Founder and CEO Michael Lenard created fusion in a food truck – determined to provide healthy, well-balanced meals to the people of Washington, D.C. Here’s how a travel rewards business card helped him plate the world.
Mobile eateries are the perfect vehicles for entrepreneurial epicureans like Michael Lenard. Due to his profound appreciation for fine and creative cuisines, Lenard decided to open a food truck called TaKorean in his hometown of Washington, D.C.
In August 2010, Lenard converted a vintage step van into a four-wheeled restaurant, serving his own brand of Korean tacos, rice bowls and salads. The purpose was simple: Provide healthy, well-balanced meals at a reasonable price to his fellow Washingtonians.
Getting the business rolling, however, was more complicated than anticipated. His experience was in retail management – not operating an on-the-road taco shop.
“I could cook great food at home, but I didn’t know how to warm up 600 tortillas so they’d taste great, I didn’t know how to use a flat-top grill, didn’t know how to do propane plumbing either,” says Lenard.
“Opening a food truck has a steep learning curve and requires an immense amount of patience and humility to get through it. But it was so fun driving that big blue truck around, blasting great tunes and pulling up to the downtown square on a summer day to serve up something new and different to waiting customers. There was nothing more rewarding than seeing them line up before they had even tried it.”
Lenard’s passion, hard work and delicious products paid off. Today, TaKorean has expanded to four fixed locations in the mid-Atlantic area. And one credit card, in particular, helped him manage the business’s growth and travel expenses.
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How did you – someone with no background in the food truck business – prepare for all the costs involved?
There was nothing but surprises, but I wouldn’t say they caught me off guard. You have to be ready for everything to go wrong all the time to make it out with your soul intact.
I understand a credit card helped you manage expenses. Which did you use and why?
In the beginning, I did not use credit cards. After two years of cash-flow history, we added the use of credit cards in order to expand our purchasing power and to get in on the rewards action.
We’ve used the Capital One® Spark® Miles for Business card, which gives us two miles per dollar on all purchases, for many years. When you spend almost a million dollars each year, the miles add up quite a bit.
I use my rewards for travel – a bit of a silver lining or treat while I’m still paying myself a low salary to grow the business. I’ve also used those credit card miles for important work trips.
For example, my colleagues and I have traveled to Mexico, Seoul, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand to research food and architecture. Those were also very special vacations for us.
How do you handle the financial aspects of running the business – are you usually leveraged or do you remain debt-free?
We use debt only to finance new restaurant openings, not to cover ongoing initiatives.
In general, we pay off the cards weekly and in full – but on occasion we have revolved for a month or two when we’ve needed a boost. We like keeping the balances low and having the flexibility when we need it.
What business stage is TaKorean in now?
I’d say we are in a steady and healthy plateau. At this point, we are still interested in growing slowly but not as fast as we were before.
Any regrets? If you could do anything over, what would it be?
Not a whole lot, except maybe choose a different fourth store opening (which we had to close).
What have you learned about borrowing money along the way? Can you offer some words of wisdom to budding entrepreneurs?
Yes, only borrow money when your existing cash flow can pay it, if all else fails. You don’t want to overextend yourself.
If you have three locations and want to open a fourth, ideally the cash flow from the existing three businesses can float the loan payments if the new project doesn’t generate cash flow immediately – or ever in some cases.
There are times when young companies have a “go big or go home” moment, and I respect that and I do think owners should believe in themselves and go for it. But once you have something good going, you have to protect what you have. It’s important to think ahead and be careful.
Also, if I were to give advice to other business owners who are just starting out, I would say have a sense of humility. Run it like a business from day one and be a good person while you do it.