Great Food Truck Race Winner on Regulation and the American Dream

Sophia Woo is one-third of the winning trio from Season 6 of the Great Food Truck Race on the Food Network. After over 4 years owning and operating the successful food truck Pho Nomenal Dumpling, Sophia and her sister are opening their first brick and mortar restaurant in Raleigh, North Carolina. Argive got the details on her experience with local regulations, the biggest misconception about food trucks, and the evolving American Dream.

Q: Describe the process of opening Pho Nomenal Dumpling in 2013. What were the challenges that you faced?
A:
We first spent time researching the rules and guidelines for starting a food truck in our area. We then purchased a used truck and built the truck ourselves with the help of a Kickstarter campaign. During the buildout, we found vendors and suppliers to purchase from, found a commissary to operate out of, and a parking spot for the truck. Once that happened we started booking events and getting our name out there.

Q: How has your business evolved since you first opened? Any lessons learned?
A:
There have been many lessons learned and several ways the truck has evolved over the 3 years we have been open. Most of the lessons have been operational and mindset changes. There are constant changes we have to make to ensure we are balancing our commitment to our customers, keeping the truck open, and our physical and mental wellbeing.

Q:  Do you consider Raleigh’s local government and regulations supportive of food trucks?
A:
Yes. While there are strict rules for operating on public property, the local government is receptive to listening to mobile food units and allowing a pilot program to having food trucks in designated areas downtown.

Q: Are there any regulations that are a source of frustration for you? If yes, which ones and how? Have you communicated your frustration to policymakers?
A:
There are many regulations but we understand the need for them. We are fortunate that the mobile food unit organization, www.RDUMFA.org, that does a lot of work to ensure mobile food units are represented and heard. Frustrations, including zoning changes and availability of parking opportunities downtown, were presented to policy makers by RDUMFA and changes were considered and made by policy makers. It’s been very heartening to see.

It’s hard to abide by and understand all the rules when they change depending on county.

Q: If you could change one rule or regulation that applies to food trucks, what would it be and why?
A:
I wish there was more consistency between the rules from county to county that the food truck potentially travels to. It’s hard to abide by and understand all the rules when they change depending on county.

Q: When traveling for the Great Food Truck Race, did you notice some cities were friendlier to food trucks than others?
A:
Chicago, which is used to food trucks, had designated spots in the city where food trucks could park. Other cities didn’t have many food trucks so regulations on parking were more relaxed.

Q: How does the food truck scene compare to the restaurant scene in Raleigh? Do you think there is room for both?
A:
I can only speak to having the food truck since our restaurant isn’t open yet but I think there is absolutely room for both. One of the really amazing things about Raleigh is the number of fantastic breweries around who don’t have food offerings or restaurants right next to them. There’s an amazing symbiosis for food truck and breweries. As for the restaurant scene in Raleigh – it is dynamic and constantly being elevated by new additions. It’s an amazing time to be a part of the industry.

Q: What are some common misconceptions people have about food trucks? How do you address them?
A:
The most common misconception is that it’s easy to run a food truck. It’s an incredible amount of physical work, organization, cooking, too hot and too cold environments, and worst case scenarios. Most food truck owners do everything themselves – the marketing, the cooking, the scheduling, the plumbing, the order taking, the supply buying, the serving – EVERYTHING.

It’s not just traditional jobs that can provide the American Dream.

Q: Do you think the traditional American Dream is changing?
A:
I think the American Dream is evolving. I think that the general theory that if you work hard you can achieve your American Dream is still strong. What’s changed is that with the rise of social media and the internet, we are presented with so many new “American Dreams”. It’s not just traditional jobs that can provide the American Dream. We can go online and see so many people defining and achieving their own customized American Dreams.  

Q: The food truck industry is projected to raise $2.7 billion in revenue this year. What do you think are some contributing factors to its increasing popularity?
A:
The rise of food trucks in media has been an incredible boost for the industry. People have gotten past being scared of “roach coaches” and are much more open to new experiences. The increasing industry focus on chefs is also great for the food truck industry, where visiting the truck usually means getting to chat with the chef.

Q: What advice would you give to aspiring food truck entrepreneurs?
A:
Do your homework. This is not a part time job, nor is it an easy job. Also, find a person who you respect who you can trust to always tell you the truth. You will need that voice of reason to help you focus. Finally, lots of hydration and Gold Bond Power Spray in the summer.

Keep up with Sophia by following @PhoNomDumplings and learn more about her new restaurant by visiting https://www.mofushoppe.com

Do you have ideas on how local regulations could be improved to support food truck entrepreneurs? Take the Argive Food Truck survey here.