We landed our dream gig, an exclusive invitation from Georgetown University to bring our organic food truck onto campus. I was on location barely five minutes before I got the truck stuck in a tunnel, the exhaust system scraping against the low concrete ceiling. I eased the transmission into reverse, creeping backwards, praying that my stainless steel blower was still attached.
Pedestrians stopped in their tracks, cringing as sounds of grinding metal echoed out of the tunnel. Dust and rubble fell from the ceiling as I backed out. James, the young man I was training that day to deliver food from our farm to the truck, looked at me skeptically.
“Uh… this isn’t part of the job description, is it?”
“No,” I said, leaning out the window to make sure I wasn’t backing into another vehicle. “It’s not part of your job description. Come to think of it, it’s not part of mine, either.”
It wasn’t supposed to be this difficult. We had dreamed up the truck several years earlier, and spent an additional year working out a detailed plan, wading through the permits of two different states. The free-range meat and eggs would be sourced from our farm. A local baker supplied our buns. Farmers market lettuce and tomatoes topped our sandwiches, and an organic herb farm supplied amazing iced teas. It was 100% local, sustainable, and most noteworthy of all, delicious.
For a year and a half, we cooked breakfast and lunch at Washington D.C. farmers markets. Our menu included free-range egg wraps with pesto and cheese, heirloom apple empanadas, and grass-fed chorizo sausages served on a fresh whole wheat bun, sautéed onions slathered on top. People lined up early and often. Business exceeded all expectations.
Now, we were branching out, trying to make a go of it five days a week. Only a month into this new routine, I realized that it simply wasn’t sustainable.For a year and a half, we cooked breakfast and lunch at Washington D.C. farmers markets. Our menu included free-range egg wraps with pesto and cheese, heirloom apple empanadas, and grass-fed chorizo sausages served on a fresh whole wheat bun, sauteed onions slathered on top. People lined up early and often. Business exceeded all expectations.
Remember that Ed Sullivan Show routine, where a performer spins plates on sticks? (Click here to enjoy the shenanigans). Simultaneously managing cows, sheep, pigs and chickens, all on pasture, requires the same preposterously frantic energy. As soon as one chore is done, it’s off to the next. Sometimes we make it back to the first chore just as the ‘plate’ is about to fall: the chicken waterers are empty, the cattle pasture has been overgrazed, the pigs have rooted up the perimeter wire.
Notice how the man in the video smiles the entire time. Now that’s a professional!
It wasn’t until I got stuck in the tunnel that it finally sank in: I’m a farmer. Not a truck driver, not a ketchup delivery man. Not a run-to-the-store for paper towels guy, or a midnight-dash-for-more-propane dude. Wedged in that tunnel, not certain if I could get out, one thing became absolutely clear: I already had spinning plates aplenty. With seven farmers markets each weekend, our farming show was entertaining enough.
I belonged back at the farm, raising food –food with integrity and flavor, food that takes years to properly grow. Without food, everything else was moot. There wouldn’t be any burgers to grill, or egg sandwiches to enjoy. There would be no hungry customers to disappoint, because without a product to sell, there would be no customers.
Managing 500 acres of organic pasture and free range livestock is a full time job. Not a hobby, not a side-business. After two years of getting the food truck up and running, I realized that this was a full time job, as well. The American Dream is perhaps best savored one experience at a time.
‘Failure’ is such a funny word. It implies lack of success, poor execution, and perhaps even laziness. If only we’d worked harder, or been more diligent, or thrown more money at the problem, then everything would have worked out, right? In our case, nothing could be farther from the truth. Stopping when we did added years of energy to my farming career.
We need a word for: “Giving a dream a try, realizing it isn’t the right fit, and gracefully stopping before the dream explodes.” (In this case, it would have been an especially messy explosion of mayonnaise and pickle relish). There is a missing nuance of dignity that the word ‘failure’ sometimes fails to satisfy.
The following week, we posted a sign explaining why we decided to ‘Retire’ the food truck business. One lady read the sign, turned to us, and screamed. Loudly.
Farmers market customers stopped dead in their tracks, turning. I stopped dead in my tracks, and turned.
“Sorry,” she said, regaining her composure, but clearly disappointed. “It’s just… I really liked your food truck. I mean, really, really liked it.”
So did we. We liked it a lot. But at that moment, her loud ‘No!’ summed up my feelings perfectly.
In the end, we had done much more than just fail. We had tried, succeeded, and discovered it was more than we could do. Going forward, we’ll use our energy to become better producers, better farmers. For example, James, the man I hired to run supplies, now helps us with our free range eggs, back at the farm.
When it comes down to it, there’s only so much time in the day, and so much energy. Saying ‘no’ sometimes becomes a different -and better- way of saying ‘yes.’
“exit” plan. That is a way to get out of a business without claiming failure or success. Selling a business or enterprise is a nice way to celebrate an exit. Check out Freakonomics (books or podcast) and see why economists will say “quit fast/quit early”. Failing to quit once the business fails to achieve your goals is a real failure of management decision making. It takes real guts to quit, learn and move on!
I have tremendous respect for what you are accomplishing and the amount of work that you have on your plate–no pun intended. And there is no doubt you were too busy to do it all. So why not just hire it out, or contract the food truck to someone else? In my opinion, the food truck is/was a terrific idea, and well executed, except for one thing…
One of the mistakes small business owners make is in thinking that they have to do it all themselves. It’s ok to become the leader of your business and hire others to do the work, in fact that’s how good businesses grow, and offer customers more of what they want–your food truck was a wonderful service to your customers. Plus, you also then offer opportunities to others to get into this thing we call sustainable agriculture, and find meaningful employment–not everybody can own and operate a farm. I think you can make it work, but you need to grow into more than just someone who does chores all day, though. You will need to grow into a leader of employees who do much of the work. Your job then is to keep the ship pointed in the right direction, not to swab all the decks and hoist all the sails.
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