As part of a new occasional series, we’ll be featuring a single-day snapshot of various entrepreneurial ventures for a look inside what they do to keep their business running every day, hour by hour.
Part of the inspiration behind Bian Dang, a mobile restaurant business Diana Yang co-founded with her brother Thomas, was his desire to find food like their Taiwanese grandmother’s among the food carts that dot the sidewalks of Manhattan. To get a taste of the business, Thomas worked on a few food trucks before launching NYC Cravings with Diana and business partner Eric Yu out of a retrofitted Italian bakery truck in April 2009, not long after the three graduated from college.
5:00 am: On a typical day, the siblings’ uncle Steven Yang arrives at the commissary (commercial kitchen) to begin prepping the food, so the truck is ready to roll out by 8 am. The New York City Department of Health mandates that all mobile food vendors must store and prepare food, as well as park their trucks or carts, at a state licensed commissary, of which there are many throughout the five boroughs. While they don’t start serving lunch until 11:30 am, they have to be on site by 10:30 am to start cooking. “Everything is cooked fresh on the truck,” Diana points out. However, on this day, they’re able to get a later start because they’ve landed a plum, permanent spot downtown near the World Financial Center (WFC), for which they pay a daily rate to the property owner.
9:45 am: Diana and employees Nick and Joanna arrive at the commissary in South Brooklyn. “At this time of day we don’t have to fight for parking,” explains Diana. “It’s much easier to pull out since most of the other trucks and carts have already left.” They start loading up the fridge with chicken, pork, rice, sauces, pickled greens, Buddha’s delight, tea eggs, Chinese tamales, dumpling sauce, reusable food containers, utensils, 70 pounds of cooking oil, and enough water for the steam tables and to cook the rice. “We’re looking into using biodegradable containers and utensils,” notes Diana. “We’ll most likely have to raise the prices if we make the switch.”
In 2011, they rebranded from NYC Cravings to Bian Dang, which translates from Taiwanese as “lunch box.” They re-painted the truck with brighter colors and replaced the bamboo leave accents with plum blossoms, the national flower of Taiwan. “We wanted our truck to stand out and be recognizable,” notes Diana.
10:10 am: With Nick at the wheel, the truck pulls out of the commissary and they head toward downtown Brooklyn. Once across the Manhattan Bridge, it’s a straight shot across town to the West side of Manhattan.
After about six months, business partner Yu stopped working on the truck, but he remains a silent partner. Thomas transitioned off the truck not long after to work behind the scenes, maintaining the company’s web site and focusing on catering and other opportunities. “Like most siblings, we would argue about how things should run,” notes Diana, who runs the day to day (inventory and scheduling) and handles the bookkeeping. They now have six employees. “We have seven people on rotation, including myself. Typically, we have about three people on the truck. Two in the winter, when business is slower.”
10:30 am: After showing their IDs and insurance card to a security guard, Nick pulls the Bian Dang truck into the appointed space. It’s a bright, chilly Tuesday in early March as he maneuvers into a cul-de-sac sandwiched between the Mercantile Exchange building and the WFC in Lower Manhattan, steps away from the North Cove Marina along the Hudson River. First, they start cooking the rice and steaming the tamales. Diana tweets their location and update’s Bian Dang’s status on Facebook and then pours new oil into the deep fryer.
The company’s Twitter and Facebook platforms have allowed Diana to connect with loyal customers as well as introduce Bian Dang to a wider audience. “[They’ve] changed the food scene/culture. People are constantly checking in and updating their status on their food ventures,” notes Diana. “Because parking is not permanent, I like to update our locations in real time.”
11:00 am: The cooked rice is transferred into the rice steamer, the next batch of rice is started, and the deep fryer turned on. Next, it’s time to start cooking the pork sauce and beef stew and steam the dumplings.
11:10 am: The chicken is put into the deep fryer for 10 minutes followed by the pork chops.
11:20 am: A couple shows up at the window that Diana recognizes from their former east side location near South Street Seaport. They were able to track Bian Dang’s location through its Facebook page. Joanna takes their order. “Location and weather plays a huge factor in how many customers we serve for lunch,” explains Diana. In Midtown and the Financial District, where there is a lot of foot traffic, the lunchtime crowd is highly coveted, she explains. Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays, the truck is typically parked at certain locations in Midtown East and West, and on Wednesdays, it parks in Dumbo, a Brooklyn neighborhood wedged between the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges along the East River, where many small tech and marketing startups have located in recent years.
While the truck’s locations and schedule are available on Bian Dang’s website, there’s no guarantee the same spots will be available from day to day. Street closures due to construction, movie shoots, and any other type of unforeseen events can force trucks from their usual locations, and if you don’t get a metered spot, you risk being ticketed. Then there are the many streets that the city has restricted all food vendors from for security or congestions reasons. “We started when there were maybe three other gourmet trucks,” notes Diana. “But we established ourselves and made it clear that we’ll be in these areas for the long run.”
11:30 am - Noon: Customers start showing up, one or two at a time. “Our truck was built around savory comfort food like chicken and pork chops over our famous pork sauce,” explains Diana. Like many new businesses, things started off a little slow, until a popular food blog began spreading the word, and Cravings was nominated as “Rookie of the Year” for the city’s 2009 Vendy award. They soon developed a large loyal following among a certain demographic of workers. “About 75 percent of our customers are Chinese, and about 60 percent are male,” notes Diana.
“When Sandy hit, the truck was being repaired, so it had already been off the road for about three weeks,” recalls Diana. “After the hurricane, sales dropped off drastically.” Like many vendors, Bian Dang was displaced along with downtown residents and workers. As part of the relief efforts, the mayor’s fund and the New York Food Truck Association (NYCFTA) teamed up with several truck vendors to get them back into those hard hit areas.
11:40 am: Diana notices the deep fryer is not frying properly because the propane is running low. Nick passes her a new tank, and she shuts down the equipment to change the tank. Joanna warns the two customers in line of the slight wait for fried pork and chicken dishes. There are four other food trucks nearby, but only the sky blue truck decorated with pink and white flowers has a line at their window. That’s a good sign, especially this time of year. “The financial district is difficult to sustain in the winter, as it gets much colder than anywhere else in the city,” notes Diana. “But if you don’t come then, another truck may be in your spot when the weather warms up.” And come spring, this area is flush with office workers, residents and tourists.
12:05-1:45 pm: They get a steady stream of customers for the rest of the afternoon. Diana leaves for a meeting on a separate project about 1:45 pm. “I have a great team of people working with me who I trust,” she says. “I have trained them to manage the truck, so that I can pursue other projects outside the business as well.”
“It's difficult for food truck owners to find workers because everyone on the truck needs a mobile food vendor license,” explains Diana. “The whole process can take anywhere from two to four months.” Anyone applying for a vendor’s license must first pass a food protection course. Diana chose the cheaper route by studying on her own and taking the online quizzes. The alternative is to take a two- to three-day in-class session, which costs just over $100. After receiving the food protection course ID via mail, you then can go apply for the mobile food vendor license. “It's a lot of waiting and paper work,” notes Diana.
2:30 pm: Nick and Joanna start winding things down. They drain the oil and make sure all food containers and equipment are put away.
2:35 pm: The truck pulls out of the WFC lot, and they head back to Brooklyn.
2:55 pm: Nick pulls the truck into the commissary and parks it in the washer to prep the truck to be scrubbed down (they pay the commissary to clean the truck daily), and Joanna begins cleaning all the buckets, tongs, utensils used during lunch service.
3:40 pm: With the day’s work done, Nick and Joanna leave the commissary.
In December 2010, Bian Dang made a brief foray into a bricks-and-mortar space, setting up a stall at Food Gallery 32, a three-story food emporium serving various types of Asian cuisine in Midtown. “We were supposed to open in the summer, but instead it officially opened in the dead of winter,” explains Diana. “The first few months were pretty discouraging, but business did pick up.” Ultimately, the high rent forced them to close that location after a year and a half.
Tapping into a niche market has helped the owners of Bian Dang stay profitable and expand. “We offer such a unique and strong product,” Diana points out. “I am constantly seeing the same faces over and over again.” In October 2011, the brother and sister team, with a new set of partners, launched the Fishing Shrimp truck, serving an array of fried seafood, and then in April 2012, the Fun Bun cart, which sells steamed pork buns. “Every year, different opportunities come up,” notes Diana. “It seems like we are constantly working on a new food concept.”