What did you do on your college break? Jack Barber and Ben Berman became business owners. Their budding food-truck empire started two years ago when they were barely voting age, and now includes three vehicles, 15 employees, and an award-winning sandwich that’s drawing crowds in Maine. All of this while each is a full-time student more than 100 miles away during the academic year—Barber at Babson College, Berman at Tufts University outside Boston. Business writer Erin McDermott recently talked to Barber about how they balance academics and entrepreneurship, managing Millennials, and navigating the red-hot food-truck trend.
EM: How did you two get started?
JB: In the fall of 2011, Ben and I were freshman at our respective colleges and we were trying to figure out exactly what we wanted to do for the summer. We loved being in Maine, but unfortunately there aren’t many internships there. We came up with this crazy idea because we were meeting up in Boston at these food trucks. We thought: ‘Why don’t we try to bring these to Portland? No one’s done it yet.’ We seized the market opportunity, pooled our resources with friends and family, and purchased a food truck. At the time, Portland didn’t allow for them. In December, a friend of ours in the food industry suggested that we target a local beach.
So that’s where Mainely Burgers went—we had this business plan, and a food truck and we knew what we wanted to do with it. We went to Scarborough Beach and offered to run their concession stands and brought in our trailer to do all of the other types of food. It kind of just took off from there—to the point that we were able to add a second truck this year and then an ice cream truck as well.
EM: How did the beach officials react when the two of you—at all of 18 years old—came to them that January?
JB: At first, it wasn’t much of a reaction. After the pitch, we had a week of twiddling our thumbs and wondering what was going on and what we were going to do. Fortunately, we had some friends that had connections to the beach who were able to get us into a back-and-forth discussion to find out where we stood. Finally, about a week later, we got an email from the beach officials saying, “We absolutely want to go through with this.” And that’s really when the business started.
EM: And all of that time, you were both balancing being college freshman with this?
JB: School work, acclimating, joining different clubs, being a part of sports teams—it was the whole package deal here.
EM: You ran into some local laws involving food trucks. What was the learning curve like?
JB: My dad, who’s in the food business, was a huge help, directing us in some of the areas where we didn’t understand it early on, like with insurance. In Portland we’ve been lobbying to change these laws for a while, so we had a good grasp of what we faced. The license part was difficult and frustrating. With Scarborough it was easy. When you go into Portland, it was a new market and the city was struggling to figure out what to do with it, so there was a lot of duplication of efforts. But that’s the price you pay for being in a city.
JB: It’s definitely been an unbelievable experience for school. I’m able to take everything I’m learning from the business, whether it’s finance, management, or organizational behavior. Even with people, it’s all applicable to what I’m doing at school. When I’m in class, I’m always thinking about how this relates to Mainely Burgers. A lot of my examples come from my past experiences there, so I love being able to do that. I’ve been able to become part of several groups at Babson, such as Food Sol, which is a food-solutions organization here. I’ve been able to connect with so many other people, including [Food Network TV host] Andrew Zimmern and other local entrepreneurs looking to start businesses. It’s cool for a 20-year-old to say I’ve got people asking me how to run their businesses.
EM: The conventional wisdom is that Millennials can be difficult employees. But you’re not only a Millennial boss; you also have mostly Millennial workers. What’s your view?
JB: I absolutely love having Millennials work for us. What I love is that they have a willingness to learn more. When we’re in the trucks, our employees are constantly asking questions—how do we improve on this? Why do we do this in this specific way? Whatever it is, they just want to learn. Truth be told, if a 20-year-old tries to ask someone who’s 35 to do something—and this is why we do this—they’re not going to listen as much. There’s a kind of respect that you get from Millennials when you’re the same age or they’re a little younger than you. They want to become part of this business because there’s something bigger, there’s more to it.
EM: What happens now that you’re both back at school?
JB: We decided that we would shut down while we’re away. We had talked about possibly hiring a management team to do the fall, but we were nervous about it and didn’t want to risk the brand name. There are a few events that we’re catering—Ben or I will go back [to Portland] for that. We were back last weekend for a late-night wedding, which was a lot of fun, and we have a few football parties. We’ll see about next year and we’ll re-assess. It’s the difficulty of finding someone to do it and being able to trust them. Realistically, we’d only run through mid-October and then shut down.
EM: You recently won the title of Best Burger in Maine from the foodie website Eater—by a wide margin. What’s your secret?
JB: We use a griddle to get a nice fry on it. It’s pan-frying a burger, basically. We have a house blend of seasonings that doesn’t overpower the meat. We use really good meat that’s 80/20 [lean to fat ratio]. We just flip it twice—you don’t want to flip it more than twice because it lets all of the juices out. And use great toppings. Butter the buns. Ben and I grew up at cookouts with cheeseburgers. There’s so much you can do that you’d never expect. One of our burgers we came up with this year has a pico de gallo that we make. It’s one of those combinations that you’d never expect that makes it great.