Updated: May 25, 2020
I was a senior teacher and a senior demonstration assistant at Ballymaloe cookery school for nearly a decade. I traveled with the school to many outside Demos where we brought the school and its contents in a big blue van from Shanagarry in East Cork to so many different festivals and events. I had the pleasure of teaching so many students of every age, every nationality how to cook from scratch and I proudly inspired and encouraged every one of my students to bring their best selves to class daily. I expected a hell of a lot from my students and I did not accept mediocre, I matched greatness with greatness as a mutual playing field yields the best results. I saw raw talent develop and grow and for me that was the biggest perk of my teaching career.
Before my teaching career I opened and ran an award-winning café so being an entrepreneur in the casual dining space was where I mastered my craft and learnt more than D.I.T. Cathal Brugha Street and Ballymaloe cookery school could ever teach me. I brought all of my education, training, experience and then some to create what was my first love.
I had the pleasure of working with Darina Allen on her dream of running a seasonal food truck at the front of her fabulous cookery school.
It was 2015 when Darina and Timmy purchased an Air Stream Spartan Manor food truck. This beast was truly magnificent. She had a 6-ring gas hob, a deep-fry, a hot plate, four fridges, a freezer, a massive extraction hood and the whole interior was stainless steel and gleaming.
So where do we start……..
It was the beginning of the summer season in 2016. Darina had the Air Stream firmly planted in its new space outside the Ballymaloe Cookery School Shop. She had Will rig it up with electricity and running water and he had the huge gas canisters set-up and ready to go.
We needed to utilise what was known as the ‘bed’ area inside the truck, so we designed a prep area and put in work tops and shelves to make the main food prep area an official designated space.
Darina had the most incredible Moroccan tent that became the indoor/outdoor seating area with lovely wooden tables, colorful collapsible metal chairs and brightly colored cushions. The food truck could sit up to 40 guests in one sitting, so it technically was more of a busy restaurant in a stunning food truck.
From there Darina designed the menu as she had delicious ideas of how she wanted it to be.
Once we knew the concept and a starting menu, we organised the equipment.
The fabulous Pamalicious sourced all of the tubs and lids in every shape and size to ensure I could utilise the space as efficiently and as effectively as possible. Pamela Black makes magic happen; she runs the whole ordering system at the school so we set up our food orders through her to ensure the truck ran independently to the school. She also organised our Kenwood and 6 bowls (cake batters, icings, cookie mixes, whipping jersey cream…), our Magimix, pots, pans, spatulas …………
To get the truck up and running myself and my wild and wonderful side kick Camilla had to hit the ground running, a phrase relevant no matter what area of the school you work in. My most popular phrase while I was at the cookery school was ‘how fast can you go? Go faster!’ the reason being time was a luxury, as the school does not sleep.
We liaised with Timmy in the bread shed for a selection of sour doughs and white yeast loaves, Haulie the farm manager for all fruits, vegetables, flowers and herbs and then Maria the Dairy Queen for raw jersey milk, butter, cream and yoghurt. The aim was to utilise as much as possible the farm produce that Ballymaloe Cookery School is renowned for on its 100-acre organic farm.
Sharon the office Queen ensured we had everything we needed such as stationary, printed recipes, folders, cookbooks, docket books, markers, card for labels. Sharon is someone else who makes things happen, she has her finger on the pulse, and so she was a very important part of the food truck team.
Adrienne was the cash register, card machine boss. She sourced all things money and she also organised the rota for wash-up and part-time staff. Darina and Adrienne love to employ locally so the truck offered brilliant summer work to so many in and around the local area.
If it isn’t obvious by now let me spell it out- setting up a food truck for Darina Allen is a serious deal, it literally takes a small village to get it on its feet and working.
We needed Toby to organise all of our crockery- side plates, main course plates, dessert plates, soup bowls, salad bowls, cups, saucers, glasses…………..
Doreen who is an original member of the Ballymaloe team and who is a true god send set us up with precious cutlery. For anyone in the food business you will know how much cutlery a food business looses to theft and to stupidity (in the bin) so Doreen had a serious chat with us to ensure we were respectful and mindful, if I haven’t said it already Doreen is a Ballymaloe Legend.
Camilla asked the east cork coffee King- Marc Kingston from the Golden Bean if we could borrow a coffee machine for the summer and he said YES- it was now official we were now ready to open!
The following summer Ronnie a student on the 12-week course introduced myself and Darina to a stunning coffee machine “The Rocket” an Italian handmade twin group head beauty. Steven the wholesaler from '010' came down and set her up for every summer thereafter. Coffee is a big deal, good coffee is a must and neglecting that fact is risky business, choose wisely!
The truck was tough, it is fast paced, limited space so organisation and forward planning was a must. All wash-up was by hand, so the sinks were always busy. Rotating the gas oven to cook what was necessary in a logical well-planned sequence was crucial. Washing freshly picked organic salad took at least 40 mins so ensuring the truck was tidy so allow for that chore took skill. Your order of work was your savior, knowing what you needed for when and what time meant you could juggle a small space with speed and precision.
A few nuggets-
1) Utilise social media before you open your doors to create a stir and a frenzy.
2) Cost your recipes and create the menu with correct prices.
3) Start with a smaller menu than you have planned- this allows you to give your kitchen a work out, clarify your systems around set-up, taking orders, placing orders, cleaning, stock rotation, labeling, temperature and HACCP logs, labeling fridges and presses for what they are best used for, cashing-up, closing down ………………… The list goes on and on and on…..
4) Perfect your coffee and standardise your coffee offerings.
5) Utilise black boards for specials.
6) Monitor all feedback, customers have so many nuggets- You should try…. That was under cooked……. I didn’t like…… I loved…….. Pick and choose what is relevant to you.
7) Speed up- the more you practice the quicker and more efficient you become.
8) Write a standardised recipe and price it as your menu grows.
9) Positive feedback must be shared as well as constructive feedback. Feedback feeds forward.
10) Stagger orders at busy times.
11) Keep your sinks clear and your work space will stay more organised for longer.
12) Learn to pivot like a ballerina as a food truck is compact.
13) Utilise quiet times to top-up ingredients and place orders.
14) Fold napkins when you only have 30 seconds- when they run out and you have to fold on demand it always takes longer.
15) Bake fresh. DO not jeopardise quality. Once you start that your customers will know, and people talk!!!
16) Change your menu to suit busy periods- there are solutions to everything.
And on and on it goes. It’s a mega deal running a business. It is tough to stay calm and think straight but that is the best solution to a successful business. Always utilise resources to help, we forget that we are surrounded by expert skill and talent when we are submerged in a crazy busy environment, take a moment, breath and write down your thoughts then create realistic solutions and you will see positive change occur and you will also see yourself slowly taking back control.
I always say because I truly believe that it takes a small village to make a business happen.
Our first summer was insane. The reception from the locals and tourists was truly wonderful. Being apart of the food truck journey was pretty awesome as the quality of the ingredients were off the wall amazing. For a chef that is a privilege and a gift you do not take lightly.
By the time September came the three months of trading had come to what seemed like a rapid end. When you are busy time surely flies. I had a diary that I kept, to write down all of the nuggets, from a step by step guide of each of my systems. My systems created clarity and focus and cut down on time wasting, systems create an efficient clever step-by step process around each job. That diary was the blueprint that I used for the following three summers as I was responsible for the set-up of the truck of the beginning of each summer, I trained in the seasonal team that were taking it over. I shared with them my blueprints, I showed them the layout, I thought them how to use the equipment, I explained and demonstrated the ordering systems, I took them through the set-up and shut down. I introduced them to the village of people it takes to run a food truck for Darina Allen, I ensured they understood what Darina requested and expected from them. I thought them how to make each recipe, how to cook each recipe, the pitfalls to watch out for, the serving of each single portion, the garnish and finished look of each individual slice and every whole cake. We eat with our eyes, so the finished look is as important as the ingredients used, the preparation and care taken. My job was to get them trained and prepared for what was ahead. I did not leave a stone unturned. Information is power! That truck became apart of me. She is a tough and demanding machine that is state of the art and located in the most magnificent setting. Four summers, four teams, four stories. And now she won best street food of the year 2019 in Ireland. I am truly delighted to have been apart of such a fantastic award. I am immensely proud to have trained and worked with each summer crew. The teams of women it took to make each summer happen were outstanding and caring. Camilla and I set a precedence from that very first summer, with Darina’s vision always at the helm. Each team maintained and matched a very high standard every summer after that under the Ballymaloe name. Here is to Camilla 2016, Sonja and Clara 2017, Almu, Gracey, Fiona 2018, Aisling, Almu, Mirin 2019 and all of the awesome women who worked with each team to make each summer happen. A huge well done to The Ballymaloe Food Truck Crew of 2019 who brought home the bacon by being recognised by Georgina Campbell Irish food and Hospitality awards 2019 “Street Food Of The Year”.
The journey of a food truck is to be prepared, gain experience and learn the basics before you open your own. Knowledge is power and dreams are worthless if they stay on your pillow. Remember you can hire my good self as a Food Business Consultant and Business Coach to gain the edge.