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This interview with Emily Leonard and Beth Milne describes their experiences starting up, planning, creating menus, laying out their kitchen, branding, and sourcing, plus providing advice for people looking to start their own truck.

Coming out of high school what did you think you were going to do?

Beth: I thought you had to go to university and I thought I’d have a political job where I could make a difference in the world

Emily: I thought I’d go do what my sister did.  I was just copying her. I went to university and thought for the first few months that I’d be an anthropologist but that didn’t happen.

When did you start thinking about cooking as a serious career option?

Emily: For me it was half way through my first year of university.  I just realized I was spending all this money on education and I wasn’t super happy about it, I liked what I was learning in classes, but I loved cooking and thought I should look into doing that more as a career.

How did you go about pursuing that?

Emily: In high school I worked in the kitchen at a kids camp, it was terrible. I was accepted to George Brown College in Toronto for the 2 year culinary management program and worked in kitchens in Toronto.  I had a really awesome opportunity in Montreal working for the Food Network on the show Chuck’s Day Off.

When did you guys come up with the idea for the truck?

Beth: We wanted to do something that involved us taking hold of our futures, working and being independent entrepreneurs. Then about March of this year Em and I started talking about it more seriously discussing the commitment and finally avoiding shitty summer jobs.

Emily: We were both working for other people and we were getting older so we decided to go all in.

How did you guys team up?

Beth: We’ve known each other our whole lives and we’re similar both in work ethic and lifestyle.  We’re honest and we realize that we have different strengths and different weaknesses. We were worried it might effect our friendship but it hasn’t so far.

Emily: It hasn’t’.  It’s been really great.

What should people look for in a partner?

Beth: (laughs) That’s a good question.

Emily: I think what Beth said earlier, someone with similar standards and work ethic but also someone who brings a different set of skills than yours.

How did you decide on Mexican food?

Beth: How did we pick the food? We started with the idea of a taco truck. Mexican food is so fresh and inspiring. One of our biggest objectives was to serve something that wasn’t currently being offered in Sauble Beach. We decided on Mexican for a variety of reasons.

Emily: We wanted a cuisine that was awesome to have at the beach and great for takeaway but also easy to do gluten-free options and vegetarian options.

Beth: It’s not limiting. Emily is able to create seasonal dishes, for example using squash blossoms and pumpkins. This way hopefully we can keep people engaged and interested.

How did you build the menu?

Emily: I started by just thinking about what people would want, what options people would want to see on a menu.  Our menu started out really large and we probably wouldn’t have been able to handle it so we had to figure out our ingredients and what our best tacos were going to be.  We knew we wanted to use fresh fish from Georgian Bay, and we knew we wanted to do a pork and a beef and a vegetarian option.  We also thought we could just add specials when we had time and depending on the season.  We just needed to figure out what we could work with. Then if you are using containers it’s very beneficial to use the best quality liners that you can get, which we would say are these absolutely brilliant container liners so get some of those if you are doing container shipping.

Beth: I don’t have any culinary experience so it was good to figure out a menu that we could keep manageable.  We needed a menu that could work inside of the bus, which is a small space.  The bus was getting built at the same time we were building the menu so it was all happening at the same time.

Emily: We didn’t know what the set up inside was going to be like.

I was going to ask what comes first the truck or the menu?

Emily: They both came at the same time.

Beth: It was tough, one night Em woke up in the middle of the night and said “shit we have no counter to put the batter on” so she told me and we built one.

You got a really big bus and then basically gutted it.  How did you decide what appliances and equipment you’d need when designing the layout?

Emily: I had a couple ideas. One was what I wanted and one was what we could fit and what we could afford so that was the one we had to go with. There are definitely materials and appliances that I wish we had that just wouldn’t fit and we couldn’t afford to put in. That determined how we could prepare our dishes and it made us change our menu a bit.

How did you find your giant double decker bus and settle on it?

Emily: We had been looking online and around the area for things we could turn into a restaurant or food truck and Beth was still living on the east coast and we were trying to plan this over Skype and email.  I had gone to see a couple trucks.  The first one was really small so it wouldn’t make sense for two people to be in it.  I found this double decker on Kijiji and I called the guy and didn’t really hear back from him and then finally I got a hold of him and we went to go see his farm where the bus was.  The bus was just a wreck, it was just this massive double decker bus in this weird farm, he had a pet deer, and it was winter so it was covered in snow.  I think he was always drunk and he was asking a lot of money for it.  At first it was just a joke, I went to see it because it was funny, but we said no we’re not getting a double decker bus this is stupid.  Then I handed him a cheque.

I talked to Beth and asked if we should do it are we actually getting this double decker?  We asked the guy who we were leasing the land from in Sauble because we really appreciated his opinions and he said it was going to be a huge draw, it’s just one more reason to go eat the food, it’s not just a regular truck with awesome food in it, it’s an awesome truck with awesome food in it.

Beth: It could be a landmark. We hope it will become a staple and people will remember it. It’s more of a game changer than a little truck.

You mentioned it was a wreck when you bought it, what was the fixing up process like?

Beth: It was like a shell but the shell also had to be rebuilt.

Emily: We got a lot of help from our boyfriends and families.  It was towed to my parents property and I didn’t go in it for the first two weeks.  I was still working full-time and I couldn’t face it.  I didn’t know where to start and it was freezing outside.  Finally one day we went in and just started taking everything out.  There were old tubs of relish because at one time it had been a chip truck and sold burgers and fries.  There were all these old takeout containers.  We took everything out, ripped everything they had built down, none of it made sense.  Things were screwed and glued together.

Beth: The windows were all glued shut.

Emily: We think it was a grow-op at some point because there was crazy electrical in it and all the windows were boarded up.  Once we cleaned everything out Beth’s boyfriend Nate came in and started rebuilding, my Dad took all the panels off the bus and had to rebuild the frame.  It slowly started looking cleaner.

Beth: It was a lot of help. Every single day.  It was exciting because you’d go through one day where it was really defeating, or even just an hour where it was like holy shit what are we doing and then all of a sudden something awesome would happen like you’d start putting in the new floor and then it all just seemed manageable again.

Emily: There were how many layers of flooring?

Beth: Five.

Emily: There were five different layers of flooring! One being shag carpet (laughs).

Food trucks are usually heavily regulated.  Did you have any problems getting your permits?

Beth: The municipality in which we are located is far from progressive they weren’t open to the idea, they really took things out of context. Despite the time and effort Emily and I put into emails, telephone conversations and photographs, research, stats and everything it seemed like they were fighting us on several occasions – in small towns, change can be difficult. We weren’t doing anything wrong, we had a pretty ideal lease, and we had this bus so we were determined to make it happen.

They were worried about “the floodgates opening” and setting a precedent like all of a sudden the town would be overrun with hundreds of food trucks.  They thought they’d be on the beach and they would all open within a day.  They were worried it was going to look like it looked when we bought it.  They thought it was going to be a derelict vehicle that we would abandon after our summer of fun.

Emily: We experienced some local opposition we were called carnies.

Beth: Yah someone called us carnival people. That was insulting. We went to several city council meetings. We weren’t allowed to speak but we’d go and listen in silence and see what they had to say. It took up a lot of the time that we had hoped to be planning the menu, ordering supplies and moving forward. We couldn’t pull the trigger because we didn’t know if we’d be stuck with all of this stuff and nowhere to work out of. We had to hire a planner and that got really expensive, but sometimes you just have to play the game. Luckily in the end it worked out.

Emily: Confusion in the beginning postponed our proposal but once the ball got rolling council pushed us through relatively quickly.

Beth: We had a short summer because of it.

Do you have any advice for people starting out and going through that process of applying for and obtaining permits?

Emily: I’d say play it safe and start looking into the process a good year before you hope to be open.  It can’t hurt.  It might mean you’d be paying for permits longer if you’re not ready to open yet but it would offer piece of mind.

How did you go about finding your suppliers and sourcing your ingredients?

Beth: We drove around Southern Ontario and made a lot of phone calls because we really wanted to use local whenever possible.  We tried really hard to find people in the area who could give us the quantity we needed.

Emily: It’s tricky getting large quantities of produce and meat from local suppliers and that’s where we ran into a bit of trouble but for the most part we were able to source it all.  I’d say just research and phone calls and recommendations from people.

Beth: Just talking to people.  If you’re going to apply for your permit or start this go around and talk to people, talk to city officials, or friends and family, or whoever, and see what their opinions are and that will give you a really good idea of what other people are going to be thinking.

Emily: There will always be some people on your side and we’re lucky we had a few.

Beth: And there’s always going to be people who will tell you it’s not a good idea but if you think it’s a good idea you should do it.

You chose Sauble Beach for your location. What makes that a good location and what should other trucks look for when choosing a location?

Beth: We chose the beach because of the traffic.  There’s a lot of people who come through here so that’s a lot of exposure for us.  We had a connection to lease the land so we were lucky to find a pretty ideal spot on a main street at the beach.  I would look for high traffic areas because when you’re operating a food truck you do high volume in a short period of time.

Emily: Offer something that other places close by aren’t offering.  I think that’s a big deal too.

Beth: There seems to be some resistance in smaller communities towards food trucks coming in because brick and mortar establishments feel as though it’s a threat but if you’re doing something they’re not doing . . . I mean business is business and competition is competition.  We’re not competition if we’re not doing what they’re doing.  Just do something different.

As a new business you had to get your names out there and work on your promotion right down to small things like containers, how did you build your brand?

Beth: That was one of the hardest decisions.  The name and the logo. You have to put a lot of thought into it.  We just wanted something wholesome.

Emily: We knew we wanted to use recyclable or biodegradable takeout containers and we wanted to a natural wholesome look that was eye-catching.  It was weird how it just sort of started to fall into place.

Beth: It was more about making it a brand than something just for the truck.  We almost called it something that had “the truck” in it but it was limiting in terms of your overall opportunities.

Emily: For the logo we started out by going on the site and we were trying to get a logo but we weren’t really happy with what people were sending us.

Beth: They were so bad (laughs).

Emily: They were terrible (laughs). Just the opposite of what we wanted. My boyfriend Jesse got the concept right away. We gave him the idea of what we were going for and between he and Logan Gabel they just nailed it. We were really lucky to have him come up with that.

What are some unexpected things you didn’t really anticipate?

Emily: There were so many.

Beth: The permit fees and all the different deposits.

Emily: The cost of building materials. That really blew my mind, I can’t believe how much wood costs.

Beth: Little things end up costing a lot of money and we were lucky enough to have free labor most of the time.

Emily: Things like the electrical system that we had to have put in or else our insurance wouldn’t have cover us.  That cost a lot of money.

What are some of the challenges and benefits or working in a truck rather than a restaurant?

Emily: The biggest challenge would be the space or lack of space. The lack of the storage space and refrigerator space. I guess weather. We’re just a take out so if it’s raining we don’t have a lot of covered area for people to sit under and if it’s cold people don’t really want to come, although we’re finding that people still are so hopefully that means the food is worth it.

Beth: It’s intriguing, telling people about it, having the story behind it.  The truck itself is something that people aren’t used to.

Emily: It can be managed by just Beth and I.  We can cook everything from scratch and we know what’s going on with everything everywhere. We we’re able to give it the exact look we wanted.

Beth: It’s cool. I think the benefit for people is that it’s an open kitchen; you can see that it’s all happening in there. You can watch it all being made in a small space, which I think is exciting to some people. Most people are really impressed and that’s really satisfying.

How was your first summer?

Beth: It was awesome.

Emily: It was really really awesome.

Beth: It was a whirlwind. I can’t believe it’s already over.  You learn so much and everyday is so busy.  If you’re going to open a food truck prepare to be really busy. It was awesome though, we got a really great response, jumped over a lot of hurdles.

Emily: We had to deal with getting open and serving really great food to the standards that we wanted while at the same time dealing with things like our neighbours showing up and complaining that we were barbecuing. Just small things like that, we were trying to give our customers really great food and really great service but in the background we were dealing with all this stuff.  Overall it went really well.  Now we’re planning for next season and we know what to expect and we know that we’ll need to hire more people.

What are you looking to change for next year?

Beth: We’re going to expand a little bit to give ourselves some more storage space and work space.

Emily: We’d like to do more catering and festivals.  We’d like to be open longer hours so we can do breakfast and late night food.

Beth: We’ll reassess what we wrote on our big menu back in March.  Maybe we can do some more of those options (laughs).

Do you have any final advice for people looking to open a food truck?

Beth: Don’t’ try to do it by yourself.  Be open to people helping you.

Emily: You need that support.  Either from your partner or your family or your friends.  Don’t give up even if you want to because it will be worth it in the end.  If you have a solid idea stick with it.

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Casero Taco Bus
Ontario, Canada