Why Our Incredibly Popular Farmers Market Food Truck Failed

//Why Our Incredibly Popular Farmers Market Food Truck Failed

Why Our Incredibly Popular Farmers Market Food Truck Failed

We landed our dream gig, an exclusive invitation from Georgetown University to bring our organic food truck onto campus. I was on location barely five minutes before I got the truck stuck in a tunnel, the exhaust system scraping against the low concrete ceiling. I eased the transmission into reverse, creeping backwards, praying that my stainless steel blower was still attached.

Although they appear to be cobblestones, the streets of Georgetown University are actually paved with good intentions.

Pedestrians stopped in their tracks, cringing as sounds of grinding metal echoed out of the tunnel. Dust and rubble fell from the ceiling as I backed out. James, the young man I was training that day to deliver food from our farm to the truck, looked at me skeptically.

“Uh… this isn’t part of the job description, is it?”

“No,” I said, leaning out the window to make sure I wasn’t backing into another vehicle. “It’s not part of your job description. Come to think of it, it’s not part of mine, either.”

It wasn’t supposed to be this difficult. We had dreamed up the truck several years earlier, and spent an additional year working out a detailed plan, wading through the permits of two different states. The free-range meat and eggs would be sourced from our farm. A local baker supplied our buns. Farmers market lettuce and tomatoes topped our sandwiches, and an organic herb farm supplied amazing iced teas. It was 100% local, sustainable, and most noteworthy of all, delicious.

The side of our trailer, as seen from the streets of Washington D.C.

For a year and a half, we cooked breakfast and lunch at Washington D.C. farmers markets. Our menu included free-range egg wraps with pesto and cheese, heirloom apple empanadas, and grass-fed chorizo sausages served on a fresh whole wheat bun, sauteed onions slathered on top. People lined up early and often. Business exceeded all expectations.

Now, we were branching out, trying to make a go of it five days a week. Only a month into this new routine, I realized that it simply wasn’t sustainable.

Remember that Ed Sullivan Show routine, where a performer spins plates on sticks? (Click here to enjoy the shenanigans). Simultaneously managing cows, sheep, pigs and chickens, all on pasture, requires the same preposterously frantic energy. As soon as one chore is done, it’s off to the next. Sometimes we make it back to the first chore just as the ‘plate’ is about to fall: the chicken waterers are empty, the cattle pasture has been overgrazed, the pigs have rooted up the perimeter wire.

Did we mention we sell grass-fed meats? No extra charge for the hayseeds!

Notice how the man in the video smiles the entire time. Now that’s a professional!

It wasn’t until I got stuck in the tunnel that it finally sank in: I’m a farmer. Not a truck driver, not a ketchup delivery man. Not a run-to-the-store for paper towels guy, or a midnight-dash-for-more-propane dude. Wedged in that tunnel, not certain if I could get out, one thing became absolutely clear: I already had spinning plates aplenty. With seven farmers markets each weekend, our farming show was entertaining enough.

I belonged back at the farm, raising food –food with integrity and flavor, food that takes years to properly grow. Without food, everything else was moot. There wouldn’t be any burgers to grill, or egg sandwiches to enjoy. There would be no hungry customers to disappoint, because without a product to sell, there would be no customers.

Managing 500 acres of organic pasture and free range livestock is a full time job. Not a hobby, not a side-business. After two years of getting the food truck up and running, I realized that this was a full time job, as well. The American Dream is perhaps best savored one experience at a time.

‘Failure’ is such a funny word. It implies lack of success, poor execution, and perhaps even laziness. If only we’d worked harder, or been more diligent, or thrown more money at the problem, then everything would have worked out, right? In our case, nothing could be farther from the truth. Stopping when we did added years of energy to my farming career.

Me, super excited after receiving my required ServSafe certificate. I spent an entire day of my life sitting in class, learning how to wash utensils, stack food boxes, and rotate inventory for this. I got a 96 on the exam. Does this picture make YOU feel safer?

We need a word for: “Giving a dream a try, realizing it isn’t the right fit, and gracefully stopping before the dream explodes.” (In this case, it would have been an especially messy explosion of mayonnaise and pickle relish). There is a missing nuance of dignity that the word ‘failure’ sometimes fails to satisfy.

The following week, we posted a sign explaining why we decided to ‘Retire’ the food truck business. One lady read the sign, turned to us, and screamed. Loudly.

“NOOOOOOOOO!”

Farmers market customers stopped dead in their tracks, turning. I stopped dead in my tracks, and turned.

“Sorry,” she said, regaining her composure, but clearly disappointed. “It’s just… I really liked your food truck. I mean, really, really liked it.”

So did we. We liked it a lot. But at that moment, her loud ‘No!’ summed up my feelings perfectly.

In the end, we had done much more than just fail. We had tried, succeeded, and discovered it was more than we could do. Going forward, we’ll use our energy to become better producers, better farmers. For example, James, the man I hired to run supplies, now helps us with our free range eggs, back at the farm.

When it comes down to it, there’s only so much time in the day, and so much energy.  Saying ‘no’ sometimes becomes a different–and better–way of saying ‘yes.’

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By | 2015-09-22T09:18:34+00:00 June 13th, 2012|Farm|44 Comments

About the Author:

Forrest Pritchard is a full-time sustainable farmer and New York Times bestselling author, holding a BA in English and a BS in Geology from William & Mary. Smith Meadows, his farm, was one of the first “grass finished” operations in the country, and has sold at leading farmers’ markets in Washington DC for nearly two decades. Pritchard's first two books received starred reviews from The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal and NPR, and his latest book is set to debut in 2018.

44 Comments

  1. […] It all comes down to one specific moment… This entry was posted in Uncategorized by Forrest. Bookmark the permalink. […]

  2. Jennifer June 14, 2012 at 7:03 am - Reply

    So well said, Forrest, and can apply to anything and everything in life. We must focus on what we can do, what we love to do, and what is most beneficial to do in our short time on this planet. Thanks for another thoughtful and profound blog entry!

    • Forrest Pritchard June 14, 2012 at 1:28 pm

      Thank you, Jen. Knowing how remarkably full your own life happens to be, I especially appreciate the wisdom :^)

  3. Sandra June 14, 2012 at 8:37 am - Reply

    Thank you, Forrest! I have found that success IS the ability to say NO when the situation is no longer personally sustainable, no matter how much our customers clamor for our products. You cook a mean burger, but you produce an even meaner one. Keep on farming, dude!

    • Forrest Pritchard June 14, 2012 at 1:31 pm

      Hey Sandy! I agree… it’s a hard lesson to apply, particularly when our customers are such amazing, understanding people. I consider myself very lucky to be in a business where people genuinely empathize with our farming challenges.

  4. tanya June 14, 2012 at 12:05 pm - Reply

    as overstretched farmers who had food truck dreams that we did not act on — before food trucks were cool — this was reassuring to read. Maybe we didn’t miss the chance of a lifetime with our early food truck dreams.

    • Forrest Pritchard June 14, 2012 at 1:33 pm

      Hi Tanya,

      Boy, do I hear you! Don’t let my experience completely dissuade you, though… it’s more of a cautionary tale than anything else :^)

  5. Ellen kittredge June 14, 2012 at 2:16 pm - Reply

    I don’t think I was that woman…but I could have been! I really loved your food too!! You pulled of a great thing, for the time that you did it. And your community loved you for it. So thanks for giving it a try! And thanks for recognizing as well, where your time and heart really needs to be spent.

    • Forrest Pritchard June 14, 2012 at 2:40 pm

      Ellen, thank you so much for your kind words. And seriously, the scream could have been lifted off of Law & Order… it was that dramatic!

  6. Chad June 14, 2012 at 2:32 pm - Reply

    Sounds like you need another visionary to run this business for you – it sounds like a fantastic idea…if only I didn’t live so far away. 🙂 I think we need to continue to try our ideas whenever possible, even if/when they don’t work out the way we hoped or planned…isn’t that the spice of life? Was it Edison or Einstein that tried like 100 or 1000 inventions before “the one”?

    • Forrest Pritchard June 14, 2012 at 2:38 pm

      Ha, considering I’m no Edison or Einstein, let’s keep it under 100! Still, I’m probably gonna need a good nap…

  7. Allison June 14, 2012 at 4:15 pm - Reply

    Well that explains where you went–I’ve been wondering! We were amongst your happy repeat customers, and I’m very sorry to see you go, but in my brief, delicious interactions with your food truck, it was anything but a failure. Thanks for giving it a go, and for the delicious food! Better to have eaten and lost than to have never eaten at all…

    • Forrest Pritchard June 14, 2012 at 5:30 pm

      Thank you, Allison… customers like you made the experience totally worthwhile!

  8. Phyllis June 15, 2012 at 11:00 am - Reply

    People in cities desire farm fresh food. Living in city of 320,000 we have total dead zones where farmers mkts are not available for working parents/ child Saturday filled activities. However if it were not for people like you for just taking that chance no one would know what they are missing. You have proven there is a desire for this kind of food in that area. Maybe you are better on the farm but maybe there is someone looking for opportunity to work for you in the near future who would better in the truck. I am in amazement of farmers. My father grew up on a farm and I work at my local farmers mkt every weekend. I love it!! It is in my blood. But you have the right idea just figure out a different path!! Don’t give up! Best of luck

  9. Boot Camp Life Coaching June 15, 2012 at 11:00 am - Reply

    We like this title better: Why Our Incredibly Popular Farmers Market Food Truck Retired!

    “Stopping when we did added years of energy to my farming career.”

    Success!

    Your story is inspiring our FB post today to clients about why quitting is often the best move.
    Thanks for sharing

  10. Rose June 15, 2012 at 11:08 am - Reply

    SO did you sell the truck???

    • Forrest Pritchard June 15, 2012 at 11:16 am

      Hi Rose, yes, it’s sold… and I used the money to buy a new flock of sheep! :^)

  11. Alex June 15, 2012 at 11:09 am - Reply

    It’s like Samuel Beckett said: Fail again. Fail better. (And I wish I’d had a chance to try your food!)

  12. Robert June 15, 2012 at 11:10 am - Reply

    If only “slightly” stuck, let some air out of the tires. But I wouldn’t know what to do with chickens so I’m glad you handle them.

    As to the big question, hard choice but the right one. Perhaps Chad’s “visionary” will emerge to run a food truck business with food you grow, or perhaps not. Either way do what you are best at which is being a FARMER!

  13. Chris Nelson June 15, 2012 at 11:15 am - Reply

    But … it’s not necessarily failure. When you move from “raising food, cooking it, serving it to paying customers, cleaning up afterwards and planning for the next day’s menu” to “running a restaurant”, for example, you no longer have the time or energy to do it all. So you start buying the food from suppliers you trust. You hire servers. You hire chefs. Is it “failure” to come to the realization that you can’t do it all? No! It’s part of the result of success. You specialize. You become a capitalist. If you want to move back to “raising food, cooking it, serving it to paying customers, cleaning up afterwards and planning for the next day’s menu” – and there’s no shame in that, as you already know! – then do that. But having that choice is also “success” in my book.

    Congratulations on your “failure”.

    • Forrest Pritchard June 15, 2012 at 11:19 am

      Excellent point, Chris! That’s a very insightful way to look at the experience.

  14. Paula Chase June 15, 2012 at 11:33 am - Reply

    No Farms, No Food aka No Farmers, No Food. That’s whether the farmer retires or dies of a massive coronary in the middle of the market. Why do we all think we can do everything? Is it part of the disease of farming?

    Go back to the farm and do what you do best, farm! and don’t let anyone let you feel guilty!

  15. Lisa McLeod June 15, 2012 at 12:01 pm - Reply

    Wow Forrest I can so relate to your story….however you trump us by a long shot…it only took you a month to figure out that the truck wasn’t for you. It took us EIGHT years!! We grew (past tense is true) organic pinot noir grapes here in what has been called the “Siberia” of Prince Edward County, Ontario, for 8 years before we finally threw in the towel. We also “branched” out into a partnership in a local winery, because, we like others before (and many to follow I am sure) realized that the only way to be paid properly is to be able to sell the end product rather than just the ingredients (in our case, just grapes). Long story short, firstly grow the “heartbreak grape”, the hardest way possible (organically), in the worst climate to do so, is tough enough. But add to that running a big company in another city at the same time, and trying to work on the farm with local help, and worrying about the vines, made it all the more difficult. Our 2007 wine was called “the best Pinot in Canada” on our national broadcaster’s monthly wine radio show, and we sold out the next weekend. That was a proud but shortlived moment and we exited both the winery business and let our vineyard go back to nature a scant year after. Now I am happy to say that the “failure” of our vineyard has allowed me to focus on doing what I do best and enjoy the most–raising and showing horses. So there is a rainbow–and kudos to you for having the guts to try it and the brains to find your true direction–quickly!!!

    • Forrest Pritchard June 18, 2012 at 11:14 am

      Hi Lisa,

      What a story! Thank you for sharing it, and I wish I could have enjoyed a bottle of your wine… I’m certain that it is/was amazing! Best of luck with the horses, and stay in touch.

  16. Margie June 15, 2012 at 12:07 pm - Reply

    Hi Forrest,

    I’m going to second Chad’s idea. If you had the inclination to continue, I don’t want you to think I’m being a bossy-pants here, but if you were so inclined, you could hire like-minded, skilled people to take the truck out and serve your customers while you supervise/ work your farm. My husband and I were just talking about a gluten-free-casein-free-vegan food truck and how it may have a market in more populated areas. It sounds like you already have a customer base as well as success with location, sales, and everything else involved with running a mobile food business, so you’re already miles ahead in that respect…
    I’m just thinking out loud at this point, but it could be a new phase of business for you… Can you tell I’m an entrepreneur? 🙂
    Be Well, Margie

  17. greg June 15, 2012 at 12:42 pm - Reply

    There are probably fifty aspiring chefs you could hire to run your truck for you. If demand is good, you can even pay them a living wage and keep a little for yourself. Hell, if business is REALLY good, you could franchise it. I just read Will Allen’s ‘Good Food Revolution’ and it’s full of stories like this.

    Keep up the good work!

  18. Carol Carrier June 15, 2012 at 1:17 pm - Reply

    The problem wasn’t that you had to give up the truck. It’s that small farmers work incredibly hard to keep their business in the black and find a balance to their lives ( like keeping a marriage together or spending any time with your kids). The fixed costs like mortgages and insurance as well as maintaining your payroll leave very little leeway for failed ventures. i wish you well, you’ve worked a lot of magic thus far,

    • Forrest Pritchard June 18, 2012 at 11:12 am

      Thanks, Carol! That’s really encouraging :^)

  19. Deloma Lusk June 15, 2012 at 1:25 pm - Reply

    Forrest
    That’s what you get for being so good at what you do, more work! It’s proof you were defiantly a success . It takes a wise and successful man to realize he is on overload and needs to slow down and enjoy life. I know you will be missed but someone some where will still be enjoying your fresh items and now that you are slowing down, you will be around longer for them to enjoy it.
    Kudos my friend

    • Forrest Pritchard June 18, 2012 at 11:12 am

      Ironic, right? Couldn’t agree more, thanks Deloma.

  20. Casa Rosa June 16, 2012 at 10:17 pm - Reply

    Great post. Sums up some of my own feelings lately.

  21. kathie martin June 17, 2012 at 6:50 am - Reply

    I think we should take the word “failure” out of the dictionary altogether. It’s a real spirit stomping word. It makes people feel badly. I have seen students who have attached it as a label to themselves, or worse yet, others have attached it to them. The outcome of that label is never good. Could we just substitute the word “cookies” for the word failure? I think the world would be a better place then. Then “failure” would bring genuine smiles. Remember the Robert Fulghum(?) wisdom about how everything you need to know you learned in Kindergarten? Cookies, milk, smiles? I think farmers provide all the ingredients for those three staples of life. Hmmmm…I think Ray Bradbury would have loved this idea of word burning. And Happy Father’s Day.

  22. kathie martin June 17, 2012 at 6:51 am - Reply

    And definitely naps.

  23. Karen Yosafat Beleck June 18, 2012 at 6:33 am - Reply

    I appreciated reading your post. I am in a similar situation. But I would like to know if the idea of hiring someone else to run the food truck was a thought or a possibility before you decided to close it down? This situation I am in requires me to have help outside of myself to continue in the situation I am in. I believe it will be profitable to continue, but I cannot do it all myself. Would you be willing to share your thoughts?
    Thanks. Karen

    • Forrest Pritchard June 18, 2012 at 11:08 am

      Hi Karen,

      Thanks for your question. Indeed, profitability wasn’t an issue; I hired 2 different people (both of them great) to help me manage the truck. Each of them had to quit for different reasons (family crisis and personal health), leaving me to step in each time. The 3rd time, I hired an MBA to manage, as well as expand. Our failure was really at this moment: I didn’t have enough time to keep training managers, and run the farm at the same time. Moreover, I couldn’t turn our “brand” over to another person without heavy reservations… if I wasn’t there to supervise, at least for good amount of time at the start (a month, perhaps?), then this new crew could take my farm’s hard-won reputation down in a single afternoon.

      To summarize: yes, it is profitable. But these problems can’t be solved by ‘throwing money’ (my words, not yours) in the form of salaries, or hiring managers. A few bad sandwiches, or an instance or two of bad customer service, etc. is a slippery slope in a direction that would take even MORE of my time to correct. A ship needs a captain, as they say. So, in the end, it just wasn’t the right ‘extra’ business for me. I hope this helps!

  24. ernesto sirolli June 18, 2012 at 10:40 am - Reply

    There is no record of any successful company in the world started by one person. It takes a team with different passions: to Produce, to Market and to Manage the Finances to suceed. It is truly upsetting to see extraordinary people fail in business and the story of Forrest is, unfortunately the norm, not the exception. We don’t teach entrepreneurs the truth about starting businesses and the consequence, in this case, is that a farmer will remain a price taker (removed from the immediate feedback of the market) , the public will not have access to quality foods and everybody will be poorer for it. The irony is that there are probably hundreds of young people who, on a commission basis, would love to go and sell Forrest’ foods. And how many retaired accountants would help him for free or for a box of veggies? Forrest I help you for free to set up a team if you want.

    • Forrest Pritchard June 18, 2012 at 10:56 am

      Hi Ernesto, thank you for the thoughtful comment. I completely agree with what you wrote; that’s one of the reasons we have an apprenticeship program on the farm, to teach young people what we’re GOOD at doing: farming. Running the food truck required an entirely different set of skills that would require many years to achieve, and handing it off to someone else with our farm’s name on the side is just too fragile a strategy for my nerves at this point in time! I hope that makes sense :^)

  25. ernesto sirolli June 18, 2012 at 5:44 pm - Reply

    Absolutely…only ever help those who wish to be helped !
    If ever you wish to talk to an Enterprise Facilitator in Canada give us a call. 1 877 SIROLLI
    By the way you write very well. Cheers Ernesto

  26. Lyle Tabb June 24, 2012 at 11:23 am - Reply

    Hey, Forrest, I agree with your desire to find a less negative connotation for the word “failure”. But can you really call it failure if you are still operating a profitable business at the end of the day? Call it “cut bait”, “drop back and punt”, or any other little phrase you can come up with, you get another chance to try something else that just might work for you. And after reading this, I see that you totally get that. I’ve enjoyed it, and it gives me a better perspective on the things I’ve tried that I don’t do anymore. You say that you’re a farmer, which you are, but you are also a great storyteller, and that is more of a gift than a “trade”. I heard about your book deal, and I hope it takes off for you. Keep telling your stories, Forrest. It might be some of the best work you ever do.

    • Forrest Pritchard June 24, 2012 at 2:20 pm

      Lyle, thank you so much for the thoughtful post. In the end, I still consider it something akin to a failure, as I poured three years (cumulatively) of my heart and creativity into the project, only to shutter it because I couldn’t manage it as well as I imagined I could (and this includes hiring several great folks to help me along the way). I was convinced that it would gain its own internal momentum, but in the end realized that the momentum was myself!

      Congratulations to YOU on the birth of your boy! As the proud owner of a 2005 model, I can assure you that you’re in for more happiness than you’ve ever imagined :^)

  27. laura edwards November 22, 2014 at 3:23 pm - Reply

    Why didn’t you find partners who wanted to run a food truck biz? I am interested in the food/produce truck, but not in the farming ; )

    • Forrest Pritchard November 22, 2014 at 5:32 pm

      It’s the classic story of Western Civilization, Laura: too many ships for one captain. Details forever suffer as a consequence. I haven’t gained much wisdom in my life, but I feel pretty certain about that one.

    • Cinnamon April 14, 2015 at 3:24 pm

      Hello Forrest – to tie into Laura’s comment, in your honorable opinion, as a farmer, would you have been happy to have someone else, focused on supporting the local movement, make this kind of food truck work? Maybe with several of the local farmers’ goods and not the pressure of your name tied to it? It sounds like you had many happy customers! I’m wondering if farmers, in general, would appreciate another way of getting their products out into their community in this manner? I know I should just ask the farmers in my area, however, I’m also interested in your opinion! Thanks for your time. 🙂

    • Forrest Pritchard April 15, 2015 at 12:36 pm

      Hi Cinnamon,

      My best response is that details count, and that we live in a world where outsourcing labor and dreams most often leads to mediocrity. Not the rule, but the common experience. I tried running this truck with 3 different managers, and it didn’t work for me. Not saying it’s impossible though, just need a very precise suite of expectations. But the idea itself is (and was) pure gold, if properly executed.

      -Forrest

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