William and Ivana, Sugar + Spoon Food Truck5 ways to make your food truck business ridiculously efficient: lessons from Sugar + Spoon
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Our pilot episode features William and Ivana, co-founders of Seattle dessert truck Sugar + Spoon. Host Chris Allen gets the backstory of how Sugar + Spoon was born, and gets William and Ivana to share five hacks that make food trucks ridiculously efficient.
Can you learn to be an entrepreneur or is it a calling? Ivana Orlovic and William Hubbell, the co-founders of Seattle-based food truck company Sugar + Spoon, found their way to entrepreneurship and creating a food truck brand thanks to some gut instinct — while gunning for a good grade in a business class.
What started as a class project is now a successful, multi-truck business (with a pop-up shop at their old alma mater, too!) that has not only survived a pandemic but thrived through it.
Ivana and William sat down with the Entrepreneur’s Studio’s host Chris Allen to share how they’ve built their brand from humble beginnings and how they have constantly refined operations and marketing to be an incredibly efficient food truck business. You’ll hear how their no-cook, quick service, and high-energy approach have earned them raving fans outside their truck windows and on social media.
Below is an edited transcript of the conversation. Click on the embedded player to hear the entire conversation. Spoiler alert: You’ll take away five hacks that can help any food truck owner perfect their strategy for driving maximum profit:
Chris Allen: One of the things that is really interesting about the Entrepreneur’s Studio, is the range of people that we get to talk to, age ranges, demographic ranges, all these different kinds of attributes for businesses. I think one of the things that is a dream of a lot of people is starting a food truck. Have you guys met other people that are like, “I’ve always wanted to do that?”
Ivana Orlovic: I feel like we actually get that a lot. When we first say, “We’re in the food truck industry,” people are like, “Oh my gosh, I’ve always wanted to — I have this concept that I want to try out.”
William Hubbell: Everyone has that idea, in the back of their mind, that they would love to take to the test.
From students to food truck entrepreneurs
Hatching a killer cookie dough food truck concept in class
Chris: Anyway. I’d love to hear your story, maybe about you guys personally, and then just how the business was born.
William: Ivana and I met five years ago, our senior year at University of Washington. Four years ago?
William: Five years ago, so a short time, but we’ve become very close since. We met our senior year at UW. Ivana was a major in business and I was a major in communications. We met in this class called Creating a Company.
Ivana: The class is legit called Creating a Company 401, or something like that.
William: That’s what you do. You create a company. First, it’s a two series, two-quarter long class, where the first series, first 10 weeks, you are brainstorming, prototyping, and coming up with a product that you’re going to sell to the campus, Greater Seattle area. There’s really no limits, not a lot of rules. It is full of creativity and truly embodies the entrepreneurial spirit. The second 10 weeks, you sell your product and your grade is determined on the success and how much money you make over the course of the full 20 weeks.
Ivana: In between the two quarters, you actually go and pitch to investors. The University of Washington has alumni entrepreneurs come and you pitch your idea and you tell them, “I need this much money to start this business so that we can get selling next quarter.” You use that money. You start the company. You make your product and then you go sell.
We wanted to get an A. I met William in that class. We had never met before. We were both in very close circles, but somehow, we had never met. We connected because we both were thinking we were going to go into real estate after college.
William: Ivana had freshly passed her real estate exam. I was studying too. I’m like, “Okay, I’m going to go chat this girl up and see if I can get a feel for what the test was like and how do I pass this test.”
Ivana: He wanted my notes.
Chris: You’re a licensed realtor and a business owner?
Ivana: Yeah. I haven’t used my license once. I don’t even know if it’s still intact.
William: We were going to be real estate agents, then the food truck.
Ivana: We were convinced. We’re like, “Yeah, let’s do it together. Let’s hang our licenses together.” That never happened.
Chris: You were going to be a duo, no matter what.
Ivana: No matter what, from the beginning.
William: From the start.
Ivana: Actually, William was in a different group when we started the class and his group was not doing well, just not taking off. The professor in front of everyone was like, “I don’t think you guys are going to pass this class.” I felt so bad, but also I had group members of three fraternity guys who are my best friends, but they didn’t take me seriously. I had this cookie dough idea and I was like, “You guys, I really think this is going to take off,” and they just weren’t taking me seriously.
I was like, “This is a two-quarter class. I want to get an A. I need someone that’s going to support me and help me and believe in this product too.” I loved William. I loved his energy and there’s just something about him. I was like, “I need to get this guy in my group.” I asked the professor. I was like, “Listen, I don’t really vibe with my group. They’re not taking me seriously. Can I go steal William from his group?” He was like, “Well, this is supposed to be like real world. I guess I’ll allow it.”
William: Up until this point, I’m watching Ivana and her group. They’re selling cookie dough. How fun, how easy. I would so get into this. The moment she asked me, it was an instant group chat to my previous group, and I was like -
William: ... “I’m with the cookie dough peeps now.”
Ivana: That’s how it started.
William: I’m still with my cookie dough peep.
Chris: So, you recruited him?
Ivana: I stole him. Straight stolen. It was awkward in the class for the rest of the quarter, but it was so worth it.
Class project becomes a new food truck - thanks to menu design tested by potential customers
Chris: Talk to us about how it was born and how it was initially successful. Did you get an A, is the first thing?
Ivana: We got an A+. This was my best grade of all of Foster School of Business, which wasn’t hard because I struggled through it all four years. We got an A, both quarters. How it started was, I’ve always been a foodie. The Seattle food scene is amazing. I love going and trying new restaurants, trying new desserts. I have a huge sweet tooth. I was with these three other frat guys, fraternity gentlemen, I should say. I was like, “We are not skilled.” Other groups had engineers and people who could make apps, and all these awesomely talented people. We were not talented really in anything like that.
I was like, “What can we make that is simple, easy, and that college students would love to buy and enjoy,” because we were on campus with 40,000 people. I was like, “This is a great target market. Let’s not try to go get into a grocery store when we only have one quarter to sell.” I was trying to make an easy A out of this class. I was like, “I love dessert.” Seattle has a great dessert scene. People love dessert. Students love dessert. What’s the dessert that Seattle doesn’t have, and that is different and new and that people would get really excited about?
Somehow, I don’t know what I was doing. I think I was with my sorority sisters. We all lived in the sorority and we were eating cookie dough ice cream or something. I was like, “Okay, cookie dough’s so good. Let’s do something with cookie dough.” Then I started researching and I was like, “Okay, this is a thing.” We can make safe-to-eat cookie dough. I felt like I could somehow figure out how to make that and sell that product. That was feasible for me to do. That’s how that started.
William: I’m having flashbacks to, we can figure out a way and make it feasible to do. We were literally testing, more butter, more salt, more salt.
Ivana: We had no clue. We weren’t chefs.
William: We would have samples of the cookie dough and have people try it. They’re like, “Do this, do that.” We weren’t chefs. We had no food background. We just started whipping it up.
Ivana: I was in a sorority at the University of Washington. William was in a fraternity. What we would do is we would go and make five different batches of safety cookie dough at William’s dad’s restaurant.
His family’s been in the food industry for generations. That was super helpful. Also, I didn’t know that before I stole him into my group, but that was a key part to our success, his experience in the food industry. We went and we tried five different batches, “This one has more butter. This one doesn’t. This one uses this flour. This one doesn’t.”
Then, we’d go to chapter meetings, which I don’t know if anyone’s familiar, but chapter meetings is when the whole sorority gets together, whole fraternity, and we have to be there. It’s mandatory. And you meet for an hour. At the end of the chapter meeting, I would go up and be like, “Listen, I’m in this class, creating a company. I need everyone to try this and give me your reviews, which one’s best.” It was a big sample pool that’s free, because it’s really hard to get a bunch of people to try your product for free and give their honest review. That’s how we found out the perfect recipe. We still use that recipe today, the exact same one.
Chris: That’s amazing. I would say school projects like that are where dreams go to die. You know what I mean? Not very many businesses get born out of that exercise. It seems like you guys one, got a concept and I think the food choice, you went from dessert. You had a target market, which was super smart. You’re like, “let’s try this on college students,” and then you went to dessert, which has a lot to do with maybe a gut instinct. How did the food truck thing happen?
Ivana: That’s you.
William: We took this product that the fraternities and the sororities liked. We started jarring it and we’d do pop-ups on campus.
Ivana: Off a table, in a sushi fridge that we stole from William’s dad’s grandpa’s casino. Long story.
Chris: Episode two. Your grandpa, your dad’s... Tell me what was that?
Ivana: William’s family has been in the food and casino industry for generations. His grandpa had this really amazing casino in Seattle, which there’s not many of. They had this sushi restaurant inside the casino. William went inside and stole the sushi fridge.
William: So we could have a way to keep the cookie dough cold on our pop-ups.
Chris: Both of you are thieves. You stole him from a team and he’s stealing ...
William: I stole a sushi fridge.
Ivana: We love stealing.
Chris: From your grandpa. Cheers.
William: Fold-out white table, pink wood backdrop with makeshift shelves full of Mason jars of sprinkles and chocolate chips to try to make it cute. Spray painted backdrop, sushi fridge, cookie dough.
But the part that is the most crazy is just crowds, lines, hecticness almost, huge demand for this product because cookie dough’s just perfect because it’s familiar, but it’s exciting to see this in a reinvented way. This is where I’m getting to the food truck slowly.
I’m walking home from our pop-ups, looking at our sales and I’m like, “This is comparable to what a restaurant does on a Friday night, in an hour. We’re doing the same.” I call my dad. I’m like, “We just did this amount selling off a table in the middle of campus. I think this could go somewhere.” He’s like, “Yeah, I do too.” I sit down with Ivana.
Ivana: Sit down? He stalked me. I’m in the business school, Foster School of Library, downstairs in the basement trying to study. He would just come and find me. I’d be like, “Hey, what’s up? Studying.” He’s like, “Listen, I wrote all these business plans out. We need to do this.” I was like, “It’s a class project. Leave me alone. We’re not doing this in real life.”
William: How did I convince you? How did we end up meeting with our dads about it?
Ivana: I think just as a class went on, our pop-ups got more and more busy, and then we’d have food bloggers reaching out to us, Seattle food bloggers, “Where can I get this product? I want to feature it on my page.” I would literally reply to them, “Hey, we’re just a school project. Please don’t come to the campus. It’s so awkward. Don’t come to our pop-up.”
William: People off campus would come to campus when we did have pop-ups. We saw demand. We started seeing demand.
Ivana: I was like, “Okay, maybe he’s right.”
William: We sat down with our dads in a restaurant.
We’re like, “This is what we want to do.” They tell us now, “We just thought this was going to be the biggest learning lesson for you guys.”
Ivana: Crash and fail.
William: Crash and fail. Failure leads to success in a way. Learning moments. Experience. They had us write three business plans for our concept. One was selling our cookie dough through a food truck, which Ivana did not like, did not help me work on.
Ivana: I was like, “That’s awkward, not doing that one.”
William: Then mid stack was bringing our cookie dough to retailers, like grocery store.
Ivana: Wholesale retail, that kind of stuff.
William: Then the third and last one was brick and mortar, which was Ivana’s favorite.
A cute shop. You come in. You order your scoop of cookie dough. You sit down with your friends.
Ivana: Made a Pinterest board. The shop was already done in my head.
Chris: There we go.
William: Then the dads, it was a three to one vote. We all voted for the food truck because it was-
Chris: How did the dads get a vote again? Did they bring money together?
Ivana: They’re like our board.
William: They’re our board. Whenever we have a serious decision to make, we turn to our board of mentors.
Chris: Got it. That’s how they got votes. Just with their advice, not necessarily... Did they fund you guys at all, seed money, or it was from sales?
Ivana: William invested his own money, and then I asked my dad for a loan.
Chris: Okay. Super cool.
William: I worked eight years in a restaurant through high school and college. All that went into the food truck, which was super crazy, but was worth it. It was a really surreal moment. Because again, we thought we’re going to be real estate agents. Now we’re in an Italian restaurant like, “Okay, you’re going to start a cookie dough food truck with all the money you have in your bank account.” The dads were like, “Yeah, do it.” We’re like, “Okay.” We were on Craigslist. We type in food truck and there was one listed in Seattle and we’re like, “This is the truck.”
Ivana: Mind you, it’s a month before graduation. My friends are all getting Amazon jobs, Microsoft jobs.
William: All of our friends are getting real jobs.
Ivana: Real jobs. They’re like, “Ivana, what are you doing again?” I was like, “Um...”
They were really worried about us. They were like, “You guys, this was a class project.”
William: Get over it.
Ivana: It was fun. I don’t know how we didn’t get psyched out. I don’t know how, but we were just going for it.
William: I remember we called my dad on speaker. We’re like, “Here’s the link to this food truck. Check it out.” He was like, “Yep.” We’re like- We went down, 30 minutes south of where we live, to look at it. Next thing we know, it’s in my driveway and we know nothing-
William: ... about the food truck. We don’t know how to put water in it, we don’t know-
Ivana: I don’t know how it turns on.
William: ... where to park it, anything. I remember driving it home from the DMV after we did all the licensing stuff. When I’m talking 10 and two, 10 on the dot, two on the dot, white knuckles, sweaty. One of my brothers followed me behind and one in front, because I’m driving this P30 1994 Chevrolet, 28 feet long, 10 feet wide-
William: ... for the first time. I didn’t know it could go over 30 miles an hour when I first drove it, because I’m flooring the gas pedal. I’m going as fast as I can. It ends up in my driveway. The summer after we graduated, we turned that paper business plan into something real life. We started wrapping the truck, working on branding, marketing, how we were going to package our product, menu, pricing, where we were going to park.
Ivana: Then we just started.
A new name and logo design creates a consistent, strong brand identity
Chris: That’s awesome, the birth of a business. Sugar + Spoon, how’d you come up with the name?
Ivana: We used to be called the Dough Boys when we were in school, a play-
Chris: It felt disingenuous for you?
Ivana: Well, it was a play because I was like, “I got these gentlemen,” they weren’t taking it seriously very much. Then Will joined our group. I was like, “Yeah, the Dough Boys. It makes sense. It’s funny. This is a class project. It’s perfect.” Obviously, for many reasons, that name didn’t really work. Pillsbury Doughboy was coming for us, any second.
Chris: Which would’ve been a great commercial, you guys getting into a fistfight.
William: With the little Pillsbury man?
Ivana: So cute, and we’d need our own mascot. The University of Washington had an accelerator program, which is a really cool program for startups. It’s a six months program. At the end, if you finish it, you get a grant towards your company. During that program, we had seven mentors and one of the first things they said we had to change was our name. We got someone to help us with our brand and marketing and new logo and design. We just were thinking of names all summer. We would just text each other random stuff that we would think about. I wanted it to not have cookie dough in the name. That was something big for me just because we were so fresh. We were so new. We didn’t even know where this was going to go. We didn’t want to label it as just cookie dough. And then, we wanted something catchy, something sweet.
William: I remember we talked about, is it sugar plus spoon? Is it Sugar + Spoon? Is it sugar spoon? It’s something that gets people talking about our name too.
Ivana: I call it Sugar Spoon, just because it’s fast.
William: More like one word, Sugarspoon.
Opposites attract for co-founders
Chris: That’s awesome. Some signals that I’m picking up from you guys about why you’re working together well is you got a really good gut and you know what might work. You lean towards that a little bit. Definitely, goal and achievement-driven. Then you are crazy work ethic, ideas on progress and how to bring things to life.
One of the things that I’ve noticed about really successful businesses is this chemistry between co-founders. If you look at the accelerator program that you were talking about, if you look at a lot of the accelerator programs out there, one of the default is you have to have a co-founder. It is amazing that solo, lone wolf entrepreneurs have such a lower chance of success than co-founders.
I think it’s really awesome to see the chemistry between you guys and that it naturally occurred where you recruited him and you had the gut. You’re like, “This dude’s got it. He’s got the X factor that I need.” You maybe didn’t 100% know. You’re like, “I just like this guy’s energy.”
Ivana: No, that’s totally it. You hit it right on the head.
William: That’s how people describe us.
Ivana: When people meet us, they’re like, “It is crazy how different you guys are, but how well you work together.” I say to everyone, “I don’t believe that I’m an entrepreneur. By the definition, I do not fit the bill of an entrepreneur.” I’m a perfectionist. It has to be perfect to get done for me. I get really hung up on things. But then William is like, “Go, go, go, go, go. Better done than perfect. What’s next,” growth mindset. No is not a big deal for him. At the beginning, oh my gosh, I couldn’t handle a no, but he was like, “Oh, no is just a redirection.”
We work so well together because I love making things really articulate, perfect, all put together, perfectly with a little bow on it. And then William’s like, “Go, go, go.” He’s 20 steps ahead of me. I’m just chasing after him, but it works really, really well. When I met him, I didn’t know that, but I just had this weird feeling that we were supposed to work together and it works so well. He’s the true entrepreneur and I’m just, I don’t know, pseudo. I don’t know what I am. I’m not real.
It’s just the perfect mix, I feel like, because if we were both William, it wouldn’t work, and if we were both like me, it wouldn’t work. If I had a co-founder that was like me, we would still be wrapping the truck.
William: We’d still be coming up with our name.
Ivana: Yeah, because it would never be perfect. It would never be done, but William’s like, “Let’s go. You have 20 minutes to do this and figure it out, and let’s go on to the next thing.” I obviously think the world of him, but I think we’re just the best pair that you could have for something like this.
Navigate the ‘no’s’ to move the business forward
Chris: That’s awesome. Well, let’s talk about the business, because you went from nothing to something. You went from this idea of dessert and we talked about the idea. Actually building the business, what are some of the things that you’ve learned to stand up this business and how unique the food truck business is and the dessert food truck business is and how unique that is.
I want to talk about some of the ways that you guys thought through how to make it work and some of the core concepts around this and how you have brought them to life. What are some of the lessons that you’ve learned and why you’ve picked the niches that you did and stuck with them?
William: Ready, fire, aim is the mentality that we’ve had from the very start. It’s like, “Get it done, reevaluate, see how you can grow from that, and then execute this new and better way of doing that same thing.”
Ivana: It’s funny that you said how you prepared to do the dessert food truck industry. When we bought our first food truck, we had no clue what we were doing. We called up Seattle Food Truck.com, which is the number one food truck organizer in Seattle. This is the best story. We called them up, “Hey, we’re Ivana and William. We just bought a food truck and we’re going to be selling safety cookie dough.” He’s like, “Oh, you’re a dessert truck?” We’re like, “Yeah, we’re so excited. It’s a really new concept.”
He was like, “How big is your truck?” We were like, “28 feet long.” He was like, “Why’d you buy such a big truck to do dessert?” We’re like, “Well, it was the first one on Craigslist. It really works for us. I don’t know. We don’t know anything about foot trucks.” He literally said, “If I were you guys, how far are you along?” We’re like, “We haven’t gotten our permits yet. We haven’t wrapped yet.” He was like, “Honestly, I haven’t seen one dessert truck make it in Seattle. It’s not too late. I think you guys should reevaluate this and maybe not do this.”
William: Was that our first big no, “Don’t do this?”
Ivana: That was our first big, “Do not do this.” Of course me, I hung up, cried. William was like, “Don’t listen to him. That was ridiculous. We got this. All right, come on. Keep going.” I was like, “This guy, he organizes every single food truck in Seattle. And he’s been doing this for years.”
William: Public event, private event.
Ivana: Doesn’t matter what it is, he organizes it. I was like, “Maybe we should think about what he said.” William didn’t even take it to heart. Sometimes I think you barely remember that conversation, except for I remember it because it was so traumatic for me.
We didn’t have a plan. We didn’t know. We had no clue what industry we were getting into in Seattle. We had no clue what the food truck industry was like. We had no clue what the dessert food truck industry was like. We were just literally going for it. And somehow, it worked. I think it’s because of a lot of the weird things that we did to make it work.
Chris: What made you push through that moment? She’s emotional, right?
Chris: You’re like, “No, this is what we’re doing. Here’s why.” What was going through your mind at the time? Why were you so convinced?
William: I don’t know. You have to get a certain amount of no’s before things work. A lot of people aren’t going to take you seriously until you prove a concept. I’ve grown up with the stories of Starbucks getting denied from dozens and dozens and dozens of banks before he got one yes. There’s a million stories like that. We just lived that.
Ivana: That’s true.
Chris: That’s huge. I don’t know what the algorithms feed you on TikTok and others, but I have all of these motivational self-help entrepreneurial things in mine. What you just said is, yeah, you got to go through all the no’s. You got to get denied a bunch of times.
William: There’s entrepreneurial spirit distilled in us. It takes, I think, a crazy person. I think someone who can take no for an answer, all the time, and someone who has so much passion that those no’s and those negative answers don’t phase you. They go over your head because you have so much drive within yourself that you’re going to keep pushing forward.
Five tips for food truck efficiency
1. Consider a dessert, ‘no-cook’ concept for your truck
Chris: That’s awesome. Well, one of the things I think is really different about dessert and food truck and the safe to eat is you don’t have to cook anything. Every other food truck, it’s a whole kitchen. What the thing about your food truck that’s a little different, where you don’t have to cook anything?
William: We don’t cook anything on our truck. Everything is pre-prepared and ready to serve. We’re focusing on assembling our product and selling our product. It allows us to serve a lot more people in a shorter amount of time and spend less time preparing the product.
Ivana: Right. We don’t have to get to an event an hour early and start cooking. We can get to an event five minutes before it starts, open up the hatch or open the window, and we’re ready to go. We have such a system down that it takes three minutes to set up. Not only that, but when you order something, it’s not going to take 10, 20 minutes to get your food. It’s ready-
Chris: That’s awesome.
Ivana: ... right there. We can serve a lot of people in a short amount of time, which is what you really want to be able to do with a food truck business.
2. Simplified operations can lead to more sales
Chris: That’s interesting. The second piece of that is you got a simplified, streamlined set of operations. How did you get the system down, like you just said?
Ivana: That’s a good question. When we first started, everything was in freezers, which I don’t know why we thought that was normal. I think we were just thinking ice cream truck.
William: The way our food truck came, we just went with that floor layout. We didn’t change anything at first. We just put our product on board and we started scooping our cookie dough out of freezers.
Ivana: It was really hard.
William: It was really hard because it’s not scoopable like ice cream. It’s a dough.
Ivana: We were getting bruises on our arms.
William: Literally bruises. We had to ice our wrists at night.
Ivana: We have photos of bruises on our arms. We really quickly realized that that wasn’t going to work.
Chris: Oh my gosh.
William: Because our line was growing. We weren’t able to serve people quickly. We learned that we had to shift the operation inside our trucks to become more efficient, serve more tickets and sell to more customers. We invested in a fridge, a Subway-style fridge. Our flavors pop into bins in this fridge. We’re able to scoop our product at fridge temp, which is so much faster, more efficient. Spending that extra money and being able to serve more people in a shorter amount of time allowed us to excel in our trucks, serve more people in a shorter amount of time.
Chris: You have a fixed location where you guys prepare the stuff and then get it on trucks?
Ivana: We used to make all of the cookie dough in a commissary. I was head chef once upon a time, wasn’t the best job for me because obviously, I’ve never been in the food industry. I’ve never even worked in a restaurant before this job. This is my first food industry job. I had no clue what I was doing.
William would be working the trucks and he’d call me and be like, “Okay, we need this many more pounds of chocolate chip cookie dough.” I’d be like, “I have been making cookie dough all night. What do you mean you’re almost sold out?” I couldn’t keep up with demand.
William: This was so reoccurring. Every phone call was like, “We need more. We’re out of this. We’re out of this. We’re out of this.” We were only selling on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights at this point because we were just getting started. We quickly realized that we wanted to focus on selling our product, not making our product, because we were getting behind on the traction that we had. We were forced to find someone who could make our product-
Ivana: For us.
William: ... better and more efficiently, so that we could focus on selling it.
Chris: So now you’re in sales.
Ivana: Then we got our co-packer, which was a game-changer. It took a long time finding a co-packer. There’s not many in our area. Again, we were still those college kids with a food truck. It took a long time for them to take us seriously. But once we told them, “This is how much I’ve been making on my own,” they were like, “Okay, we can do that.” I was like, “Awesome, great.”
William: I remember upping our numbers a little bit, “Yeah, we’ll go through this much.”
Ivana: Yeah, we’ll go through that. You have to-
William: Just to get them on board, because like you said, no one believed us. We had to prove that. We couldn’t prove that we were selling all this product. Working with a co-packer has been one of the best things that has happened to us because all of the product is manufactured in that facility. It gets shipped to our warehouse. We stock our trucks, stock our warehouse, and then we’re good mostly for the week. Product is not on our mind. We’re more focused on where we’re going to sell it and how we’re going to sell it, which allowed us to grow super quickly.
Chris: Got it.
William: Because spending all this time cooking and manufacturing and making your product is time you could be on the road selling your product.
Chris: That’s a huge aspect to that, because it’s distribution. You’re like, “Hey, we need product available.” And then distribution, you got the truck. Do you guys have multiple trucks or just one?
Ivana: We have three now.
Chris: Three? Awesome. Awesome.
3. Expand your parking opportunities to find new customers (remember your truck is on wheels!)
Ivana: Before COVID, we were parked downtown. It’s called Westlake Center. It’s the main area downtown Seattle, which was awesome because it’s always busy down there. It’s where all the tourists come through, right by Pike Place Market. There’s cruise ships that come through. There’s always new people, which is awesome. When you have a very interesting product like ours, new people every day, everyone wants to try safe-to-eat cookie dough. It was ideal, best place.
William: We’re also walking distance from business district. We were able to do a lot of caterings for larger corporations and companies and such. It was perfect.
Ivana: It was perfect.
William: The reason we launched more trucks was because we’re sitting here all day, every day, and we’re getting inquiries for weddings, festivals, and fairs. We’re like, “We can’t be two places at once and this place is so good, but we want to be at these other places.” That’s what sparked the idea for the second truck.
Ivana: Then COVID hits. And then, downtown Seattle is-
William: Ghost town.
Ivana: Ghost town. And I told William, “We’re throwing in the towel. We’re done. There’s no way we can survive this. How are we going to do this? There’s no way.”
William: Everything we knew was gone.
Ivana: Gone. Everything that worked for us doesn’t exist anymore.
William: We had a routine. The same location worked for us every day. It was just a matter of getting down there, opening up. We knew people were going to be there, closing up and then doing it again the next day.
Ivana: It worked perfect.
William: It was perfect. Then the trucks were parked, making-
Ivana: No money.
William: No sales. Hatches closed.
Chris: You only had one part of your two-part concept left.
Ivana: Right, but then the second part was events.
Chris: Those were gone too.
Ivana: That’s canceled too. No businesses are doing anything, so no catering, nothing. We have nothing.
Chris: Everything stops.
Ivana: We had a year’s worth of events get canceled. Just call after call, after call, after call, after call. We just didn’t know what we were going to do. I just was like, “I just don’t know what we can do. I think we just need to wait this out or reevaluate this in a couple months. I don’t know.”
Chris: You were beside yourself. What was he doing?
Ivana: Of course, back to me crying and being like, “We can’t do this.”
William: I’m like, “Let’s handle our product. Let’s figure out-”
Ivana: William’s like, “I’m going to figure it out.” I’m like, okay. I’m like, classic. He’s going to do this thing. I’m going to let him go in this tangent for a week and try to figure something out and he’ll be back. I literally just let him do his thing.
Chris: The pandemic hits. For how long were you beside yourself and he was trying to figure it out?
Ivana: For a week, I was like, “William, come on. William, we’re not going to do anything. Look at all the businesses around us.” He was like, “I’m thinking. I’m up to something. Don’t worry.” I was like, okay, sure.
William: Here’s what worked. Here’s what pivoted our business and-
Ivana: Changed it.
William: ... made us thrive in a whole new way. I get a ping on Facebook from this lady named Angie.
Ivana: Shout out, Angie.
William: Shout out, Angie. She’s like, “Hey, Sugar + Spoon. I am an hour south of where your trucks are located.” She didn’t say that, but this is where she is, pretty far. She was like, “I want you to come out to my neighborhood.” I’m like, “Cool. Here’s our truck pricing. We’d love to come out and serve you and your family, your friends for this birthday party, whatever, wedding, whatever we typically do. Happy you’re having an event. This is crazy that this is happening right now.”
Chris: This is great.
William: She’s like, “Actually, it’s not a celebration. I’m just going to have you come serve my neighborhood.” I’m like, “Okay. We ask for this guarantee in sales. Are you picking up the tab?” She’s like, “No, I’m just going to post on my neighborhood Facebook group and you’ll get a turnout.” I’m like, okay. She makes a Facebook event.
Ivana: He doesn’t tell me about this until it’s set in stone.
William: Literally I think the day before, because she was on that week, “We’re not doing Sugar + Spoon.” We’re doing this.
Ivana: I would quit.
Chris: Angie showed up a week after you were beside yourself.
William: This Facebook event is gaining a ton of traction because everyone’s at home, scrolling through Facebook and it’s like, “Cookie dough truck outside my door, going.” The Facebook event hit over 1,000 people interested and I’m like, “We got to make some dough. We got to get dough back on these trucks. I got to tell my staff that we have something going on.”
Chris: Wait a second. Who created the Facebook event? You, Angie?
William: Angie did. I think we might have shared it on our Sugar + Spoon page, but this is why Angie’s getting the shout-out because-
William: ... she was our marketing girl.
Chris: That’s amazing.
William: There were so many people interested in the Facebook event.
Ivana: I told William I wasn’t going to go. I told him not to go too.
William: We brought both trucks down to Maple Valley, an hour south. We had the longest line, the busiest day ever out of our three years before this, busier than the biggest festivals and Ferris Wheels we’ve been to. We’ve done Bite of Seattle and huge food truck events. This was a record day.
We had a whole realization. We were so comfortable with Westlake and being positioned in the same place every day, but we realized we’re on wheels, we can go wherever, and that people were really excited about trying our product for the first time, and that there were all these people who reside outside of Seattle that have a huge appreciation for unique food, small businesses, food trucks, something exciting.
From that day, even still, we go somewhere new every day because a bad location means not great sales, and being on four wheels and being able to go wherever you want in a food truck, getting creative with it... We could have said no to Angie, but trying things out led us to where we are now.
Chris: That’s amazing. What an awesome story. I think the thing that is another theme between both of you is the resilience that you both have. This whole idea of, it’s the co-founder thing. You’re sitting here going, there’s an inertia. There’s a whole market that seems to be going away. Our entire livelihood is going away and you’re emotional about it, which is your gut. On the other side, when you’re in a good place is probably taking the world by storm. Then you’re like, “Oh, damn.”
You’re on the other side sitting here going, “We’re going to try stuff. We’re going to get creative.” That together thing keeps the resilience because you keep probably a lot more emotion in the business and you keep a lot more progress in the business. That is creating this culture. You guys are leading people.
4. Build a culture that draws your target audience in
Chris: Talk to me about, through this whole process, what’s your employee culture, what’s going on, where you’re like, “We have a thriving business where we go to the same place. We don’t have a thriving business for the moment, and COVID’s hitting. Then we’ve got these exploratory things about shipping and going different places and getting really creative,” talking about just how you’ve hired and what your staffing plans have been like.
William: The vibes on the truck are immaculate. When you bring this up, I hear house music playing in the background, because we create a really high-energy, fun, inviting space on the truck.
Ivana: William worked in the food industry for, how many years? Eight years before starting Sugar + Spoon. He told me so many stories. He was like, “One thing I want to do differently about Sugar + Spoon is the environment and how we hire people, who we hire, and what that looks like.” From the get-go, we didn’t realize this, but pretty soon after, we were like, “Hey, pretty much everyone can scoop cookie dough. Our system is so simple. We don’t need someone who needs to cook food.” Or at the beginning, we were driving the truck. We were like, “We really just need high energy, positive individuals.”
That’s what we look for. We look for individuals who have high energy, are positive, are great team players and are excited about our product and understand how important it is to us and how important it eventually will be to them too, because we really try to create a family.
Chris: That’s awesome.
Ivana: Sugar + Spoon. That’s how we hire people. When we do interviews, we call them vibe checks. That’s what we call them, at least internally.
William: We’re very unconventional.
Ivana: Vibe checks, very unconventional, come wearing whatever. We always say, “What you wear to class, what you wear to hang out with your friends. You don’t need to bring a resume. If you want to, you can.” We just talk to them and feel them out and ask them, “This is what’s happening on the truck. What would you do?”
William: Situational questions.
William: How they have a conversation, are they exciting to talk to?
Ivana: Eye contact, energy, what are the levels like? Because when you come to Sugar + Spoon, the most important thing is the experience. Cookie dough is great, but you can go buy cookie dough. You can go make your own cookie dough. You can order it online. You can do whatever you want, but you can’t replicate the experience that we create.
William: People take all these little steps, finding out where we’re going to be, how long we’re going to be there, where we’re going to be parked, getting there. It’s all these little things, like a smile and a small conversation that make this huge impact and create what we call the Sugar + Spoon experience. It’s more than just a product. You’re going to go to this bright-colored truck, get a crazy cool product that you’re familiar with, but we’re reinventing it in a new whole exciting way. You’re going to meet someone fun and high energy and you’re going to leave with a smile.
Chris: That is amazing. Is everybody in the truck or do you have people outside too?
Ivana: Usually, everyone’s inside the truck. Summer days, we do have one person maybe that goes outside and answers questions or helps with the menu or something like that. Or William and I are at an event, we really like to get outside of the truck and talk with our customers, answer questions. We like to take videos, make TikToks, that kind of stuff. It just brings them into the experience. Because our trucks are super tall, super big. Some of them are closed off. One of them is really open, which is nice. We want to bring in the customer as much as we can into the experience.
Chris: What is one word or phrase that you think describes you and why you’re different than other food trucks, or even other restaurant experiences?
Ivana: Oh, one word I can’t. I don’t know.
William: That’s a good question.
Chris: You can do one phrase or one word.
Ivana: High energy. I don’t know. What’s one word?
William: I’m going to stick to experience because I think a product is one thing, but if you have a food truck that’s more than just a good food product and you create this whole experience that encapsulates people’s memory and gives them a good vibe, you’re going to want to come back.
Chris: Got it. That’s awesome. What would be a descriptor you would use to describe your experience, the experience you’re delivering?
William: High energy would be the first thing.
Ivana: High energy, fun. We always say we want to be the best part of someone’s day. A lot of times, people come up to the truck and they’re like, “I just had the worst day ever.” They’ll be coming home from work. “I had the worst day ever.” They really open up to us, I feel like. I don’t know. I really get close with our customers. I’m like, “Okay, well, it gets better from here. What can I get you?” Chat with them, get close with them, make a connection. It’s the best feeling when you give them their product and you see that huge smile on their face. You want to be the best part of their day or their happy moment in their day, their smile.
5. Use social media to build influencers for your food truck brand
Chris: That is awesome. Well, one of the themes that I’m seeing of the five things we’ve been talking about is... Something I’m passionate about is marketing. You have a real knack for marketing because vibe checks with staff members, your experience that you’re delivering has a lot to do with your marketing, but then there’s promoting it and getting people to pay attention. You’ve talked about a lot of the experimentation that you guys have done. You mentioned Facebook.
Ivana: Big Facebook.
Chris: Big Facebook. I watched a lot of your TikToks. Talk to me about social media and why that is a way that you guys are using to get the word out there and get people to pay attention to you.
Ivana: When you have a food truck like William said, it’s really hard to get your customer to get to you, especially if you don’t have a place where you’re at every single day. Because if you have a store, you have a big sign, you sit there every day, people are driving by, walking by, they know where it is. There’s a website for it, for us, our Yelp, it doesn’t even say where we’re at. Yelp doesn’t have that for us.
Ivana: We had to figure out how to make sure our customers knew where we were, not making it impossible to find this moving truck every single day. Social media has been really important way to let our customers know where we’re at. In the beginning, we started a lot with Instagram because our student body following was on Instagram a lot. That’s where we started.
William: It was also the social media that we were most comfortable with and were using most ourselves, where Facebook was more like the older generation, losing traction. We were trying to stay forward and keep what was working, working.
Ivana: Right. Then during COVID and post-COVID, Facebook became really important because our customer completely changed. If I told you when we started this company, that our normal customer today, that’s not who I envisioned our customer being at all. We were so much with downtown Seattle lights, tourists and students.
Now it’s changed so much because we are going to all these neighborhoods and families and going so far north, an hour and a half north, an hour and a half to two hours south, that our customer changes every day. We have to pivot every single event and find our customer every single day. Facebook has been great because we’ve been able to make Facebook events. We try to make an event for every single pop-up. Sometimes we have four pop-ups a day.
Chris: Another shout out to Angie.
Ivana: Angie, thank you, Angie.
William: I can’t wait to send this to her, Facebook message it to her.
Ivana: Yeah, FB message. We do Facebook events and then we promote those, and then those get traction. We also promote to Instagram where we have always our schedule up. Something new that we’ve started, thanks to Facebook, is posting within groups, neighborhood groups.
William: Neighborhood groups.
Ivana: It’s free marketing, which is something I again would never think we would do. That would never cross my mind. From going to all these communities, we’ve found these tight communities, they share and they spread the word. If you find the right person, your host is your best marketer, you’re good.
William: It’s a free marketing rep. Like Angie, these hosts had invite our food truck out. We send them the Facebook link. We ask them if they need any marketing materials. We’re happy to supply them with a digital flyer or anything that they need to help spread the word to the event.
William: From there, it’s like, “Spread the word.” We’ve had hosts distribute flyers to mailboxes before we come to an event, sharing it on Facebook. The smallest little things make the biggest impact, and turning these people who are willing to host our food truck into a free marketing rep, “Spread the word that we’re coming. Let’s hype it up. Let’s make it a big thing.”
Ivana: They really go all out. It doesn’t cost anything for them. It doesn’t cost anything for us. It’s the best turnout events.
Chris: That’s amazing. If I could stitch together an observation, one of the things that I see is the chemistry and the effervescence that you guys both have together, birthed this business and all of this thread of resilience that you have, and also because you invested in the experience, a big part of your marketing is people becoming advocates for you. If you didn’t have the experience, people wouldn’t be advocates.
Chris: It isn’t about cookie dough. You know what I mean? I think that has a lot to do with, one of the things that you hear a lot of entrepreneurs talk about, if you read Michael Gerber’s “E Myth,” there’s this whole idea of there are technicians having entrepreneurial seizures. It’s one of the things he talks about. He uses this bakery. This lady’s really great at baking cupcakes. She’s like, “I’m going to start a cupcake business.” She doesn’t realize that she has to monitor P&L. She needs to figure out how to keep things stocked. She has to figure out how to hire. She’s got to figure out how to do marketing. 90% of that has nothing to do with cupcakes.
William: Yeah. A good product is important, but I think it’s just one of the steps.
Chris: I think one of the coolest things that you’ve done is this whole experience into advocacy. You’re on a digital medium now with social media. Now you’re going mobile, and being able to ship stuff, you can actually go and expand the business in a pretty meaningful way because your core nucleus is chemistry, to experience, to advocacy, and doing that on a digital medium. You guys have a massive future ahead of you.
William: Thank you.
What’s next for Sugar + Spoon
Chris: It’s actually really encouraging to meet you guys and see what you’ve figured out and just how your gut and work ethic working together to create this momentum and this pretty incredible business.
Ivana: Thank you.
William: We’re not afraid to break norms and try new things because new things can lead to new successes, and little things like Angie’s message or listening to the Seattle Food Truck guy would’ve stopped us from moving forward.
Chris: That’s amazing. All right. Well, I have some rapid-fire questions for you. What’s your favorite cookie dough, Ivana?
Ivana: Party Animal with ice cream on top.
Chris: Well, William, what’s your favorite flavor?
William: Oreo with ice cream on top.
Chris: That’s amazing. That sounds so good. Is there stuff in here?
Chris: Got it. Well, maybe food trucks aside, what tip do each of you have for new entrepreneurs trying to figure it out?
Ivana: I always say, well, we heard this from our accelerator program. Being an entrepreneur is like waking up every morning and knowing that you’re going to get punched in the face, but not knowing where the punch is going to come from. In the beginning, the punch is really hard. You’re fearing it all day. But then, as you grow as an entrepreneur, you’re going to just accept the punch and you’re going to be ready for it. Just know that and know that it’s normal. Punches happen, but you got to roll with them.
Chris: That’s awesome.
William: Mine is go for it. It doesn’t matter your age, where you went to school, what your background is, go for it. If you have passion, it’ll drive you forward.
Chris: That’s awesome. Well, it’s been an awesome conversation. What’s next for you guys?
Ivana: We always focused on growth. We want to grow Sugar + Spoon.
William: We’re not scared to try anything.
Ivana: We’re ready to take it. I think we should reach out of Washington State. I think that’s the next thing for us.
William: Shipping our product and seeing it hit other states has been a really cool thing and picturing, “What if we did this in a city that it isn’t raining all the time and there’s actually sun in the sky?”
Chris: That’s amazing. It was good to spend time with you guys. Thanks so much for coming to the studio.
Ivana: Thank you for having us.
William: Thank you.