Canadian Business Spotlight: Home Appliances Food Co.
Meet Rob & Jen, the people behind Home Appliances Food Co., a new food truck just north of Yonge & Eglinton serving up delicious burgers, fries and donuts.
Jen first got introduced to the hospitality industry through her parent’s restaurant. “At 14 is when I really got a taste for the restaurant life. And then from there, I got a server job through university, and then found my way into management positions by working my way up.” She subsequently enrolled in culinary school to better understand the back-of-house, which Jen said is paying dividends now more than ever: “It helps us now when we’re doing menu costing.” Her last role before opening Home Appliances Food Co. was as the General Manager of Soso Food Club, which unfortunately didn’t survive the pandemic.
As for Rob, he went to George Brown College for culinary management, but stopped going to class part way through second year. “There were a bunch of things that were happening in my life, but school has always been a tough one for me. I just want to get my hands dirty and I would sit in class and just fidget and my mind would wander. So, I didn’t finish that course, but I immediately got a job in the culinary industry. I started at an Italian place downtown and was there for five years. I was brand new to everything as far as cooking goes and it was a huge wake-up call with respect to hours and the amount of hard work required. Like how many times you had to do something to get really good at it. And I mean, I had a lot of terrible nights but there were a lot of great nights, and I met some really good friends in the front of house and influential chefs.” From there, Rob began to move around, highlighting that chefs were always in high demand due to the high turnover rate in the industry. “They usually give you a shot, and so I started compiling experience and did that for about 15 years.” He dabbled between restaurants, catering and working with friends on pop-ups, but always had it in the back of his mind that he wanted his own restaurant.
It was a huge wake-up call with respect to hours and the amount of hard work required. Like how many times you had to do something to get really good at it.
brick-and-mortar vs food truck
Rob and Jen began searching for restaurant spaces but shortly after, the pandemic hit. Rob explained, “we found ourselves with a ton of free time and I took it as a chance to do things that I hadn’t done in a while. I started drawing again” – something he used to be great at, but had put to the side when he got involved in the culinary world – “And we started taking care of ourselves a little bit more. We were working 16-hour days, five days a week, killing ourselves to try to make the restaurants we were working at run properly. And then all of a sudden, everything was taken away just like that.”
At that point, Rob and Jen began evaluating their options to make ends meet. “We found ourselves in a jobless situation where everyone else in our industry was also becoming jobless.” Jen elaborated, “We really had two options: Do we want to put ourselves in that pool of candidates and compete to try to get the next thing that opens up whenever restaurants open up again? Or do we want to take a different type of risk and throw everything we have into doing our own thing? We chose doing our own thing. So, then you start to look at ‘how much money can we afford to put into this?’, and the feasibility of a brick-and-mortar place just wasn’t available to us.”
Rob continued, “We would have needed a huge loan to start a brick-and-mortar restaurant, which was daunting to us because we had never been to a bank for a loan before. When you start doing the calculations for a food truck, at least we were almost halfway there. It felt easier to ask for that, especially when we were putting in just as much risk as anybody else.”
Do we want to put ourselves in that pool of candidates and compete to try to get the next thing that opens up whenever restaurants open up again? Or do we want to take a different type of risk and throw everything we have into doing our own thing?
making a go of it
In terms of the costs, Rob and Jen were extremely diligent at identifying all of the elements associated with opening a food truck, and their resourcefulness helped them save money many times over. They found that useful resources on how to start a food truck were few and far between, so the pair spent a lot of time asking questions, scouring the internet and digging further when something felt off. They ended up working with Food Trucks Canada to fix up the used truck that they bought. Getting the permits took some time through Service Ontario, due to COVID – it took about a month from when they submitted their application to when they received the license. One of the toughest elements was understanding insurance – they were originally being quoted approximately $1,000 per month, but after “calling seven different insurance companies, the Ministry of Transportation and Service Ontario”, they finally found out that if they weighed the truck and it was under a certain weight, they only needed regular auto insurance which would save them thousands per year. Their resourcefulness didn’t stop there – they negotiated deals on propane to further lower their operating costs and managed to lock in their ideal location – a parking lot in their old neighbourhood – after significant efforts to get in touch with the right people.
I could eat burgers every day! And the only time I’ll choose not to eat a burger is if a place has a fried chicken sandwich.
Rob’s original vision for the truck was vastly different than it appears today – he originally pictured a barebones, unfinished truck with a neon logo on the side. The design pivoted when Rob began mocking up different logos, which were all rooted in a name that they had come to love. “The name is where we started, because back when we were looking for spaces for brick-and-mortar restaurants, a lot of them happened to be closed down home appliance stores. They had old 1960s and 1970s signs in the front – some of them were just hand painted. So I thought, we keep seeing these home appliance stores, I should just call the restaurant Home Appliances and then keep whatever sign was originally out front. These are places we don’t see anymore – the old mom and pop appliance stores don’t exist – and to me that’s a little bit sad. I decided that I wanted to play homage to those little shops. So, it started with the name and then I drew a logo and showed it to Jen and a couple of close friends.” The first logo was orange and blue, which Rob liked because it felt retro. But then he began playing around with the limited set of markers they had at home and ended up landing on pink and teal.
Their intention was always to name it something more generic, so that over time they could adapt the menu as they wished. “We always wanted to have the ability to change the menu or add things to experiment, but I also knew that keeping things as simple as possible would reduce the number of items to worry about and lower the risk of something going wrong.”
Their initial menu was essentially developed around food that Rob and Jen loved. Rob loves burgers and his second go-to is a fried chicken sandwich, so they knew both had to be on the menu. As Rob said, “I could eat burgers every day! And the only time I’ll choose not to eat a burger is if a place has a fried chicken sandwich”. They also felt confident that they could make both much better than the vast majority of places. “If you took McDonald’s, for example, it’s not the best food but if you just took that model and replaced it with the best ingredients then you’ll get a very good burger.” The donuts came from a family recipe, passed down from Rob’s grandmother. “On special occasions, she would cook dinner and everybody would drink, eat and clean up and then she would start cutting donuts and heating the oil. As she fried them, everybody would gather around the table and she would dip them in honey glaze and pass them out. Our family would scarf the donuts until they were gone. 10 minutes later, another round would come out. I always thought that was a cool way to eat donuts. Most of the time, donuts have been sitting on a shelf for a while, but I wanted to serve them right out of the fryer – hot to the touch, with a gooey and warm centre.”
It’s very exposed, because it’s not like we have staff, so it’s literally us every day in the trenches.
Jen and Rob have had their food truck open for several weeks now, and are getting into an efficient groove. Jen elaborated, “Our days aren’t as long, with our longest opening hours being 12 to 8PM. Rob will usually leave the house at 9:30 or 10AM, and I will be down at the lot for 10-10:30AM. Rob will go to our butcher, which is Camden Market right up the street, and pick up our meat orders and prep on the truck. Around 11-11:30AM, I’m usually packing up things at home or picking up supplies, if we are short on anything. Once we close, Rob goes to the commissary – Uptown Brie – and does dishes. Then we come home and offload everything and restock for the next day.” The days are still long, usually clocking in at 12 hours, but are shorter than the 18 hours they were previously working at their former restaurant jobs.
As for being their own boss, both Rob and Jen are loving it, despite the different ways stress now manifests itself. Jen explained, “For me, it’s a different type of stress. There’s always pressure to perform when you work with someone, and pressure to do right by the company you’re being the face for. But there’s also a little bit of protection from the company if something went haywire. Now, we don’t have that, which is a little more stressful to me. But I also love that I can present myself fully as me, honestly and authentically without the ‘flight attendant attitude’. By the same token though, I don’t know if me fully and authentically will be received well by everybody. So that’s a little bit of stress. I sometimes wonder – should I tone it down or bring it back a little? It’s very exposed, because it’s not like we have staff, so it’s literally us every day in the trenches.” From my humble perspective, I think Jen being herself is pretty darn special. I first met her when she had no idea who I was or that I wanted to interview her, and she was incredibly engaging, warm and kind. They even brought another donut to our car because they thought they made a mistake on our order (they hadn’t, but we still got to taste test another donut!).
Rob, on the other hand, says he feels no stress at all. “The only time I would feel stress is if I’m behind on something, and I’ve assured that the amount of prep I have to do each day is so minimal that I know I can handle it.” Further, “I have full confidence that our food is really good. So, I just love feeding it to people. When I pack a bag of a banquet burger with a spicy chicken and fries and a dip, I am thinking, ‘I wish I was eating what you guys are taking home right now, because I know it’s going to be so good.’ When you’re making food like that, there’s very little stress”. Jen added, “Watching people eat our food stresses me out! There’s so much love and labour that goes into it, and so watching people sit on the curb and bite into it, that stresses me out. I always kind of peek outside and think, ‘I wonder if they’re enjoying it’. I probably shouldn’t look but I still do. And of course, there’s financial stress – we don’t have a regular paycheck like we used to be accustomed to. There’s a lot more fun that outweighs it, but it is in the back of my mind.”
Due to some delays in getting up and running, they ended up having to launch in the middle of winter, just after the holidays. “As the fall quickly passed, we knew we were looking at a winter opening in the first quarter of the year when everyone is done spending from the holidays. And, it also happens to be the coldest months. I learned from previous restaurants that I helped open that it’s never a good idea to open during that time, but we had no choice. I would say that we are as busy as we expected to be, with the winter and COVID. We knew that this community has a lot of residents, and we may be missing out on an influx of people who would normally commute to that area to work. We also know that some people may be thirsty for an activity while others are more conservative. Ultimately, it’s exactly what we expected.”
Something they were particularly focused on when opening was being able to supply their truck with products from the local area. They purchase their meats from Camden Market and their produce from Green Valley Produce. Buying local helps to ensure they “don’t have to bring anything home. I don’t have to store or stock anything. And in turn, we get to support local which was really important to us”.
And in turn, we get to support local which was really important to us.
As for the nagging desire to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant, both Rob and Jen are pretty content with where things are now. Jen explained, “I thought about that today. I was like, how long can we do this? Is the truck going to break down and that will be it? Am I going to run the truck until it no longer works anymore and I just push it into a field? I’m not sure. Right now, I think we are going to try to make this successful. In our eyes, anyway.” Rob added, “I’m happy. I’m content. I feel like I’m running a tiny little restaurant. And we don’t need that many people to make it work. I don’t feel this desire to go into a brick-and-mortar space – especially right now with the number of restaurants closing and people who have lost so much – I don’t wish that on anybody. So, I’m definitely more comfortable doing what I’m doing and it’s definitely fulfilling my dreams right now.”
10 Rapid-Fire Questions with the Founders
Your Most Popular Menu Item?
Jen: The donuts, which was a big surprise. I thought it would have been the burgers. (Check out their full menu here)
Must-Have Burger Topping?
Jen: Burger sauce! No wait, cheese.
Biggest expense with respect to operating the truck?
Jen: Food costs.
How much propane do you go through in a week?
Rob: We figured out that when we’re not busy, we shut one fryer off and turn half the grill off and I can make 100lb propane tank last for maybe four and a half days. We haven’t tried longer yet because I don’t want to run out in the middle of service.
A trend in the Netherlands is to dip fries in mayo. Yay or Nay?
Jen: Yes! They’re way ahead of us!
Is it Hot or Cold on the Truck?
Jen: Cold! Oh my gosh, it’s so cold! I am wearing four layers at any given moment. The exhaust fan sucks all of the hot air out and just leaves cold air in the truck. There is a door that separates the cabin from the kitchen – we put a heater in there and sit in the cab to get warm. It’s by no means warm, just warmer.
Favourite and least favourite part of running the truck?
Jen: Closing, is the least favourite part for me, with all of the duties and cleaning. You’d think I’d be used to it by now, but I think it’s just colder at night and by then I’m like, I need to go home – let’s wrap it up. My favourite part is all of the dogs that I get to see come up to the truck! You can never bring your dog inside of a restaurant, so it’s nice to have them right there in front of me. I love that. And they’re just such good talking points to get to know people.
Rob: My favourite part of this is just being my own boss. Working for yourself and having the things that you do represent you is the best feeling. It’s like the harder you try, the more effort you put in, the more positive feedback that you get from people – you no longer need an evaluation from your boss, since you get the direct response from the customers. That’s the best part. And I love surprising people with good things. I love when people come up and they’re like, ‘the truck is beautiful’.
Jen: I also think there’s also a small stigma around food truck food – before food trucks got really foodie, food trucks used to be chip trucks or hot dog vendors. That’s the era that we grew up in, and there was never a high expectation for anything good or super delicious. So, I really like knowing that maybe some people come up to the truck having that preconceived expectation that I used to have when I first learned about food trucks. And then they get something and they’re like “woah, that’s really cool and that it came out of something so small”. It’s pretty neat to be part of that world, and there’s a little bit of both of us in every sandwich that we make and every donut that we glaze.
Rob: And we get to decide our packaging, how we fold the bags, how we put the burgers in the bags. It’s super creative – you get to just do whatever you want.
Any upcoming changes to expect with the menu?
Rob: My plan has always been to keep this menu and add features. So, say one thing a month or a weekly special. My favourite way to cook is to go into a store, see what looks good and then pick that and try to do something with it. So, we will be experimenting, and if we come up with something really good that we think belongs on the menu for a little bit, then it becomes a special. But you can always come get a Banquet Burger from us.
Do you envision your truck moving to different areas or staying put?
Jen: So, we battled with that. We know we have that space at least until September, with the option to renew. It made more sense to us to want to develop our brand and become known. It’s hard to become known when you’re always moving. I think the idea of people knowing where to find us is the most important thing. The other thing that I found so apparent, when COVID hit and all these restaurants started closing, if you weren’t embedded in your community and protected by them, then you weren’t going to make it. People stopped going to all of these destination places across town. It was the local spots where people were loyal who were able to get by. That’s what we wanted to do in the place that we’re at. Go into the community and develop relationships with people so that the community supports us.
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