Heather Riedl, Co-Founder of Mercado, talked to Innovation Destination Hartford Website Curator Nan Price about turning a passion for cooking and working in the food industry into a successful business venture.
NAN PRICE: You and your husband Roy founded Mercado in 2012. How did the startup come to be?
HEATHER RIEDL: Roy and I both started on different paths and ended up falling in love with restaurants.
Roy always had a passion for cooking. After college he went to Johnson & Wales University, where he got a culinary degree. I had been waitressing during college and really started my career in the restaurant industry in full force after that. We met while we were both working at Barcelona. He was a sous chef and I was wine steward.
After we got married, we were both still working in the restaurant industry, but doing sales for food and beverage distributors. We started doing catering on the side, just for fun to stay in the service segment of the food industry. Our catering business started to grow and we ended up getting a trailer to use for our base of operations. Then we got invited to the Coventry Farmers Market and it all just spiraled from there and turned into a total food truck business.
We still focus a lot on catering—it’s primarily what we do. But now we have this whole food truck business that was kind of a happy accident. But a good one!
NAN: How is the business split between catering and the food truck? How do you find balance?
HEATHER: We redid our logo and streamlined our concept this year when we launched our actual food truck. It’s shifted a bit. Last year I would say it was 90% catering. We had the food truck out at a couple select events, like the Coventry Farmers Market and the Wethersfield Farmers Market, and then the rest of our time was spent catering. This year, it’s been more like 60% catering and 40% food truck sales.
Balance is something that all entrepreneurs struggle with. We’re really figuring it out as we go. Last year was so different for us with our infrastructure. We just had the trailer, so we weren’t really able to take it out in the snow and cold weather.
This year, we have a more efficient truck, so we’ll be able to be out in more inclement weather. As far as catering, we stay pretty busy up until New Year’s, then—just like every other restaurant—it kind of drops off in January and February.
Our plan is to take some time and regroup and figure out where our business is going to head for the next season so we can be more efficient and do things better next year. But we still plan to try to be out at events that make sense for us. And we hope to be busy catering, of course.
NAN: Let’s talk about some of the challenges you’ve faced as a startup.
HEATHER: It’s been tough, but it’s also been so rewarding to figure out how to do things that I never in my life thought I would learn how to do. And same with Roy. For example, he knows how to fix a generator now. I don’t think he ever thought he would know how to do that.
As a startup you take on so many different roles—from human resources to accounting to sales and marketing—you have to wear many different hats. It’s challenging, but we try to talk to other businesses that have been successful and look to them for advice while we’re figuring it out on our own.
The food community is so tightknit, we can text other owners for advice or bounce thoughts about how to run our business better. It’s been invaluable.
NAN: Tell me about the business concept. Why a food truck versus a storefront or renting space?
HEATHER: Being a startup, we were really challenged financially, and I think financially a food truck seemed to make sense for us. It was a way to test the market without putting all our eggs in one basket. It gave us a chance to see if people even liked what we did. I mean, our food is eccentric—
NAN: And delicious I have to add!
HEATHER: Thanks! We weren’t sure how the public was going to react when we started as this boutique-type of catering, which worked for us, because we had a certain niche of clients that wanted eccentric, different food.
But in terms of pleasing the masses, we figured a food truck was a good way to get out and test a bunch of different markets to see how people felt about our food. And then, just personally, it worked with our family to not be tied to being open from 9-to-5 every day. It gave us a little flexibility to be there as our kids are growing up and to be present in their lives.
NAN: It all goes back to that idea of balance.
NAN: In terms of your niche market, how are you marketing?
HEATHER: It started really as a lot of grassroots marketing. We got a lot of referral-based business. We would cater a party at somebody’s house and they would tell 10 of their friends what a great job we did. That’s how we built our initial book of business.
And then really the food truck has helped with having things to post social media, creating visibility, and attending events that are targeting our demographic—like doing pop-up events at Little River Restoratives. That has gotten their customers to come and try our food and also our customers to go and try their cocktails. So, it’s good to develop these partnerships with other businesses. Especially in the Hartford area, because I think this area is totally booming.
Also, being involved in events like the Know Good Market, where people can try our food, has really expanded our business. It’s also given us credibility with the food truck and helped grow our catering business.
NAN: And as far as that credibility, I’ve very similar conversations with Bear’s Smokehouse BBQ Co-Founder Jamie McDonald and Little River Restoratives Co-Owner Chris Parrot about that type of collaboration. In fact, that’s how you and I met—I was at pop-up event at Little River and Mercado was the featured food truck.
HEATHER: Right! We collaborate with like-minded people who are going to do what they do and not really worrying about what everybody else is doing, worrying about what they do and doing their best every single time so that those people try their stuff, they try our stuff. It’s really the demographic of people that you’re trying to reach.
NAN: With regard to the future, do you see any plans for a storefront or additional food trucks?
HEATHER: I think if you aren’t thinking about the future, you’re just staying where you’re at. It’s a conversation Roy and I have had so many times too. We’re not really satisfied with staying in the same spot forever. We’ve both been that way our whole lives, always asking: What’s next?
And we always want to do bigger and better things. I think we have plans for the future—we have an idea of what we want to do it’s just figuring out how we want to make it happen.
NAN: That’s a very entrepreneurial mindset, having to innovate and figure out what’s next. Any advice for anyone starting out?
HEATHER: That’s tough. I feel like I’m not in any position to give someone advice because I’m still figuring things out as I go along.
I could share Roy’s advice that he gives me all the time. He always tells me to just put your head down, do your job, work as hard as you can, try to zone out everything else that’s going on around you, and focus on putting forward the best you that you possibly can.
I have a hard time listening to that advice! I think as an entrepreneur, you can kind of get caught up in everything else that’s going on in your community and trying to please too many people or trying to be something for everybody, rather than be everything to somebody.
You can’t please everybody. So you have to try to do what you do and do it best and negate all the other stuff around you so you stay focused on your true goal as an entrepreneur. That’s been the most helpful advice I’ve gotten.
NAN: Did you have a specific business plan when you launched the startup, or did you just go for it?
HEATHER: We totally went for it. I suppose it would be helpful to have a really specific business plan. But I think, as much as you make a plan—at least in the mobile food business—your plan never happens.
So we plan to make a plan for other things we’re going to do. But we really just figured it out as we went—and I’m glad we did, because our business has really evolved from what we originally thought it was going to be. I think if we had had a really strict plan, we wouldn’t have just gone with the natural ebb and flow of what was happening with us. But, I admire people who are able to stick to a business plan, because they are helpful.
NAN: Well, not having one seems to be working for you.
HEATHER: For now.