Sometimes, it is better to gain experience first by being an employee before starting a business. This rule can apply to anything even the food truck industry. Justin Koller, owner of Blue Smoke Barbeque, started out this way. Being a professional chef, cooking is something that he loves to do. He gained the experience first by exposing himself to the various aspects of the food service industry before deciding to start his own food truck business in Bozeman. Combining this passion for cooking with the less complicated setup of operating a food truck, he found his perfect match made in heaven. Read on to see how it all happened.
FTE: Tell me something about yourself and how you ended up owning and operating a food truck.
Chef Justin: My name is Justin Koller, and I own/operate Blue Smoke Barbeque in Bozeman, M. We have been serving 100% wood-smoked barbeque since December of 2014. I am a professionally trained chef with 20 years of experience in the food service industry. Since my graduation from Western Culinary Institute in 1996, I have been fortunate to work with some talented chefs in places such as Denali, AK, Jackson Hole, WY, Eugene, OR, Whitefish, MT, and have come to settle in beautiful Bozeman. Although my cooking experience included many different types and styles of cuisine, I had not cooked barbeque before.
My former partner is from Texas, and he has a passion for real wood-smoked barbeque. He approached me in early 2014 after a stint at one of the original barbeque joints in Austin, and that is how Blue Smoke started. We purchased a custom smoker from an outfit in Houston and started cooking briskets, ribs, pork shoulder and chickens. I had cooked and managed in restaurants, resorts, cafes and had helped others start businesses but had never owned/operated my own before. I wasn’t interested in operating a full service establishment so we set out to start a food truck. We purchased a used food truck in Coalstrip, MT and were open for business six weeks later.
FTE: It must have been quite a challenge setting up the business. How did you manage to pull it off? Did someone help you?
Chef Justin: I had worked with a friend in Whitefish, MT on and off for a few years who owned the Cuisine Machine, a catering/food trailer business. When I relocated to Bozeman, I was hired by the owner of LaFoley Wood Fired Pizza who operated a mobile wood-fired oven on the back of a custom 50’s era Chevy truck. My experience working for these two food truck businesses was the basis for wanting to own/operate my own. My passion has always been for cooking and not the managing side of the business so I knew the food truck would allow me to focus primarily on serving the best possible product to my customers with as little as possible distractions from the managing side of the business. The bigger you get, the less actual cooking you do yourself, and that’s the part I really enjoy.
Having already worked in the food service industry in MT for many years, I was familiar with local food purveyors, health department regulations and the customer base. This prior experience was important to avoid a lot of pitfalls early on that can sink a small business. I also understood that keeping overhead expenses low and not borrowing too much money to get started would make it more likely to be successful.
FTE: Sometimes, it is difficult to find the information you need to start your business right. Information about what licenses and permits to secure aren’t always readily available. How did you do it?
Chef Justin: Operating any type of food service establishment can be challenging. Health department regulations vary greatly from state to state and from county to county. Start by visiting the health department office in the county you are going to operate in. Here in Gallatin County, they were very helpful from day one and have been supportive ever since. As an owner/operator, you should be up to date in food handling regulations and training. Regulations often change and training certification usually needs to be updated on a regular basis. Food-born illnesses can ruin a business faster than anything, and operating a clean food truck is important since your customers can look into your kitchen when they come to eat your food. Mobile operations benefit from lesser regulations than a brick and mortar establishment, but you should always exceed established laws and regulations whenever possible.
FTE: What about parking? Has that been a problem for your food truck business?
Chef Justin: Local municipalities have different laws that regulate food trucks so check in with your city public works department to find out where you can park and for how long. I partnered with Bozeman Brewing Company, a local brewery with a tasting room who was looking to have a food operation for their patrons. When you are parked and operating on private property you are not subject to the same laws as you would be operating on the street.
FTE: What can you say about your experience operating in Bozeman? Has it been a positive one?
Chef Justin: Operating a food truck here in Bozeman has been relatively easy compared to other places around the country. It is a small community that supports local businesses, and my customers have been very loyal. I use only Montana-raised meats and local products whenever possible. I believe in supporting other businesses in the community and the state, even if it means paying a little more. I believe it’s worth it. One of my biggest expenses has turned out to be firewood for the smoker. Getting Texas post oak here to Montana is not cheap, but I was able to find a local firewood supplier who brings in large shipments. Always check out local suppliers before going to the bigger national companies as this will help get the word out about your business and supporting your local community is good for everyone.
FTE: Finally, can you leave us with some words of advice for those who are about to start their own food truck business?
Chef Justin: My advice to anyone starting a food truck or even a restaurant is don’t borrow more money than you can afford to pay off. Start small, and keep your overhead low. You can always grow the business, but if you start big and the sales don’t come in, you’ll be out of business in no time.
Thank you for sharing Justin.
Additional Reading Material
Here are some things that you need to check out before you start your food truck business.
License and Permits – This is the license and permits page of the Bozeman city government homepage.
Food Trucks and Municipal Code – You may use this as a reference
Blue Smoke Barbeque – As always, don’t forget to visit and support our friends. Drop by Justin’s homepage and see what he has to offer