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Meet the New Boss
Bo Gonzalez of Bravas Food and the 20-Something Entrepreneurs
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
So here's a typical Friday workday for Bo Gonzalez, owner and operator of the popular Fort Wayne "mobile food" business known as Bravas Food:
Up at 7:30 a.m., knock back a cup of coffee or two, and then a quick scan of e-mails before settling in to update the Facebook and Twitter accounts for the many Bravas followers. (Social media is crucial for food truck businesses; alerts go out to followers about the location, schedule, menu, etc.) At 8:00 a.m. Bo pops over to the nearby commissary for the day's prep work, cooking off the bacon, making the guacamole, the pico de gallo, shredding the gouda cheese, preparing the condiments and sauces for the three events Bravas has lined up for the day. Bo likes to get the prep work done by 10:00 a.m., then it's time to pack the coolers with the foodstuffs and head downtown to One Summit Square for the daily "Lunch on the Square" offerings. Get there at 11:00 a.m., set up by 11:30, serve until 2:00; then break it down and head back to the kitchen. A quick check to see if any additional prep work needs to get done — sometimes the lunch crowd hits it harder than expected, and a re-load is necessary before the next event. Repack the coolers and then it's on to Jefferson Pointe for the "Friday Nites Live" event which begins at 4:30 p.m. and runs to 8:30.
When the service ends there, they put the cart that Jefferson Pointe has provided for the season into storage, then it's back to the kitchen to prepare the Food Truck for the final gig of the night, the late night shift outside the Brass Rail. Service for the "bar shift" begins at 11 p.m. and runs through last call at 3:00, and when the last of the Rail's late night revelers has finally eaten, Bo and the crew pack up the truck for good, and the marathon work day comes to a close. A righteous, after-work beer is deserved for the exhausted crew at this point, but the bars are all closed, and besides, there's precious little time to celebrate, for Bravas has another gig scheduled at Jefferson Pointe at noon on Saturday, and since the prep work for that has to start by 9:00 a.m., a little temperance is necessary: nobody likes to prepare food with a raging hangover. So it's on to home, for a quick cat nap, then back at it. On Saturday, then, when Bravas finally packs up the truck at Jefferson Pointe sometime in the early evening, Bo will have worked nearly 30 hours since the weekend grind began. And there's still the Saturday night gig at the Rail to go.
Welcome to the wonderful world of the street food vendor.
As any small business owner will tell you, working insanely long hours simply goes with the territory, though it's safe to say that few small business owners would relish the physical and mental demands of Bo's intense weekend schedule. But that's the price you pay for success, and right now, Bo's business is killing it: since starting in 2011, Bravas' unique gourmet hot dog stylings and epic burgers have attracted a large and fiercely loyal fan base in the Fort Wayne community. After a very encouraging debut, Bravas' fortunes really took off in Summer 2012; buoyed by constant visibility and great word-of-mouth, and augmented by smart social media promotions like the "hot dog of the week," Bravas' Facebook followers jumped from 400 to over 1500 in just a few months, and the hot dog cart was in constant demand. The company's success convinced Bo that Fort Wayne would support a "Bravas" truck in addition to the hot dog cart, and so, after a protracted battle to custom a truck for the job, the Bravas Food Truck finally rolled onto Fort Wayne streets in September of 2012. And it's been rolling ever since.
Though Bravas' is a local success story, the company's short history also illuminates a few national trends that have seemingly mushroomed overnight. One is the phenomenon of the food trucks themselves — though there's been a long history of "mobile" foods in this country since the automobile age began (think taco trucks, shwarma stands, hot dog steamers), it wasn't until the latter part of the last decade that the concept became modernized and really exploded in popularity. While it's always hard to pinpoint the origins of any sudden phenomenon (who started rock and roll, for instance: was it Chuck Berry, Elvis, Robert Johnson?), most food truck aficionados agree that the epicenter for the current craze was Los Angeles, California, when the Korean-Mexican taco truck "Kogi" opened for business. Since that time, in the mid-to-late 2000s, food trucks have taken off into the stratosphere — virtually every large and mid-sized city in the country has a veritable fleet of food trucks operating on any given day. (For comparison's sake: LA has about 200 trucks currently running, Indy about 60, Fort Wayne about 10.) Current projections show that by 2017, food trucks will account for 3-4% of all restaurant revenue, which translates into a tidy 2.7 billion dollars.
The other national trend that is perhaps subtly reflected in the success of Bravas (and other food trucks) is the surprising and sudden sophistication of the American palate. While previous generations of American restaurant-goers were content with the tried-and-true — the salad, the steak and potatoes, the pie and ice cream — today's diners are far more adventurous and curious, with an intense desire to seek out the "authentic" ethnic foods and bold flavors that had been previously seen as too intimidating to try. Americans are now sampling pork belly, cassoulet, bone marrow, they're cozying up to the local bistros and taquerias and ordering pate de foie gras, fried pigs' ears, tripe, snails, pork jowl, blowfish, octopus. It's a curious reversal, especially in the nation's innumerable ethnic restaurants--whereas previous owners would "Americanize" the food so much that all Italian, Chinese, Mexican, and Japanese restaurants were virtually interchangeable, the new paradigm shows a commitment to resurrecting the authentic, rustic food of their native countries. With the hope that the expanding American palate will follow.
At Bravas, bold flavors and curious combinations rule the day (and indeed, "brava" is Spanish for "fierce," "bold," "bad-tempered.") Bravas takes that humble American staple — the hot dog — and dresses it up with an dizzying array of flavors and textures. When you try a Bravas dog there's usually five or six different things going on, and often it takes a while to figure out exactly what's providing what taste. Most of the dogs on Bravas' usual menu are surprisingly complex and hearty — I had two for lunch at the recent "Foodstock" event and I wasn't hungry again until the early evening (at which point I promptly returned to the Bravas truck and got another dog — the El Gringo, which features chili, guacamole, pico de gallo, and crushed Fritos.)
Business-wise, making gourmet hot dogs is a pretty foolproof idea — hot dogs are a relatively inexpensive item, and the low overhead gives Bo the freedom to experiment with the unique stylings that Bravas has become known for. And while some of the dogs can get pretty messy, they're still highly portable, and the price point makes them an attractive lunch or dinner choice. Most of the dogs at Bravas are between $3 and $4 dollars a piece, which meant that my total burn for two meals at Foodstock was a quite reasonable $11.00.
Of course, there's more to operating a business that just producing a great product; it helps when the person behind the business is a likable sort who people want to root for. As Corey Rader, co-owner of the Brass Rail put it: "I think what makes people get behind Bravas as a company is that they've seen firsthand how their support has helped them grow. And unlike other businesses that are kind of out of sight, out of mind, his customers see the truck and cart all over town and they visually know how much work Bo and his staff have been putting into the company to make it successful. It also helps that they're way too likable and make great grub."
Mark Lahey, another Bravas fan and downtown foodie, likes the experimental nature of the company. "I can get a hot dog anywhere. He goes out of his way to try new recipes and keeps it interesting. He promotes well, keeps communication lines open, listens to his customers, shows up at the right place/right time, is friendly and has a great image. What's not to like?" Stephen Bryden, aka Sankofa, once dropped a rhyme for Bravas in his Fort Wayne-food tribute song "Jumbo Jet of Flavor." Bryden says: "Bravas took something taken for granted and, with ingenious flavor combos, elevated it to a rarefied form. To see them grow from cart to food truck and beyond is a testament to their vision, drive, and culinary skill. And stocking Dr. Pepper never hurts."
Engendering such loyalty from clients has emboldened Bravas to try new menu ideas and event nights, including the infrequent but wildly popular "Burger Nights" at the Rail. The burgers come with Bravas' usual oddball/whimsical condiments (Orange soda carmelized onions? Check. Pickled watermelon? Check.) and draws a large, diverse crowd. Heather Brackeen will drag her 4 daughters down to the Rail and queue up along with the various drunks, punks, drunk punks, foodies, and other downtown denizens that congregate in front of the brightly colored Bravas truck. "The Word of Mouth Burger has such an unusual list of ingredients it left us saying, 'My God, what are we eating? But then who cares, it's so good.' The burgers are more like tender steak and the toppings are fresh and crazy good."
Probably the most surprising aspect of the Bravas story is the thing that will make the more envious-inclined a little crazy: Bo Gonzalez is 21 years old. He started Bravas when he was 19. For many baby boomers and Generation Xers, it's pretty hard to imagine being so young and having such entrepreneurial zeal, but, well, this is a different generation. According to a study by the Kauffman Foundation, 54% of Milennials say they either want to start a business within the next five years or already have started one. Of course, the sluggish economy is partly responsible for the trend, for unemployment levels remain high for 20-somethings; still, 54% is a shockingly large percentage. When I asked Bo about it, he said, "The only thing I can think of is that we are restless. I think people my age have a desire to make the places where they live better. I know for me, I wanted to see a street food scene happen in Fort Wayne, and rather than waiting for it I saw a huge opportunity."
At Foodstock this year I ran into another Millennial who's readying to take a shot at food truck entrepreneurship. Tony Fumarolo, 25, of Fort Wayne, was on hand at the event, networking with other food truck owners and passing out T-shirts that advertised his upcoming, Italian-style mobile food business, "Rig-A-Tony's." Tony graduated from I.U. in 2010 and got a desk job immediately after graduation, but it didn't take him long to discover that being an Operations Manager wasn't exactly fulfilling his life's destiny. "My father would preach to me about life when I was a kid, and most sermons ended with 'running the show and being your own boss is the easiest way to realize self-actualization.' Not sure why, but it really stuck with me, and even in college I knew that entrepreneurship was a likely path."
Tony stumbled on to the food truck scene last October, during the initial Foodstock festival, and was astonished at the huge turnout. He started thinking about the feasibility of starting his own food truck in Fort Wayne, and the more he turned it over in his mind, the more he liked it. Tony's grandmother had passed down a number of classic Italian recipes to him, and it was an appealing notion to share them with strangers, sort of an homage to his family and his roots. "It was a perfect storm; I was mentally ready to move on from my desk job and I found something that I was passionate about at the same time. And I am in a place in life where I can take a calculated risk; no kids, no debt, barely any expenses, nothing really holding me back. I decided if I am going to take a shot, the time is now."
Tony's last day at his desk job was a few weeks ago, and he's currently putting the finishing touches on the "Rig-A-Tony's" truck and is aiming for an early September launch. He's aware of the risks involved — according to the Small Business Administration, about a third of new businesses fail within the first two years — but he's confident that Fort Wayne can sustain another addition to its growing food truck armada. In the research that Tony did for "Rig-A-Tony's," he discovered that Fort Wayne is actually a pretty viable place for street vendors — though the population density isn't ideal, the relatively simple regulations regarding food truck use makes the city more attractive for start-ups than denser locations such as New York City or Atlanta that have far more labyrinthine laws.
But if it doesn't work out for him in Fort Wayne? "Not that you should ever envision failure, but the worst case scenario is, I start the truck, it bombs. . . and I go back to a desk job. But who wants that?"