Eric Stagl and Mallary Kohlmeyer are co-founders of Hartford-based Craftbird Food Truck. (Photo courtesy Eat IN CT)

Business partners Mallary Kohlmeyer and Eric Stagl opened Craftbird Food Truck in April 2016. Mallary spoke with Innovation Destination Hartford Website Curator Nan Price about her experience starting a small business in Greater Hartford.

NAN PRICE: Have you always known you wanted you to open your own business?

MALLARY KOHLMEYER: Not at all. Actually, I have my master’s in special education. My dad owns a business, so I grew up respecting the concept of working for yourself.

I’ve learned a lot from him, even though his business is much different than ours. I’ve learned that owning a business requires a certain kind of mindset and it takes discipline to be your own boss. You have to have a certain type of personality. I think I got that from my dad, that interest in wanting to work for yourself.

So, I always was interested in business. But I didn’t know I was going to land in the food business.

NAN: How did you develop the business concept?

MALLARY: Eric has been a good friend for years. He and I were itching for something new. We both wanted the opportunity to grow personally and challenge ourselves without working for other people.

Eric was the executive chef at Barcelona West Hartford and prior to that worked in local restaurants, including Max Restaurant Group. So, he already had the food experience.

The idea came out of a brainstorming conversation. Eric and I thought a food truck would be fun. When we started to get serious, we did market research, which basically meant we got to eat a lot during the weekends! We were traveling to Boston, Philadelphia, and New York to try out other food trucks and learn about the market. And the more trucks we saw, the more excited we got about creating our own concept.

Eric wanted to deliver high-quality food without providing a sit-down experience. And I wanted to provide gluten-free options since I have Celiac disease and other food allergies. From there, we started building the foundation for Craftbird.

NAN: Do you get guidance from other business owners?

MALLARY: In the beginning we didn’t tell anybody we had this idea because we didn’t know what was going to happen. When we started doing research, we told food trucks about our idea when we visited them in other cities, but locally we didn’t tell anybody until we had the plan in motion.

But once we did, the food truck community in this area was super supportive. A lot of people were willing and able to answer our questions. That was great because there’s not a rule book for how to open a food truck here in Connecticut.

NAN: Is the food truck industry competitive? Do you work together?

MALLARY: We do collaborate. Our feeling is: If you’re at the park or at an event and there’s a grilled cheese truck and a barbecue truck, if someone wants grilled cheese, they’re going to go to the grilled cheese food truck. So, it’s not a matter of competition; it’s same as when you choose a restaurant. If you want Italian you’re going to go to an Italian restaurant.

We like being near each other because the more food trucks in an area, the more customers will come. And it’s more fun. We can bounce ideas off each other. You become friends even though you’re competitors. It’s a nice community.

In this field, we’ve met a lot of other people who are opening business. It’s been nice to get help and advice from them, and also be a sounding board for them and bounce ideas off each other. And we’re able to collaborate. So, we might connect with a dessert caterer or a DJ or a photographer and we’re able to offer a “package.”

NAN: What kinds of startup challenges have you experienced?

MALLARY: The hardest thing for us is that there is no blueprint for how to open and run a food truck. So, I understand the business of opening an LLC, filing sales tax, and doing things like that. But I needed to learn about how every town requires different permitting, there’s not a uniform permit across the state.

With some towns, you get a permit with the health department. With some it’s the police department and the health department. Other towns require a permit from the fire department. One town requires permit from your doctor. It’s very difficult to find the information.

Every day there’s something. For the first year-and-a-half we were in business almost every day there was a surprise or something I didn’t know and didn’t plan for—a rule or a regulation, an event we didn’t know about that would’ve been good to be at, or how to fix something that breaks on the truck or change the oil in the generator. And we don’t have the staff a restaurant has to do all those things. Eric and I are doing everything with a handful of employees.

Another challenge is for Eric, who’s a very skilled chef. With a food truck, he has to accommodate for a much smaller kitchen and work in extreme temperatures, whether it’s keeping food fresh on a 100° day or keeping things from freezing on a day with temperatures below 0°. He’s had to get creative. And he’s had to learn how to plan amounts when we have no idea how many customers there will be and we’re working with a limited tuck-sized refrigerator.

NAN: With more than two years of experience can you now plan for some of those challenges?

MALLARY: We’ve kept a lot of data the last couple of years. That’s the special ed teacher in me! I can tell you on October 23, 2017 what the weather was like, what we sold, and if there were other trucks nearby.

The Craftbird Food Truck caters a private event.

With catering, we have much less waste. Because you know there are going to be 60 people at this party versus when you go to the park and you just don’t know. So, we will sometimes run out of things. That happens. We only have so much room on the truck.

Eric has become very good about planning for those things and anticipating it. And I have a good idea of how many people are going to be at an event, based on the weather and how many other food trucks will be there. We have an unofficial formula in our head of what we think will happen.

I definitely have learned a lot about food, because I’d never worked in a kitchen or in a restaurant before. I’ve learned a lot about prepping food, planning for food, expoing, things like that.

I’ve also ironed out a lot of kinks and streamlined a lot of things now that we’ve become more well-known. I’ve been able to step back from seeking out events and people are coming to us more, which is great. We’ve been doing more catering and private events.

NAN: That leads into my question about marketing. It sounds like things are going well. In the beginning, how did you build a buzz. Or did you just start showing up places?

MALLARY: A combination of both. Luckily, Eric had a pretty solid following as a chef, so people were excited to try his new product and new concept. We did a soft opening among friends and a lot of people in the food industry were there.

And then we use a lot of social media. We do our marketing on social media pretty exclusively. The first year we opened, we went to a lot of festivals and fairs and got our name out there. It has since shifted more toward local staying in Hartford, which is really where we’re enjoying building our business.

We like staying in Hartford. One of the reasons goes back to the issue with permitting. We have to go through permitting and licensing in every town. In Hartford, West Hartford, and Farmington Valley we get year-round license. Otherwise we have to fill out paperwork every time we go to one of those locations.

NAN: What are your future plans? You anticipate opening a Craftbird restaurant?

MALLARY: That’s a really great question. There are a lot of restaurants and a lot of food trucks in Connecticut. I’m not sure what we’re going to do. Right now, we’re just appreciative of people coming out for a chicken sandwich.

Opening a restaurant is very different. There are a lot of expectations. I’m definitely not saying that we aren’t ever going to do it. I’m just saying we’re not discussing it at this time. And I will stay, in addition, we didn’t tell anybody we were opening a food truck until we got it, so….

NAN: So, stay tuned and follow Craftbird Food Truck on social media.

MALLARY: Exactly!

NAN: What have you learned along your entrepreneurial journey? Any advice for others starting out?

MALLARY: Starting out, I was hard on myself any time I made what I perceived as a mistake. And then I learned from talking to others, everyone’s making the same mistakes. Everyone is having the same challenges because running a business is hard. Eventually it all clicks. I feel like this year it’s finally clicking for me.

I’m very proud of how far we’ve come since we started. Eric and I have had tons of growth professionally. We built a business out of nothing, which is very exciting. So, my advice is to be patient with yourself and be proud of what you accomplish.

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