Food truck 101

Instrucktional offers training, expertise to would-be food-truck entrepreneurs

Four months ago, Elizabeth Miranda was just another aspiring baker, working her way through the management ranks at Kara's Cupcakes after graduating from Le Cordon Bleu culinary college in Sacramento.

But a new, perhaps one-of-a-kind program aimed at teaching people like Miranda how to build a food-truck business from the ground up is putting her career on the fast track.

Instrucktional is a new program from Bay Area food-truck giant Off the Grid, which since 2010 has steadily taken over the Bay Area with its popular markets, including ones in Palo Alto, Mountain View and Menlo Park.

The two-year program puts participants through all of the necessary training, from cooking to marketing to operations, to run a successful mobile-food business. They don't even need to have any culinary experience to qualify.

Off the Grid founder Matt Cohen said the idea came from the many passionate, entrepreneurial people who apply for a spot at one of the company's markets but lack the level of culinary or business skills necessary to make it.

"This was a real opportunity for us to bring those two needs together -- a passion (for) entrepreneurship, but also, at the same time, the business structure and training to give people a real launching pad to be able to learn the skills necessary to run a really successful food business," Cohen said.

Off the Grid partnered with Google to launch Instrucktional in December. The two companies had already worked together to build Google's mobile catering program, The Whole Cart, which aims to "use mobile food as an innovative way to change corporate dinning," Cohen said. Appropriately, Instrucktional is described as an incubator program that provides a "supportive, creative environment for aspiring entrepreneurs in the food industry to develop and test their concepts, along with the tools needed to be successful in the public market" in a press release from Off the Grid.

Instrucktional's 24-month curriculum is carefully mapped out, week by week, touching on everything from taking inventory, ordering and kitchen skills to financial planning, business strategy, branding and design, marketing strategy, personnel management and overall business operations. The entire process is guided by Off the Grid employees, like its executive chef and operations people, who function as expert mentors for the participants.

To top it off, participants get paid as full-time Whole Cart employees with full benefits, Cohen said.

People like Miranda start the program with basic culinary training at Off the Grid's commissary kitchen in San Francisco, then move to working as line cooks on food trucks serving meals at Google's campus in Mountain View. They're expected to prepare the trucks at another commissary in Hayward, picking up whatever food is needed for that day's menu, and then drive them to Mountain View each day. At the end of the day, it's back to Hayward, where they take inventory of the food, refill water and propane tanks, clean the trucks and restock for another day of service.

Participants progress to taking on leadership roles on the trucks. Miranda is currently working as a supervisor, managing the other employees, keeping track of inventory and overseeing service. She rotates trucks depending on where she's needed each day.

The real fun comes next: planning and testing Miranda's own food-truck concept.

Growing up in Modesto, Miranda said she was always baking at home. For family parties, she and her cousin tested recipes from a "Fundamentals of Baking" cookbook her mother bought her.

When it came time to go to college, she decided to attend a culinary program at a junior college in Modesto. It was a test of her commitment to the profession -- her parents wanted her to pursue a "more financially steady route" but said if she completed that program and still wanted to move forward, they would help her go to culinary school.

Miranda ended up studying baking and pastry at Le Cordon Bleu. She did her "externship" at Thomas Keller's well-regarded Ad Hoc in Yountville, then moved to Kara's Cupcakes in Palo Alto. She soon progressed from baker to assistant manager and then manager, and helped open a new Kara's location in Burlingame.

Drawing on her Mexican background, Miranda's truck will be a Mexican-French dessert concept. She just started testing out recipes, which she does each Friday at the commissary kitchen. Last week, she started working on a twist on the classic Mexican breakfast dish, chilaquiles -- topping them with a sweet, rather than savory, sauce.

She'll soon start working on the identity, branding and physical look of the truck. Off the Grid will help her design it all, and when she completes the program, it's hers to keep.

Miranda said the most valuable aspect of the program has been the business side.

"Just getting to learn how to open a business, a food truck from the bottom up -- I never had experience in that," she said. "I've always known I wanted to own a business, but if I wanted to do it on my own, I'd have to go elsewhere and pay for it and take out a loan probably and do who knows what else."

Once her truck is ready, she'll spend the second year of the program running it at Google. She'll also have opportunities to do pop-ups at Off the Grid markets, and learn more about financing, insurance and the legal requirements of running a business, Cohen said.

"By the time they leave, they have a business plan, they own the branding and identity they worked on, and they take that and hopefully start a food truck or a quick service (establishment) and get involved in the food industry," he added. "We think it's a really a first-of-its-kind program for how to start people in the food business or let people who are passionate about something really explore the food business as what they want to do."

Cohen said he's heard of other food-incubator programs, but they're mostly nonprofits, aren't paid and focus more on launching a business rather than developing one.

Instrucktional accepts applications on a rolling basis, and no previous culinary experience is required to apply. Acceptance criteria is also "not solely based on applicants' concept ideas but on innovation, potential for growth and ambition as an entrepreneur," according to a press release. Off the Grid is aiming to enroll eight participants in its first year of operation. By the end of that year, five of those participants will have completed training and received the approvals necessary to launch their food trucks.

"My hope is that in two years from now, when the first graduates start graduating from this program, it's going to have a rising-tide, raising-all-boats effect for the mobile food industry in the Bay Area to really improve the already excellent food that we have," Cohen said.

For more information and to apply, go to instrucktional.com or email info@instrucktional.com.

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