Over 20 would-be food truck operators entered the ATX Brands Trailer Truck-off Challenge this spring, submitting business plans and potential menus. On May 4, three finalists prepared signature dishes for a panel of judges at the Scoot Inn and the winner was named: Tawny Villain won a 6-month contract for a food truck business called Sweet Heat Meat.
Since I was one of the judges who thought Tawny's Pork on Pork Crime dish was a winner back in May, I've been curious about this young woman who balanced flavors so creatively. I wanted to see how things are going now that her new business based on one tasty dish and start-up money from a three-week Kickstarter campaing is up and running in the backyard at the historic East Austin venue. Villain has been serving for a few weeks now, and according to her, the learning curve has been amazing! She took a few minutes out of her busy prep schedule to talk about it.
Austin Chronicle: I remember something in your bio that said you had done some catering but had no real restaurant experience, is that right?
Tawny Villain: That's right. Most of my friends in LA were involved in film production one way or another and I would occasionally pick up gigs doing craft services catering on film shoots. I also had one client who would hire me to come to her house and cook for small dinner parties sometimes, but that was it.
AC: What in the world possessed you to do this?
TV: I don't know! (laughing) I promised myself when I moved here from LA that I was going to live outside my comfort zone, because outside your comfort zone is where the magic happens. I'd been saying for a while that what I really wanted to do was open a food truck, but I had no idea how to go about it. A friend sent me the link about the contest and I knew I should go ahead and enter or I would be disappointed in myself for not trying.
AC: Now that you're a couple of weeks into it, how are things going?
TV: I've learned a lot in a very short time. (laughs). David Voorhees (from ATX Brands) helped me so much - he showed me how to figure out my food cost, helped me figure out what to charge for everything, introduced me to shopping at Restaurant Depot. He's been great. I also found a book called The Food Truck Handbook (by David Weber, Wiley & Sons) that I can now highly recommend. It's very hard work doing this at night and my regular job early in the day, but I'm lucky my schedule is flexible (she's a supervisor with Starbucks). So far, I've realized that the best traffic is on nights when there is music on the outdoor stage. We've also done really well on days when there are events that start earlier in the day. When the music is just in the bar, people only seem to come outside to smoke between sets and don't really seem to notice I'm out here. So for the time being, it's only profitable for me to be open during outdoor shows.
AC: What kind of place is this to work?
TV: I really like the management team and the security is good. They're working on re-branding the Scoot at the same time I'm trying to build a business, so we're working out kinks as we go along.
AC: Tell me about your menu - what are you doing in addition to the Pork on Pork Crime dish?
TV: My opening menu was the pork (chipotle pulled pork, chopped bacon, and grilled onions with arugula, grapes, and apples drizzled with a balsamic/apple/grape reduction in a pita), a date stuffed with goat cheese, wrapped in bacon with a honey sriracha drizzle, and a chipotle chocolate cookie with bacon. I discovered dates are not as easy to come by here as they are in California and they are a lot more expensive, so I replaced the stuffed dates with a goat cheese cake. It's coated in Panko bread crumbs and heated on the flat top with some caramelized grapes and the honey sriracha and it's been pretty popular.
AC: Are you planning to experiment with new things as you go along?
TV: Sure. The new things this week are the Tikka Hut, a traditional tikka masala in the spicy tomato cream sauce with a little apricot preserves and a cucumber-mint raita in a pita, and a Veggie Tikka with vegetables replacing the chicken. We're selling out of both of those. In fact, everything else on the menu sells better than the pork.
AC: So how do you see this working out over the next six months? Do you have any long term plans?
TV: If I actually get the business off the ground and it's working well, I'd like for Melina Moser, my best friend who encouraged me to try it, to come here and help me run the business. She would be the business person and I would handle the creative end. I like being the artist, but the number crunching is really stressful. And if at the end of the six month contract, it doesn't work out for some reason, look at all the experience I will have gained? I will have learned how to run my own food truck!Sweet Heat Meat is open in the backyard at the historic Scoot Inn (1308 E. Fourth) from 8pm until midnight on Friday & Saturday nights and during some special events.
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