SPP: Today we welcome to the show Justin Vitarello, Founder and Creator of one of the most popular Food Trucks in Washington, D.C. known as the Fojol Brothers. Justin, thanks for being on the show.
Justin Sure happy to be here. Thanks guys.
SPP: Yes. And by the way, I had to do some research prior to this interview so I went and tried out your buttered chicken and it is incredible. Hands down.
Justin: Yes. It’s amazing how much people will just crave for just a butter sauce and not even chicken on it. So I do think we’re onto something with that.
SPP: Yes I think you are. Anyways, we tried to educate people during the intro to the show. But many people across the nation, especially those not in large cities, are extremely unaware of the food truck mania that has entered many of our large cities such as D.C. and LA, New York. And the Fojol Brothers was one of the first food trucks, not carts but trucks, in D.C. if I’m not mistaken. What gave you the idea to do this? How did you go about starting all this the courage to kind of do something different?
Justin: Well I mean I think when you really take a step back at where the world was and where our country was every since essentially the end of 2001 the world at some level has been at war. You can say we’ve been at war with other countries and in our country there’s been a lot of internal bickering. I think there’s a lot of people see that there’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t make sense, arguments and kind of lobbying interest. And lobbying doesn’t always exists that’s the way the world works, but right now I think a lot of people are kind of fed up with bickering and the war.
And I think that what happened with us was that we thought that it was a good opportunity to add a whimsical element to our hometown and to have people kind of step away from their devices and kind of walk into the imaginary and the make believe for a point and time in their life. And I think people have picked up kind of what we’re putting down. For those people that are in smaller cities and may not know what’s happening is a lot of people depend on social media to find out where these trucks are, which it’s kind of ironic in the fact that we were the first in D.C. and one of the first in the country that we didn’t start out Day 1 with any social media accounts.
We actually thought that this was going to just kind of, people were going to pick up on it based on us driving around and word-of-mouth, kind of really grill a grassroots movement. But then we decided to kind of latch onto the Twitters of the world. I guess Twitter’s really the only one that we use. We use Facebook at some level but really depending on where we are Twitter is the best place, along with our Web site. But I think it’s kind of a little bit ironic that you see a lot of trucks now that are starting out with social media accounts months in advance of launching it. And that was not our original kind of inspiration intent was just too kind of take advantage of how communication is being used now. It was really just to do something that was whimsical, and it was meaningful, and it was involved in a group and individual. So that’s where we came from.
SPP: I guess I was going to get into this a little later, but since you mentioned it how you guys are trying to create this kind of alternate reality just for why people are eating and stuff. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about the Fojol experience and the food and kind of the basis for yoru business.
Justin: Well the Fojol Brothers we’re a traveling culinary carnival, so everything we do is based on kind of this mission and vision. For other people it’s a movement and a walk into the imaginary, for us every day of our life. But I kind of thought that through this concept it would be kind of a catalyst or lubricant to get people together, have people like I say not be on the devises to be interacting with people in line.
One thing a lot of people kind of don’t understand about the food truck movement is people actually like the way it lines. They don’t want to wait forever but they don’t also don’t even just want to get their food, because it’s kind of a little miniature social network right there and a time for people to catch up, whether it’s from stuff from work or stuff they’re going to do that weekend, or stuff they did before, or what they did that morning. I think it’s actually kind of the line itself is actually kind of iatrical to the interest people have in it. Kind of moving into our kind of experience or referring to it it’s all based around the fact that we’re moving, it’s based around food.
And a part of it is to create a wildcard for us as we all really appreciate and look forward to kind of interpreting each and every day. We essentially throw an event every single day of our life. There’s different characters on the trucks, there’s different food that’s being served from the different trucks. We can you play different types of music. We can be interacting with offices. We can be interacting with art galleries. We can be interacting with inner city youth. I mean the mobility of this world is the beautiful part about it, but it’s extremely difficult but involves really having kind of leadership across the board, and in having people be flexible with their time and a commitment essentially like I say to like a mission vision. If you don’t have people who are committed to a certain mission vision and you don’t have a buy-in then you’re really not going to be able to execute that and that won’t in turn across the eyes of the people receiving it.
SPP: Now I was going to ask if any of you or your partners had any background in the restaurant industry, but now that you’ve brought up this performance piece to it too do you guys have backgrounds in the performance arts? I mean is this something that’s always interested you guys performing in front of people. Because it seems like every lunch can just be a show.
Justin: Yes it is. It itself has a very diverse background from performing arts to music to athletics. Just kind of a I’d say Type A but all people would have their own kind of like interpretation of and kind of interest within that. So yes I mean we have some of the best acrobats, some of the best jugglers, some of the best athletes, some of the best musicians, who are all a part of this. And for us we look at each other when we go out each day and we’re like how do we get next to each other? How do our lives converge? And it was all in the spirit of this mission and vision.
And I think it’s really about, a lot of people want to talk about creativity, I can be creative, I, I, i. Where we Fojo lives we can be creative. We believe much more in group creativity and an emphasis on an individual expression on the food side, not as many of us kind of come from a food background. We have Jeff and people who are helping this operation move but we were more kind of heavy on the Type A personalities, but the same people are in the kitchen cooking, prepping, stirring the food, all those different types of things. So it’s a circular existence I guess.
SPP: What do you think has kind of driven this food truck movement that’s happened across the entire nation in a relatively short time period? I mean I think now there’s, I don’t even know, 60 food trucks in D.C. or something, so it’s kind of crazy. What do you think happened in order to allow that and why is it succeeding so well?
Justin: Well I think there are a number of different reasons why the trucks are of interest to people. I think Number 1 is the kind of spontaneity of it not knowing what type of food, and in some cases, what type of food, what type of personality will show up at my doorstep or near where I am. I think that’s of interest to people. I think the price with the economy the way it is, is of interest to people. I think generally the speed to be able to get something pretty quickly is of interest to people. But I think it all kind of really stems from the fact this is something that everyone thinks they can do. For a lot of us kind of questioning what are the next steps if I were to start a business or I were to do something with a friend, how would I do it?
The food trucks is something very tangible that people can kind of they either know somebody who started one so it makes it possible or they’ve looked into the process and the money to put one together and they say “Well I can do that.” So I think kind of like essentially any food truck people see themselves. It’s also kind of, like I said before, people actually like these lines because it kind of give them some time to interact with their friends and just interact socially outside of the walk to work, the walk back from work, the time in your cube or everywhere. Talk about what people do in offices now you know.
SPP: And it’s funny too that you mentioned the lines. Another one of the things. when you’re on Twitter or you’re on Facebook and it’s a Tuesday and you’re like oh the Fojol Brothers are in town or in this area. This is awesome I can’t wait to get it. I see a lot of that on my Twitter and my Facebook where people because you guys are only in certain areas on different days of the week there’s almost this limited time aspect to it.
Justin: Yes I think that it touches on a lot of core kind of, what do you call them, some things that are very, very relative to being humans and understanding kind of how things work. You’re not going to get everything. Something that you can’t get you want to go get it while you can. It’s a chase and a game, no different than if you’re possibly buying something online sometimes they go through the psychology of people who are trying to buy something online, sometimes it’s bargain shoppers, sometimes people do it for the sake of the hunt. People have to go through a process to go to a food truck. They have to coordinate with their friends.
I think that that process with friends is something they’re interesting in doing. But like most people think everything you love at some point in your life you’ll have to say buy and we’ll have to leave at some point.
Justin: We’ll have to turn the car around at some point. As much as we’d like to stay there forever we have to move on. Our main inspiration outside of kind of what I was talking before about how the world being at war and a lot of the bickering within this country is the big thing for us is kind of activating spaces and making public space, space we all pay for essentially more vibrant. And we were the ones who kind of pioneered and went into parks in D.C. and we put out blankets for people. Most trucks are now kind of aligned by all the parks realizing that that’s a nice place for people to just, at the end of the day it’s a great use of our public space.
SPP: Now do you see your customers interacting with you guys and with each other through the social media stuff. I mean do you recognize people on Twitter who tweet at you guys every day and want to see how you’re doing or where you’re at, that kind of thing?
Justin: Yes. I mean there’s definitely a close connection. A lot of people will engage with them in their virtual percent and then they’ll go say I’m so and so on Twitter, whatever it is. We get the close connection these charts and others the kind of point I kind of make, it’s along the lines of affordability. These trucks are also of interest to people because that they’re to me the kind of the last batch of the mom and pop stores. They’re the only real estate you seek going up anywhere. Right now it’s usually a bank or a CVS or a Subway. And none of these are mom and pops, to the contrary they’re probably the opposite of.
So I think that the mom and pop kind of connection is something that the world, you can never take away from these trucks and the owners. And I think that’s really what ultimately helps everyone wakeup in the morning and go ahead and love what they do is the fact that they’re building kind of connections and relationships. Relationships can even develop outside of the interaction and the exchange of money and food that happens in the street. I mean we’re getting closer to the people that we are communicating with in other levels that are not just related to kind of how we originally met.
SPP: Justin you talked about how a lot of people see themselves in these trucks and I totally agree with that. As I’ve said I’ve thought about the food truck thing and I’ll talk to friends about it and they have ideas. Everybody has the ideas but you actually went and did it. And on this show oftentimes we talk to entrepreneurs, people who have taken the road less traveled, or taken risks and things like that. How did you I guess turn this idea into a reality? And even more so were you worried about what if it doesn’t work? What if I’m wasting my time?
Justin: Yes. I mean you really have to have a mission and a vision for what you’re trying to do I think with anything. And the people who do something first are the ones that people are high risk. It’s a high risk award I guess. I felt as though like people feel now that it was one of the cost to start wasn’t as large as other possible businesses outside of you can say software, but then that whole world was extremely competitive. But it was merely kind of going through my life in my early 20s and working in an office environments.
I went to Brown University and I felt like I had had my kind of intellectual training and kind of had my sort of practical kind of I guess business office type work that was happening and it was kind of complementing some things earlier, and played a lot of athletics growing. And I just thought to myself if I don’t do something now I’m going to be having kids. And like anything else the one thing I’d advise is it’s going to take much longer than you think it’s going to take and it’s going to cost a lot more money, even though they’re cheaper and there’s other alternatives. But it’s basically I want to do something that was kind of my own expression of my time on this earth I guess you could say it’s holistically that.
And I come from an Italian family and household where food was always kind of a lubricant to get everyone talking about the serious things in life, as well as the funniest things in life. And I said to myself “How do I create an environment where people are serious and whimsical, and what does it look like? And how essentially do I take my life inside the walls of my family and how do I take that and express that to what’s happening out on the street? My family doesn’t dress up and wear mustaches and stuff like that, but there’s some subtle connections to how I was raised and interpretation as to what we do on the street that made what we do a shear reality in relevant to my real life. A wise man once told me it all comes down to the guts and courage. And if you really don’t have those then don’t do it.
SPP: I know specifically in D.C. I found this interesting. Food trucks are still governed by the old laws put in place to regulate ice cream trucks, and I thought that was just I don’t know, it was just hilarious to me because I haven’t even looked at an ice cream truck in 15, 20 years. And there’s been a lot of talk recently about food trucks impeding on brick and mortar restaurants and stealing their business. How do you feel about that and do you think there will be any changes to existing laws?
Justin: Yes I mean there are regulations that are currently being I think they’re going to be kind of put out there for public comment and review sometime soon, but the old rules and how they were being kind of put together are certainly not compatible to today’s world. Although it’s kind of the weird thing is you need to be kind of held down or have a queue of people that are interested in what you’re doing. You almost think from that angle they weren’t thinking and had the foresight that there’d be something like Twitter where you can actually connect those dots. Otherwise, if you don’t have that kind of communication you’re randomly looking on the side of the street at one time and saying “Oh my God there’s nothing on it let me get one.”
The technology it’s actually help use an older rule than actually enabled a lot of people to operate underneath an older rule. I mean at the end of the day the rules we’ll see what happens with the rules and the restaurants and the trucks they all have their own kind of reasons why what they believe is sticking together kind of different interest groups of source, but I think at the end of the day there is a way for this to work out for everybody. I think what you’re seeing in D.C. is people want to be outside, people want to be whether it’s restaurants having more outdoor space. A beautiful part of Washington, D.C. is our height limit and that we get more sun than anybody else that I know of that has the amount of people in this city. So why don’t we use this to our advantage and let’s have people on sidewalk cafes, and in parks, and let’s use all the sunlight, and essentially the public dollars that we have here and enjoy the city.
SPP: You know I think it’s funny that the restaurants are pretty much lobbying to get you guys out of I guess their space. And I just look at this as a food truck you’re offering a great experience and really good food, especially at a cheap price. And these restaurants are threatened by it but I’d love to see you guys sticking around and not really getting impeded by anything that comes out.
Justin: Sure. I mean the thing about a lot of these restaurants is the ones who predominately are serving lunch, not the kind of more upscale ones, but we’re not competing against is, one in our business when it rains we have one serving window, Washington D.C. has the shortest trucks in the car. Trucks in LA are twice as big and they can have a To Go window there. We can have any of these different things here.
So just from a physical size there’s only so many meals that we can move out of these. If you go into corner bakery there’s probably eight people at the kiosk. But there’s a competitive advantage that they have. They have weather elements that people are not going to consider us, the number of people they can have physically in their space selling. I mean there’s a lot more volume that they can put out there versus us. They can be doing prepping in the morning.
At some level you’re kind of talking about an apple and an orange we’re not food trucks, restaurants are restaurants. I always say this let’s say we all decided at 5:00 to eat by a park near a restaurant that normally wasn’t opened and all of a sudden people come out and after work they’re eating and we’re the ones who causes this, and the restaurants I might want to turn my lights on too because it seems like there’s just even too much demands from the trucks. And us creating markets if they want come to an agreement they’ve got to give us percentage of their proceeds and we help kind of create a new market for them. So I mean I think for them they’ve just got to revisit the business plan. They should try a little harder I would think.
SPP: Is there anything that you want to plug? I mean if you go ahead and tell our listeners your Twitter, your Web site, anything else that you guys have planned for the future. I mean feel free and just plug away.
Justin: Okay. Well we love what we do. Fojo Brothers has a very committed group of folks that are really trying to give something to the world that we think that’s not out there and we appreciate every single person who’s chosen to come up to our space and experience life with us.
So just kind of a thanks to everyone who kind of follows us, whether it’s come to our truck or follow us virtually. We can host up to 1200 people at any one time, so if you’re out there and you’re looking for a group of people who are there, kind of who are committed to the food and entertainment business we are that group.