7 Tips from a Food Trailer Owner Who Grew a Profitable Business in Just One Year

Sometimes, all it takes to start a business is seeing a niche and deciding, “I can meet that need.” For Staples® SUCCEED: Small Business Network community member and Burro Cheese Kitchen founder Justin Burrow, the niche is comfort food for the gourmet palate — and he fills it with sophisticated grilled cheese sandwiches that incorporate complex flavors like balsamic apricot fig and spicy maple bacon sauce.

Why grilled cheese? Burrow, who worked in sales management and business development before opening his Austin, TX–based Burro Cheese Kitchen food trailer in 2013, says, “I saw a big hole in the marketplace for a comfort food that’s as common as the hamburgers and slices of pizza that we grew up with. You’re hungry; here’s bread and cheese. It’s familiar, and the possible combinations are endless.”

Here, Justin shares his SUCCEED Seven insights on diving in as a new business owner, finding success, and making mistakes:

1. Test Before You Invest: I decided to go into business for myself because I knew I wanted to open my own business; the decision to pursue grilled cheese was first and the decision on how to pursue it was second.

Opening a food trailer has a much lower overhead to prove out your food model than opening a restaurant. It doesn’t make sense to throw money into something before you know it works. The decision to open a trailer let us invest easier and capitalize on that amazing food truck culture that was growing when we opened.

2. Leverage Others’ Expertise: In my first year as a business owner I really just dove in without a formal knowledge base. I learned what was needed because it was just that — what was needed. My appetite to learn about the business and what would make it succeed was insatiable. If I didn't know the answer to a problem or challenge, I found people who did. Talking to as many people as possible about their particular expertise will pay amazing dividends in the success of your business.

My main mentor was the general manager of a food business here in Austin, and he spun off on his own business. We were friends first and I asked for advice second. He became one of my biggest advocates and sounding boards as we moved forward.

My father also was a business owner and watching him do what he did for several decades inspired me to pursue a similar path. He owned a small, local auto-repair shop here in Austin for more than 20 years. He started it from the ground up, and he really showed me what to do and what not to do in order to manage costs and maximize profits.

3. Hire (and Pay) Right: My biggest business challenges are managing labor hours, maintaining quality as we grow and providing a consistently high level of customer service.

Labor costs are a challenge for any business, big or small. The best way to manage them is to seek out and hire people who care about the work they’re doing, not just about the financial return to them. If you hire people who care and pay them a bit more, then they’re invested in your business, which results in a lower turnover rate.

We set up a business model and a business plan before we even thought about opening. I can’t stress how important that is. If you plan to sail to the southern tip of Africa without a map, well, good luck getting there. Create a map and a game plan for your business that helps you get there. Then adjust as you go.

4. Understand the Finances: My biggest business mistake to date is not listening to my accountant. ALWAYS listen to your accountant.

One example that comes to mind is making sure that I had my sales taxes lined up to pay on a regular basis and my payroll taxes organized and automated. My accountant called and asked, “Have you done this yet?” and I had to adjust really quickly in those first two months. I’m fortunate that he thought of this and called me on it, so we could take care of it before it created a real catastrophe. I didn’t know I was supposed to pay these taxes — there are a million of these little things that you don’t know before opening your business. My advice? Really know what taxes you’re liable for and add them into your budget before you open.

5. Recognize Positive Feedback: I knew my business was going to be a success when we were profitable after just one year, and Mashable, Zagat and Thrillist wrote about us. Plus, our customers tell us every day that our grilled cheese is the best sandwich they’ve ever had.

6. Know Your Sales Cycle: The biggest lesson I’ve learned as a small business owner is there’s a big danger in not knowing the sales cycle before it happens, and subsequently not planning cash flow and labor hours according to those natural annual downturns.

Before our first summer in business, I looked at sales cycles and knew there would be a natural dip in revenue during the summer. Especially in a food truck environment, people don’t dine out when it’s 102 degrees. I saw those statistics but didn’t realize how hard hit we would be. I didn’t make adjustments on staff, inventory levels or any of those costs early enough, and we had four months of straight losses. In order to compensate, we took cash advances in the fall, and then the weather cooled down and revenues came back around.

Having learned my lesson, the next year, I started making cutbacks in May. But instead of just cutting costs, I looked for other ways to bring in revenue during the summer. We signed up with a couple of catering services and brought our food to office buildings downtown. We also invested in a mobile truck that could travel to events with higher volumes, so instead of waiting for customers to come to us, we traveled to them. By looking for new ways to generate revenue on top of curbing our costs, we changed the dynamic and had a very profitable summer.

7. You Must Wear Many Hats: I would remind aspiring entrepreneurs that business is not a singular approach. Branding, products and services, fiscal management and staff all are equally important; one isn’t more important than another.

Bonus: My most important tool on the job is my phone, since I can talk to people who connect me to a deal that converts to a sale. Real people are still the best resource for business growth, although you will need every bit of modern tech to promote relevance — we use Instagram and Twitter daily for marketing.

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