Our newest Account Coordinator, Lizzy Markman, joined us in the spring of 2021. Almost a year before she came to us, she was the co-owner of Ooga Booga Waffles, a successful stuffed waffles business in Austin, TX. We asked Lizzy to share a few of the key takeaways she learned as a small business owner of a food truck venture (many of which are relevant in the work she does at Darby Communications today).
Back in 2018, my partner, friend, and I opened a waffle food truck called Ooga Booga Waffles in Austin, Texas. We sold sweet and savory stuffed waffles that I still have dreams (and occasional nightmares) about. Though we closed our doors in the summer of 2020 amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, that 2-year adventure will always be a defining part of my life. I was young, ambitious, and maybe a little naïve, but often being a little naïve lends itself to learning many lessons along the way.
Lesson 1: Starting small is better than not starting at all
They say Rome wasn’t built in a day and on a similar note, you don’t build a waffle empire overnight. When we started the business, all we had was a name, a vision, and a newly registered LLC. With no money and just a few stuffed-waffle irons, we were a long way from our dream of opening our food truck. We had to get creative, so we started our small business not as a food truck, but as a catering company specifically catering to boat parties on Lake Travis, Texas.
We first learned about the boat party scene from a friend who asked us to cater his boat party and graciously gave us our very first paid gig (thanks, Jeff)! We drove an hour out of the city with a cooler full of ingredients to cook waffles on a barely functional grill while trying to stay balanced as the boat rocked against the current. It took over an hour to get the party of fifty their food, but by the end of the day we gained our sea legs, and the party and crew raved about our waffles.
After that event, the boat party company offered to put our menu on their website and started recommending us to any party looking for a caterer. This brings me to my next lesson…
Lesson 2: Build your credibility online to serve customers offline
Once we had the opportunity to book gigs with strangers instead of friends, we wanted to make sure that potential customers would trust us with their money — and most importantly, their hunger. We started to build credibility through our social media and website.
With the novelty of stuffed waffles, Instagram became a powerful tool to communicate our product. Stuffed waffles lent themselves especially well to a visual platform like Instagram. Though we struggled with words (Stuffed waffle sandwich? Fully enclosed waffle pie?), we could communicate clearly through pictures of waffles ripped in half showing a deliciously thick layer of stuffing inside. Our Instagram linked back to our website, where people could see our menu, learn about our catering offerings, and of course, book us for their next party.
Soon we were catering boat parties every weekend and gained a following on Instagram, where we collected feedback and glowing reviews for our website. Our catering business began to take off – we were dropping off waffles at morning meetings, providing waffles for happy hours, and setting up a serving booth at conferences. But after a whirlwind summer and many fun events, we knew we needed to find a more permanent solution if we were going to continue to grow. We wanted a public-facing location, but we still didn’t have the funding to purchase a food truck, which brings me to lesson 3…
Lesson 3: You never know where a conversation is going to lead
After a summer of catering, we were on the hunt for a physical location to sell our waffles to the public. We didn’t know the right person to talk to, so we talked to everyone. In fact, one Saturday at 3 pm, just as the bars began to open (and before they got busy), we took a tray full of stuffed waffles to Rainey Street, a popular destination for a night out in Austin. We hopped from bar to bar, offering samples to bar owners and managers and asking if we could set up shop at their bar. We heard a lot of “no, thank you,” but no wasn’t the end of the conversation – people ended up pointing us in different directions.
We followed a few dead ends and eventually we were connected to two bars that hosted regular pop-ups. Success, finally!! Our team began to host weekly pop-ups where customers could consistently find us and we invited local food bloggers and Instagram influencers. Those bloggers and influencers then posted about our pop-up waffle stand, plugged us into the influencer network, and connected us with journalists.
After nearly a year of catering and pop-ups, we finally built up a network of investors and were able to open the Ooga Booga Waffle food truck in the spring of 2019.
Lesson 4: Your biggest competitors can be your best friends
Through the entire process of opening and running a small business, one of the most important lessons I learned was building up a network of people. Every connection you make is important and some of the most important relationships you build are with your competitors.
I set up meetings with local businesses I aspired to be like, discussed slow and rush times with our neighboring food trucks, learned about great festivals to check out from the waffle truck down the block, discussed different commissaries, gray water dumping methods…the list goes on. Ultimately, your competitors know your situation most intimately and their friendship is invaluable. In fact, I learned the most from small businesses just like mine!
Those two years of starting and running a business were some of the most exhausting and exciting in my life. I learned new skills, gained confidence, discovered what I enjoyed doing and what I didn’t (I’m looking at you, QuickBooks). Most importantly, I learned how to approach every new obstacle with an open mind. My team started the business with a clear vision and a detailed business plan. But along the way, we encountered many unexpected turns and (to stick with the metaphor) sometimes we had to lean into the curves. Learn more about Lizzy and the Darby Team on our About Us page.