by Ed Kowalski
You’ve read in these pages about the booming craft beer scene in Columbus. Everyone knows that the only thing that makes great beer better is great food, and one of the only industries to rival the growth of said beer scene is the mobile food business. From pushcarts and trailers to fully-equipped trucks, mobile food has exploded in C-bus, from a handful of operators as recently as 2010 to roughly 150 now. Contributing to the growth of the industry are recently revised mobile food laws in the city that are more operator-friendly, as well as a tremendous amount of business and community support, namely Street Eats Columbus, the Food Fort, and the annual Columbus Food Truck Festival.
Chef Tony Layne, a veteran of central Ohio kitchens, launched the latest addition to the Columbus food truck community in March with Por’Ketta, a family-run affair serving up a menu of rotisserie chicken and porchetta, an Italian specialty that has been selected by the Ministero delle Politiche Agricole, Alimentari e Forestali as a prodotto agroalimentare tradizionale (traditional agricultural-alimentary product, one of a list of traditional Italian foods held to have cultural relevance).
I took the opportunity to chat with Chef Tony and sample some of his wares:
ManBQue (Ed Kowalski): Why a food truck, and not a brick and mortar?
Tony Layne: Simple: lower startup cost, flexibility in terms of location, smaller staff size. Columbus is a food-knowledgeable and food-driven town that supports good food and drink.
MBQ: How did your family react when you told them your dream?
TL: The past couple of years in the hotel business was kind of soul-sucking. My family saw that, and we had been talking about this for a few years. My youngest of five children is a senior in high school and I finally had that “fuck you” moment at work. My wife Michelle and son Conner are working on the truck with me, with guest appearances by my other children. Extended family has also been very supportive and excited. The question “Why haven’t you done this earlier?” comes up a lot.
MBQ: What kind of capital was needed to get Por’Ketta up and running? What sources of financing did you use?
TL: It took about $43,000 from concept to opening the window and serving food, and that included 3 months’ living expenses while the concept was being developed. I cashed in my 401k to help finance it. I wouldn’t advise this under normal circumstances because of the tax penalty; however, under my time constraints, it worked out.
MBQ: What kind of support, if any, did you receive from your fellow food truck operators?
TL: No cold shoulders at all. They are very open with advice, sharing their stories, what obstacles to avoid, etc. I could pick up a phone anytime! Shout outs are too many to name…Jamie Anderson, Albert Thurn and crew, Stephen Redzinak, Laura Lee, Jim Pashovich, Brian Thorton, Neil Hertenstein, just to name a few.
MBQ: Any thoughts on future expansion, or of opening a brick and mortar?
CT: Definitely in my thoughts…the right spot, a vibrant neighborhood…
MBQ: Do you plan to operate from a fixed location, or will you be moving around?
TL: deally I would like to find a fixed location. For now, we will be moving around, At this point we are reaching out to and pairing with breweries, which is really cool.
MBQ: Realistically, what kind of headcount do you need to make it worthwhile? What level of revenue do you need to hit to survive? What is your break-even point?
TL: A good day would be 150 covers. $1800 per outing, 3 times a week. Break-even would be $600 per shift.
MBQ: What is your target food cost?
TL: Looking for 30% or lower, but not too low. I pick the best ingredients and that costs. Luckily, I can blow out food cost a bit, since I have lower food costs over a traditional brick and mortar.
MBQ: Obviously, marketing Por’Ketta will be a big part of your success. Do you plan to focus on social media (Facebook, Twitter), or will you be using any kind of advertising?
TL: In today’s age, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are invaluable for advertising, promotion, and cross-promotion (and they’re free). You just have to be diligent to harness it effectively.
MBQ: Ohio weather is notorious for changing from one extreme to the other within hours. In the event of inclement weather, how do you let your customers know whether you’ll be open for business?
TL: It’s one of my big concerns, just from watching food trucks braving the winter and all the rain from last spring and summer. Facebook and Twitter blasts are the best way to communicate quickly.
MBQ: Tell us a little about porchetta, and why you chose it as one of your two primary menu offerings [the other being rotisserie chicken].
TL: Pork is my favorite protein to work with, so versatile and so tasty. Why did I pick porchetta? Because it is one of my favorite things on this planet to eat: pork loin slathered in fresh herbs and spices wrapped in luxurious pork belly and slow-roasted until the skin is crispy and the inside is tender and juicy.
MBQ: A lot of restaurants fail when they expand their menus in an attempt to be all things to all customers. Do you see yourself expanding the menu down the road, or keeping it simple and streamlined?
TL: I chose to keep my concept and menu small and focused for just this reason. When I go out to eat, I would rather have a small, focused menu where each item is made correctly than a hundred items made half-ass.
MBQ: Do you have a secret to your preparation that you’d care to share?
TL: Absolutely…and secrets they shall remain! One tip: marinate for 24 hours and do not wrap, so the skin can dry…this equates to a crispier skin.
TL: I would say the best advice is to keep the concept and brand focused, be unique. Whatever your budget, double it…and make sure working capital is part of the equation.
MBQ: You mentioned reaching out to and partnering with local breweries to set up shop, and your food pairs really well with beer. What local brew would you pick to pair with porchetta?
TL: I like a lot of different types of beer, usually something in the Belgian style, love porters and stouts even in summer. But that might not be the formula for everyone else as all tastes are different. My recommendation is to grab some of our food and a flight…eat, repeat you will find a favorite [Author’s note: I paired Chef Tony’s porchetta sandwich with a Brass Knuckle American Pale Ale from Grandview’s Four String Brewing]
MBQ: We’ve talked about the meat and the beer, so what tunes are you listening to?
TL: Right now, I am listening to John Lee Hooker. In any one day, I could start out with some Miles Davis, transition to Haggard, Cash or Waylon (old country), Metallica or Hendrix, off day grilling could be Reggae Blues…all over the place depending on mood, time, and place. So… short answer, I’m digging what Jack White has been doing the last couple of years.