the side?

How I Got a Food Truck Job

The recent gourmet food truck craze started around 2009 when Kogi in Los Angeles started selling Korean inspired tacos from a mobile food truck. Mobile food trucks definitely weren’t new, but using social media such as Twitter to broadcast their current location bread a whole slew of new food trucks. (EDITOR’S NOTE: There’s a ton of websites dedicated to tracking food trucks all across the country now too, like Find LA Food Trucks and Food Truck Fiesta in DC – which my good friend runs!)

In 2010, an Orange County based food truck serving Asian influenced tacos and burritos started parking along the bars and restaurants outside my apartment complex. One night after bar hopping, I decided to give them a try and found that the owner was very friendly and more importantly, the food was great. I kept coming back and eventually got on a first name basis with them.

A couple months later, they tweeted that they were looking for additional help. I waited until they were back in my neighborhood to ask them what type of help they needed. I came down thinking I was just going to have a 10 minute conversation to find out what the job entailed, if I was what they were looking for, etc. The next thing you know, I’m taking orders and handing out food to customers. I’m not joking. They invited me to jump into the truck and pointed at a pad of paper and to start taking orders.

Working On The Food Truck

For the first couple months, I only took orders and handed out food to waiting customers. This is probably the easiest part of working on the truck and it was definitely the most fun. I got to interact with customers and you effectively become the face of the truck. As the popularity of the truck grew, we hired more people. Taking orders is the best way to train new employees on the truck. Customers often ask what’s good to order so they’re forced to learn the menu quickly.

Once I graduated from taking orders, I started working on the prep table. On our truck, once orders came in, they got posted on the line. Once we got the items from the person working the grill, it was up to the prep table to add condiments and sauce before they went out to the customer. Once I got good at that, I graduated to what I feel is the position that is the hardest to work and gets the least amount of recognition, but gives you the most sense of pride; working the grill.

food truck windowEverything starts with the person working the grill. It is up to them to get the meats prepped and cooked before each shift. It’s up to them to look at the upcoming orders and get the food out in a timely and orderly manner. To further complicate this, every item takes a different amount of time to put together. Combine this with long lines and complicated orders, learning how to multitask and combine tasks is absolutely essential to whoever is working the grill.

It’s the most difficult and most stressful job on a food truck but every once in awhile, you’ll get a customer who wants to speak to you just to compliment you on how great their food tastes. It’s probably the greatest compliment that someone could give you.

Depending on how the truck wants to use your help, your actual role on a truck may vary. Because I had a full time job, I only worked shifts that occurred during lunch and dinner and we cooked and served food. There’s a lot of prep work that goes into running a food truck and fortunately for me, I rarely had to do that. Depending on their needs, a truck might have you helping out with prep: chopping vegetables, making sauces, making grocery runs at the supermarket. Definitely some of the less glamorous aspects of working on a truck. This may or may not be worth it for you, but if you don’t mind it, it’s still a great way to earn extra money.

Pay and Scheduling

I started off working for $8/hour. Once I got up to working the grill, I was paid $10/hour. Depending on the location, tips were anywhere from an extra $4 a shift to $20 a shift. The truck did two to three shifts a day; lunch, dinner and late night. A shift was anywhere between 3 to 6 hours, but the actual shift where we were open, selling food, was usually 4 hours.

With my flexible work set up, I was able to work the lunch and dinner shift for a total of 7 hours a day. I did this around 3 days a week so I earned an average of about $200 a week doing this. This also doesn’t account for the free food. I’ve saved so much money on food just by eating on the truck. And since we’re friends with other local food trucks, I was able to try the food on other trucks either for free, or by leaving a couple of bucks into their tip jar. Conservatively assuming $8 a meal, I was able to save an additional $48 by eating for free at every shift that I worked.

How Others Can Do it

Let me start this section by saying this: I had no prior experience in the food/restaurant industry. I can cook a few dishes, but I wouldn’t consider myself a master in the kitchen. Once I started working prep and the grill, I was taught everything.

If you are a fast learner or can learn by watching, this is something you can do. My path to working on a food truck worked because the owners of Dos Chinos were cool, easy going guys. Most food truck owners are. If you love a certain truck’s food, get to know the owners. Especially new ones that are just starting. Once you are comfortable enough, just ask if they could use extra help. What’s the worst that they could say? No? And in my experience, we ALWAYS could have used extra help. Of course, some people might want people with prior experience. Your mileage may vary.

Depending on your situation, the shifts you work will vary. I was able to work lunch shifts because I worked out of a home office. I got my work done for my full time job, so my boss didn’t suspect a thing. If you work a regular 8-5 job at an office, I don’t think your boss would like that you take a “3 hour lunch” to work a part time job. If you work in an office, working dinner shifts or weekend shifts would make more sense.

Final Thoughts

I’ve worked many part time jobs and working on a food truck was easily one of my favorites. I learned a lot of skills that can be used in real life and it earned money and helped save money at the same time. I have a lot of fun and memorable experiences.

Of course, as with every job, there are down sides. I won’t be the first to say that food service is HARD work. At the busiest shifts, we were handing out up to 150 orders a shift. That averages out to completing an order about every 90 seconds; from taking their order, preparing and handing it out.

Ninety seconds.

Think about that the next time you order food at a fast food restaurant. Combine the fast pace with complicated orders and difficult customers,and you can get stressed out pretty quick. And being stressed while working in small quarters with up to 3 other people can make for some short tempers too. I’ve seen my fair share of meltdowns during shifts. Not to mention, cleaning up, getting home late (after late night shifts), and your clothes smelling of grease.

Of course, there are great upsides. The truck has been featured in local news publications, the NY Times, I’ve worked at pop up restaurants, worked with the contestants from the Great Food Truck Race Seasons 1 and 2, and we’ve even been featured on The Cooking Channel’s Eat St.

Because of my time on the truck, I have a greater appreciation for servers, wait staff, runners, line cooks, chefs and food in general. All while making and saving money. Of all the part time jobs I’ve had, I can easily say that this was the most rewarding.

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Jay is a 31 year old sales engineer currently living in the Bay Area with his girlfriend and her 3 year old. You can visit his website at www.absolutjay.com or follow him on Twitter, @jaytorres, where he tries to be funny.

Interested in sharing YOUR side hustle with us? Drop me a line!
 


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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Michelle April 26, 2012 at 8:19 am

My friend just got a food truck job. He likes it!

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2 Michelle April 26, 2012 at 8:20 am

I should also say that he is a teacher, so this is his summer job.

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3 J. Money April 26, 2012 at 9:22 am

Cool!! I wonder which he’ll like more at the end of the Summer, haha…

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4 From Shopping to Saving April 26, 2012 at 10:12 am

This is an awesome side hustle and sounds like a lot of fun! But also really stressful :/ It sounds like something I would like to check out when I go back to school.

I’ve never worked in the food industry either but taking orders and giving food sounds fun!

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5 Brian April 26, 2012 at 10:56 am

Pretty sweet side gig. I never thought about working in one of those trucks. My days as a short-order cook taught me it is hard, but rewarding work. Oh yeah and it’s really hot. I can’t imagine being in a truck on a hot night over a grill!

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6 Jay April 26, 2012 at 12:37 pm

@Brian: Those shifts were the WORST! I started wearing a head band in the summer months to keep sweat out of my eyes. I would go through a multiple bottles of water just to stay hydrated.

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7 Long April 26, 2012 at 12:52 pm

Sounds fun, but I’d imagine that it’s kind of tough working in a cramped space. You have to be really organized to run that kind of kitchen line.

Anyone have any idea what the average start up costs for a food truck are? It’d be kind of cool to get one going.

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8 Jenna, Adaptu Community Manager April 26, 2012 at 1:20 pm

Sounds like a great job for a recent college grad. Maybe I’ll pass along the idea to my brother. We have a great food cart scene here in PDX if you ever come visit: http://www.foodcartsportland.com/

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9 gigi borden April 26, 2012 at 3:56 pm

i love the title of this blog post and all your blog posts, you are very creative!

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10 ImpulseSave April 26, 2012 at 10:47 pm

What a great and fun idea for a side job. I’ve worked as a waitress on and off for four years, and this sounds similar but with additional benefits of moving around and getting involved in the food truck culture. Great idea!

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11 Jay April 27, 2012 at 12:25 pm

@Long: There are two options: buying or leasing a truck. Obviously buying is more expensive. Also, trucks come in different sizes and come outfitted with different equipment. Depending on what you need (deep fryer, steam table, refrigeration), that will change the cost of a truck.

I’d GUESS it would range from $40K-$60K at the low end to over $100K with a newer, fancy truck. This is STILL cheaper than opening up a traditional brick-and-mortar restaurant. If you have an idea for a restaurant, there’s no better way to test out your ideas on a food truck first.

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12 J. Money April 27, 2012 at 5:34 pm

Maybe that should be someone’s next side hustle? Buying a truck and hiring a team ;)

@gigi borden – Thanks! Glad you enjoy it!!

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13 Dannielle @ Odd Cents April 28, 2012 at 5:10 pm

This is a great side hustle. This is one of my dreams – to own a food truck. Now I’m even more intrigued. :)

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14 J. Money April 29, 2012 at 10:26 am

Oh really?? That’s kinda cool! It’s a totally achievable one too – if you’re willing to take the risk and go all in :) Let us know if you end up going for it!

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15 Melissa@LittleHouseInTheValley April 29, 2012 at 8:04 pm

This sounds like one of the most fun side gigs you have posted. Plus, the free food would be a nice perk!

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16 J. Money April 30, 2012 at 11:42 am

Glad you liked it! And I agree – I’m all about free (and quality!) food :)

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