Unbelievabowl has organized a national food truck giveaway to help raise money to support their mission to feed the undernourished population of Cincinnati. You can support this nonprofit and enter for a chance to win a food truck here. You read that right… Someone will win a food truck free and clear with no strings attached!
The drawing for this food truck will be held June, 26th 2020. You can collect free entries by sharing the raffle on social media. Read the interview below to learn more.
Hello! Who are you and what food non-profit did you start?
My name is Brandon Whitaker and I am the Executive Director of Unbelievabowl INC. We are Ohio’s first 501(c)3 pay-what-you-can food truck. 1 in 3 people in Cincinnati live in poverty. That is 50% higher than the national average. 1 in 4 people in Cincinnati live in a food desert. The only access to food for those people is often convenience stores, which do not typically carry fresh food.
We believe that nutrition shouldn’t be based on zip code or socioeconomic status. We serve nutritious meals that can be made at home for less than $2 per serving. Our standard offering is a customizable Buddha bowl like the one pictured, which is made with quinoa, parsnip, sweet potato, apple, pumpkin seed and maple Dijon vinaigrette.
We also offer a rotating seasonal menu of mostly vegan and gluten free options. You’ll find dishes like popcorn millet grits with succotash, berbere chicken and honey; not what you would expect from a pay-what-you-can food truck! We try to use an urban rustic method of taking “down home” recipes (in this case succotash and grits) and combining them with modern ingredients and preparations.
What are you hoping to raise annually?
Our target for 2020 is to serve 13,000 bowls. Since this is our first real operating season, we have to develop awareness in order to raise the funds necessary to feed more people in need.
As a new nonprofit there aren’t a lot of doors open to us yet. Most grant providers want your organization to have been operating for several years; there are also waiting lists for food donations from grocers full of other nonprofits. To exceed that 13,000 bowl amount we will need $150K.
That would allow us to operate year round and focus our efforts in the area of need instead of doing gigs that raise funds.
What’s your backstory and how did you come up with the idea for Unbelievabowl?
I have a bachelor’s degree in accounting and a master’s in business administration. So why would I run a food truck? For nearly ten years I worked in government finance, but at heart I like making people happy. Sure, local government provides things like parks, police, fire, and street plowing. but come April 15th you don’t really see many happy residents. So I went into the restaurant world. I started at Bob Evans as a manager.
My store ran fantastic numbers and we had a loyal following of guests who were drawn to my off-menu creations. This caught the eye of the Operations Manager of a Brazilian steakhouse, who hired me to run the kitchen as Executive Kitchen Manager.
Unfortunately, the franchise owners were bad characters and stole from a lot of people, myself included. I lost 10% of my pay in the form of my 401K, which was stolen, and I was never paid for my last month of work. Never again would I let this happen, so I started my own food truck, The Screaming Goat.
We offered fun, eclectic dishes, but I noticed the things that sold the best were all terrible for you: fried this, cheese on that. It was not the kind of food I wanted to be serving. Flavor should be derived from spices and combining of ingredients that pair on a chemical level (a great example is orange, chocolate, coffee, and beets) not the standard pairing of fat, salt, and sugar. 2/3 of Americans are overweight.
Obesity is linked to more than 60 chronic diseases. Obesity costs Americans $147 billion a year. The average medical cost for people with obesity are $1,429 higher each year than those of people with a normal weight.
As any small business owner can tell you, I had to work crazy hours for little or no money and had a three-year-old daughter I was never seeing. I decided to be a part of the solution instead of the problem and set an example for my daughter.
She could grow up never seeing her old man and knowing he slung slop to the masses but have lots of shiny new toys to make up for it. Or she could grow up seeing him help others, not have all the shiny new toys the other kids might have but know that her Daddy was making a difference. The choice was obvious to me, so in mid-December 2019 I shut The Screaming Goat down and began converting it to Unbelievabowl.
I honestly hate talking about myself in things like this because we live in a world of people where are quick to take credit and quicker to place blame. When everything is said and done, I want people to say “Look at what WE have accomplished” and not come off as some kind of martyr or saint. Alas, in the digital age self-promotion is inevitable.
Take us through the process of developing, testing, and producing your first product.
It is a super complex process. The first variable is nutrition: the dish needs to have about half your day’s recommended amount of fiber and at least 15 grams of protein. That is why we have strong base ingredients to build on: quinoa, lentils, millet, amaranth, chia seeds, edamame, and flax seeds.
The next variable is cost: out the door a bowl cannot cost more than $2 including: the food, compostable bowl, biodegradable fork and napkin. Then there is uncertainty of supply; we have to develop recipes for every imaginable ingredient because we will never know what will get donated to us.
Finally comes approachability and taste: people seem hesitant to try new things so we have to find existing recipes they might be familiar with and modify them. For example, people love BBQ, but meat is expensive, and BBQ isn’t exactly health food, so we make BBQ lentils with Korean collard greens and black-eyed pea fritters. There you have it, a healthy soul food dish.
Describe the process of launching the non-profit.
Getting your 501(c)3 status is not easy. First you need to have a board of directors who are technically in charge of the whole operation and have to vote on everything of any substance. Ideally these people are bringing to the table the skills you lack and can’t afford. Great choices would be someone in nonprofit law, a grant writer, social media influencer, accountant, etc.
As I learned from working with city councils everyone has their own agenda so hopefully you find board members that share your vision and trust in you to execute it; otherwise you could find yourself replaced. You have to demonstrate an unmet need and demonstrate that you are not competing with the private sector. Fortunately, there are many online services that will file for your 501(c)3 status for a cost if you are not comfortable with filing it yourself.
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Next thing to know is that nonprofits are riddled with red tape in order to protect the taxpayers from fraud. You have to use an accrual accounting method, which seems backward if you are accustomed to the cash method and you have to file a lengthy tax form called a 990 which should be audited by an independent auditor.
You can’t have conflicts of interests or excess benefit transactions, such as having board members or their friends or family benefiting from the nonprofit. For this reason, you need to get bids on many different services from vendors with W9s. All board meetings need agendas and minutes and you have to present a series of documents to the finance committee to show the financial health of the entity.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
We have a really cool concept that people seem to really get behind and unique food options that people can’t get anywhere else. There is a demand for healthy, flavorful food that is served quickly. As a result, there is a nice organic growth in social media followers to spread the word on food insecurity and nutritional balance.
The food sells itself, the concept is the story and we are providing the experience to make the whole thing naturally shareable. No need to bludgeon people for follows or likes; we are a business, yes, but we are truly a dream above all else.
Unlike traditional soup kitchens we can go directly to where the need is instead of the needy having to go to the soup kitchen. We also serve every bowl with dignity regardless of someone’s ability to pay. So the wealthy are eating the same dishes right beside the working poor.
People who would struggle to make their bills but refuse to accept help have a comfortable option of a hand up instead of a handout since they can give what they can for the dish and not feel like they are taking away from someone else who might need it more.
People who can’t afford to pay but want to contribute anyway can fill out a pay-it-forward card promising to do a good deed, which they will list. Therefore, doing good is sowing more good. Food is bringing everyone together.
Also, we try to keep our finger on the pulse of trends. Millennials love biodegradable and compostable plates and utensils. They also are really into taking pictures of their food, so we have classed up our presentation beyond the standard red checkered boats with things like sugar plates or pressed palm bowls. They cost as little as $0.12 each if you shop around, but people will pay more for the food, you can give them a smaller portion, and they will market your business for you.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
It is very hard to get off the ground but the future looks bright. As a new nonprofit there aren’t many doors open to us yet. Generally grants are given to established nonprofits and there are long waiting lists for food donations from grocers due to the overwhelming need so you have to get creative with funding. We tried our hand at Kickstarter but found that there are so many other nonprofits out there desperate for funds that it didn’t amount to much.
So Tony Lange from the Queen City Mobile Food Truck Association approached me with the idea of a nationwide food truck raffle. Now people have a chance at getting something huge in return for their donation. I think in the future we will also try to host our own food truck rally as a way to make some extra operating dollars or a gala like every other nonprofit has.
Many breweries and some restaurants offer events where they donate a % of sales to you. There are also options like having an Amazon Smile account or Kroger Plus Card that is linked to your charity so that you get a % of individuals’ purchases.
Being a nonprofit and serving health food also opens up the door of corporate funding. Essentially, we come to their business and serve lunch to all their employees and the company makes a tax deductible donation to us. Everybody wins.
At this point every bowl we serve costs us $7: $2 for the bowl itself and the rest goes to kitchen rent, labor, fuel and all the other overhead food trucks have. If we get a $10 donation we can afford to feed one person who can’t afford to pay as the season progresses and our fixed costs are met. So we have to balance the jobs where we will make a profit with those where we won’t.
Even though my board has voted for me to draw a salary I probably will not be able to draw one this year unless we land a huge grant or a ton of corporate donations. There are so many people out there that have it so much worse than I do and I am not going to take money away from serving them. The irony of it all is that my family might end up on government assistance ourselves since
I gave up my winter truck driving job and summer food truck business to do this. Though it has been hard, my wife Kate has been very supportive of me. I could never do this without her. She is the breadwinner and never gets the recognition she deserves for enabling the success of so many others. I also have an amazing family that makes sure we will always have a roof over our heads and that our daughter isn’t deprived of the childhood opportunities she deserves.
Through starting the non-profit, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I have learned that other food trucks are very afraid of a “free” food truck. They think that people will only come to me for that reason and shun them in favor or a free meal. To this my reply is that I don’t have a monopoly on the idea and they are more than welcome to give food away too. The reality is that I am only competition if they are a healthy truck. Most people go to food trucks for comfort food and turn their noses up at vegan food; we are just a healthy option for those who want it.
Also, people don’t see it as free at all. Despite what the news may lead you to believe, people are inherently good. If they can afford it, they donate more than I would ever charge. People don’t generally like to take food from those less fortunate than them. Our food allows guests to feel good physically, emotionally, and spiritually. But because we aren’t allowed to compete with the private sector we can’t have set prices because we would have an advantage over them since we aren’t paying taxes and might be getting donated materials.
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In terms of the food, I have learned people are really afraid of what they don’t know. I had this wonderful Afghani dish called a Lubya made of kidney beans, tomato gravy, cumin, onion, garlic. No one would try it because it was Afghani and unfamiliar so one day I switched up the branding and called it chili instead; people loved it!
I also have to keep in mind that a lot of people never had access to things I think of as common, such as lentils or edamame, and I have to explain what those things are. We are very fortunate to be working alongside a mobile market in the food deserts that will sell the supplies needed to make our dishes at home with recipes we provide.
What platform/tools do you use for your non-profit?
A freezer is our best friend. Waste is not an option for us! The freezer allows us to make half pans ahead of time when food becomes available, freeze it, then replenish the fridges with them as needed to serve. That way most items are par-made and sent out the window quickly.
We also utilize a steam well, stove and flat top. We utilize Square for our POS because the software is free. The same is true for my accounting software: Excel or Google sheets. Above all else, a massive spice rack, which is the true way to make healthy food taste amazing!
What have been the most influential books, cookbooks, podcasts, or other resources?
My favorite chef is Yotam Ottolenghi. He showcases what vegetarian cuisine can be utilizing the wonderful flavors of the Silk Road. However, a lot of people freak out when they hear things like harissa or maklouba so I can only use his technique in application.
I am also very big on the art and science of flavor pairing, so the Flavor Bible is my go-to for creating our super unique dishes. A lot of trucks are one trick ponies, but with that book my team and I can make an amazing dish out of almost anything you throw at us without having to use fat, salt or sugar as a crutch, allowing the flavors to naturally shine together. Alton Brown is a familiar name that seems to be quite good at this method.
Advice for other food entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
The important thing to remember for anyone wanting to go down this path is to take it slow. There is a natural drive to get things done NOW and that can be a detriment here because if we push too hard and run out of funds, then we are done.
Also know that help is out there, you just have to ask for it. We are glad to assist you in serving your communities and would love nothing better than to see Unbelievabowl-like trucks pop up from sea to shining sea.
If you are starting a food truck that is for profit, my advice is to remember why you wanted to start that business in the first place and let your decisions reflect that:
- Do you want to set your own schedule?
- Do you want to make lots of money?
- Do you want a creative outlet?
- Do you want more time to spend with your family?
Well, you can’t have them all. If you want to drop your kids off at school or be there when they get home, you can do that but don’t expect to retire from it. If you want to make buckets of cash, be prepared to never see those you care about again. If you want a creative outlet, don’t box yourself in by starting a food truck that has a single primary menu item.
Don’t go in thinking this path is easy. There are plenty of gigs out there that are more than happy to take your admission money and let you sit for ten hours making $100 total. Even on those days (and you will have those days!) try to smile; people can taste it in your food (I promise).
You are stuck there anyway so why not make the best of it? Above all else, take a few moments every now and then to remember those around you who have made your dream possible, those who have supported you on your journey, and thank them for being there.