When people learn Tony Epefanio owns a food-truck business, their typical response is, “Oh, that sounds like so much fun!”
As president of the fledgling Greater Spokane Food Truck Association, Epefanio naturally tends to promote that mystique.
So he might not mention the time he bought 1,000 sausages and buns for an event, and only sold six.
Or that startup costs for a food trailer like his can run $30,000, plus fees, permits and $4,000 for a quiet generator.
Or the toll taken by endless hours spent satisfying concert fans’ feeding frenzies.
“Some shows at the Gorge (Amphitheatre in George, Washington) are crazy,” he says. “At the Paradiso Festival, they eat 24 hours a day. I’ll open up Thursday afternoon and won’t close until they leave Sunday morning.
“But I’ve also gone to the Gorge and lost almost $5,000 because fans didn’t show up. Some of these events are a huge gamble.”
Gambling is something he knows about, having spent 11 years dealing in local card rooms.
During a recent break in his frenetic food-serving schedule, Epefanio discussed how to make a go of the mobile-meal business, and his association’s upcoming sampler event.
S-R: Where did you grow up?
Epefanio: Oregon, Arizona, Washington. We moved to Nine Mile after I finished eighth grade, and I attended Lakeside High School.
S-R: Did you have a favorite class or activity?
Epefanio: I liked sports. I played football, basketball and baseball.
S-R: What was your first job?
Epefanio: My mom is a registered nurse, so I got a job washing dishes at the old Regency Care Center as soon as I turned 16.
S-R: What career did you envision for yourself?
Epefanio: I’d always liked law enforcement and the military – my dad retired from the Air Force. So after high school, I enlisted. I did law enforcement stateside, and security during four tours in the Middle East.
S-R: Was there a particular moment that changed the direction of your life?
Epefanio: Yes, when my first son was about to be born. During four years in the Air Force, I saw a lot of families fall apart. Law enforcement also is hard on families. I was going to re-enlist, but I didn’t because I wanted to make sure I was around my child.
S-R: What did you do instead?
Epefanio: I moved back here and went to work dealing craps and roulette at Northern Quest, then worked in multiple card rooms around town.
S-R: What was it about food carts that caught your interest?
Epefanio: My three kids all play sports, so I’d see the carts at events. And I’ve always been entrepreneurial. So when a buddy came back from North Carolina talking about seeing them on all the beaches, we decided to try it.
S-R: What did it cost to start the business?
Epefanio: We got a good deal on a basic hot dog cart, which normally cost $5,000 or $6,000. Then there was another $1,000 in fees and permits.
S-R: Do mobile food vendors pay to set up next to a business?
Epefanio: Maybe if it’s a really good spot. But usually businesses pay us to be there, because we draw customers to them.
S-R: Did you have a mentor?
Epefanio: No, I learned the hard way. But some of the mistakes I made are why I now make money, and why, as president of the Greater Spokane Food Truck Association, I can help people starting out. I recommend they hook up with someone and do this for six months, so they can see what they’re getting into.
S-R: Describe one of your own learning experiences.
Epefanio: I thought it would to be like the movies – people lining up to buy our Shameless Sausages. So when some guy invited us to his event and promised it would be great, my partner and I packed up 1,000-plus sausages and buns, went up there, and only sold six all day. The rest went in the dumpster. That was a tough lesson. Now, if I’m invited to something like a wedding or family reunion, the customer signs a contract guaranteeing me a minimum amount of sales – say $600. If I don’t do that much business, they make up the difference. I just booked a Gonzaga graduation party with that arrangement. We’ll serve meals and invoice the sponsor afterward.
S-R: Is everything cooked on-site?
Epefanio: Yes, although some prep work is done at a commissary. That’s another expense – every mobile unit has to have a commissary, like Kitchen Spokane out on Pines. You can’t do your prep work at home.
S-R: Did you ever worry the business might fail?
Epefanio: Yes – particularly that first year. The key is not making the same mistakes over and over. Now I know what questions to ask before an event, and 99 percent of the time I can figure out if it’s worth my time.
S-R: Was there a major turning point?
Epefanio: The Paradiso show at the Gorge in 2013. That’s when I realized the potential of bigger events. Working the Gorge also led to us being hired by Live Nation to do their events at the White River Amphitheatre in Auburn.
S-R: How else has your business evolved since 2011?
Epefanio: My former partner, Nick, and I started with the hot dog cart. Now my girlfriend, Nat (Vargas), and I have the hot dog cart and a mobile-kitchen food trailer. Last weekend, I was out with the hot dog cart and she was at another event with the trailer.
S-R: Tell me about the Greater Spokane Food Truck Association.
Epefanio: We have over 20 members. We encourage networking, teach new members about minimums and the best places to go, and connect them with potential customers through our website (greaterspokanefoodtrucks.com).
S-R: What’s Grubbin’?
Epefanio: That’s our association’s annual event. This year it’s May 21 at Lilac Lanes & Casino (1112 E. Magnesium Road). We’ll have 17 food trucks there offering samples, plus a beer garden, DJ and bouncy castle. Tickets are $20 presale or $25 at the door, with receipts covering association members’ costs and hopefully putting a few bucks in their pockets. But the main thing is to promote our association and get bookings.
S-R: Do you have a business philosophy?
Epefanio: I never serve anything I wouldn’t eat myself. Also, I drop all my feelings at the door when I come to work, and put on a friendly face. I appreciate everyone who comes to my business, because I know if it weren’t for them I couldn’t take care of my family.
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Epefanio: When people taste our food and the satisfaction shows on their face.
S-R: Who deserves credit for that?
Epefanio: All the Asian and island food we now offer are Nat’s recipes. She’s from Thailand, and her parents owned a restaurant in Guam.
S-R: What’s the hardest part of your job?
Epefanio: The hours.
S-R: How many days a week do you work?
Epefanio: Sometimes seven. This time of year I might not have a day off for a couple of months. Things will start slowing down again in October, when we mostly do drop-off catering. But we’re hoping our new Mixed Plate business will result in lots of Christmas parties.
S-R: How much do food-truck operators earn?
Epefanio: You can make good money. On a really good day, I may gross a few thousand dollars. But you can also lose a lot of money, depending on the weather and crowds.
S-R: What other factors affect sales?
Epefanio: Pictures of your food are important. People eat with their eyes.
S-R: How old are your kids?
Epefanio: My sons are 18 and 16, and my daughter is 14.
S-R: Are they likely to join the family business?
Epefanio: They tell me they’re proud of their dad when they come to an event where I’m working. But that’s not their focus right now, and I don’t push anything on them.
S-R: What has this job taught you about yourself?
Epefanio: That I’m strong, at least mentally. Physically I’m breaking down. (laugh)
S-R: Besides hard work, what does it take to succeed in this business?
Epefanio: You have to be able to take criticism, even if it’s not fair. And if you screw up, you have to own your mistakes and make things right.
S-R: What would you change about yourself?
Epefanio: I’d be less intense.
S-R: How do you relax?
Epefanio: I’m still trying to learn how to do that.
S-R: What changes are ahead for you and Nat?
Epefanio: We’re hoping our expanded menu will open up new opportunities – either a food truck or a brick-and-mortar location.
S-R: Can customers request something not on the menu?
Epefanio: Sure, and we’ll fix it if we have the product. Some just want white rice. One customer wanted a bun with only ketchup and mustard – no dog. In cases like that, I give it to them for nothing.
S-R: Do people ask for your recipes?
Epefanio: Yes, but we don’t give away our secrets. (laugh) And, truthfully, the people wouldn’t be able to do what we do even if they had the recipe, because there’s so much to it.
Writer Michael Guilfoil can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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