American Poutine Co.’s Road to Success
Starting a food truck can be a complicated and difficult endeavor, especially when you don’t have prior foodservice experience. After working in the oil and gas industry in northern Canada for 16 years, Brendan McGuinness founded The American Poutine Co. with his wife, Mareka, in 2014. To learn more about their road to success in the restaurant industry, we talked to him about growing their food truck business to include a storefront location, a separate ice cream concept, and a towing company.
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“The very first day we ran, we had this idea that we’d park in the parking lot of this really busy liquor store,” McGuinness says. “It wasn’t as triumphant as we thought it would be – I think we did $80 in sales in 9 hours.”
The entrepreneurs can look back at the beginning of their food truck journey and “have some good laughs” about their struggles, but they steered the business in the right direction by familiarizing themselves with the industry and their community. To avoid parking in unprofitable locations, McGuinness recommends that food truck owners get in touch with the person or people in charge of organizing events around town.
“Who are the organizers for events that go on in the city you’re in? Who organizes the lunch stops at corporate buildings and things like that? Because they’re a real big asset,” McGuinness says. “You’ll pay a percentage to them, but that percentage is definitely well worth it because you’re paying them to do all of the advertisement, basically. They put out the posts on social media that there’s an event at this location every Friday [and] they’re emailing menus to the offices that we stop at in advance so companies know what day which trucks are going to be there. We learned that lesson hard the first month or so, but after that we started doing pretty well.”
Their food truck schedule became so crowded – sometimes packed with up to 50 events a month – that they had to turn opportunities down, and eventually bought a second food truck in 2015 to keep up with the demand. Both American Poutine Co. food trucks are still in operation, and have recently been joined by a third food truck for a sister concept, I Scream Sandwich Co.
Since the McGuinnesses were able to draw on the dos and don’ts they learned during their first food truck launch, making a functional mobile kitchen was a much easier process the second and third time around.
“The only reason I’m starting [I Scream] is because after a few years in the business now, we’re really connected and we really know the industry,” McGuinness says. “If you don’t have a big background in cooking, it’s kind of tough to know how to lay things out, and when you buy a used food truck, typically it’s going to be laid out to suit the person who had it before you. It was a big learning curve for us with that first truck, and it went through a lot of changes over the course of a year. In the very beginning it didn’t have air conditioning in it, and the exhaust fan didn’t function that well so it was really hot in there.”
However, buying a used food truck and finding a way to make it work is the best option for many entrepreneurs hoping to launch a mobile concept.
“Unless you have unlimited funds to buy a brand new truck with all the bells and whistles and have it built custom-suited to your needs, you have to be flexible,” McGuinness says.
The American Poutine Co. opened its storefront location in 2017, but launching a brick-and-mortar version of the mobile poutinerie was always part of their long-term entrepreneurial plans. Aside from the obvious advantages of having a stationary location for customers to visit, the restaurant in Gilbert, Ariz., has helped the McGuinnesses streamline their processes.
“Part of having the trucks is that [in the Phoenix area] there are a lot of rules and regulations in place that mean you can’t have the food truck parked at your house,” McGuinness says. “Most people have the trucks parked at storage facilities and things like that. Then you have a commissary you have to use for prepping food, which can turn out to be a lot of extra hours that you have to put into your business where maybe you’re not getting a return, because your [return on investment] is coming when you’re at an event making money [and not] when you’re doing all these tedious tasks [like] having to go get supplies, go to your storage facility, load your truck, [then] drive your truck to a commissary. A restaurant serves as a really good home base for the trucks.“
Now that McGuinness has been working with food trucks for several years, he’s also started another venture to meet a crucial but underserved need in the industry: towing services.
“It’s a nightmare, getting a food truck towed, because the only options you have are big tow trucks,” McGuinness says. “I have a 2-ton truck capable of towing 30,000 pounds, and then I have a 35-foot gooseneck trailer with a winch. I can winch a truck onto my trailer, secure it, and tow it wherever.”
Although McGuinness’s background in the oil and gas industry has helped him maintain his food trucks, being stranded with a malfunctioning vehicle is an inevitable scenario for any food truck operator.
“I know what it’s like to sit on the side of the road, broken down in a food truck, for 4 hours in 110 degrees,” McGuinness says. “You have all these cooks who start food trucks – [but] they’re not mechanics, they’re not truckers. There’s a whole other aspect to owning food trucks that a lot of people don’t necessarily think about.”
For many entrepreneurs relying on mobile kitchens to launch their careers in the restaurant industry, it may not be possible to anticipate every bump in the road – but a lot of preparation is the best way to buckle up for the long haul.