Reporter Lucas Daprile has covered politics and government,but he wanted to get a sense of how some other Washingtonians made their livings. He profiles a food truck owner,an artist and the founder of a peace movement.
WASHINGTON – One might expect to find the holder of an MBA from the prestigious Wharton School managing millions in a corporate high-rise or sparking startups in Silicon Valley.
But an alumnus of the top-ranked program,Steve Adelson,sells barbecue on the streets of the capital from a food truck.
Adelson,52,the owner of Carnivore BBQ,didn’t get stuck with the truck. He chose the lifestyle because he loves good food.
“I knew there was an opportunity in the market,and I knew it spoke to me,and so that’s why I pursued it,” Adelson said. “It’s really a passion.”
Adelson’s lifelong passion for the authentic way to cook barbecue – smoking the meat using soaked wood – began about 20 years ago when he went to Flint’s BBQ in Oakland,Calif.,which closed in 2010.
“That was the first place I ever had barbeque made the right way,so they made it with wood,” he said. “The next place I went was Jamaica,and I had the jerk,and it was like,‘How is it that a third-world country can have better food than we have?’”
One of Adelson’s employees prepares the pork,chicken,brisket and coleslaw every day before Adelson and his employees sell their food on D.C.’s streets.
Because the meat is not cooked on the truck for sanitation concerns,Adelson has to make sure the food is ready to go long before the first customer arrives.
Parked outside the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs on Mondays,Carnivore BBQ has a solid clientele of many repeat customers.
One of the city’s many busy crossroads,the area buzzes with potential.
Because of its close proximity to the DCRA,the D.C. Tax Office and the Waterfront Metro station,government employees and commuters abound.
But anyone wanting to feed the hungry nine-to-fivers here struggles to compete against Starbucks,Subway,local restaurants and other food trucks.
In December,the DCRA issued 159 site permits to food trucks,with some companies getting multiple permits. Five of those went to The Hole Schmear LLC,the legal company behind Adelson’s food trucks. Their spaces are determined by a lottery. Often,the trucks are in a different space every day of the week.
Adelson needs to sell about 50 sandwiches every day to break even. On one recent day,he sold more than that. But because one of his other trucks was having issues,most of the profit would go into paying for repairs,he said.
Adelson described his customer traffic that day as “steady.”
“This is like a really hard area to do well,” he said. “We’ve been really,really steady and really,really good in our sales. That’s a nice shot in the arm. Of course,that could disappear like in 20 seconds for any reason whatsoever.”
Success or failure can be as simple as and unpredictable as bad weather persuading potential customers to stay inside or go elsewhere,he said.
If Adelson doubts anything about his business,it’s not the food.
“I’m very comfortable about the quality of the food. I mean,I know food,” Adelson said.
Shawn Gibbs,37,who works at DCRA,recently bought Carnivore BBQ for the first time. He said he usually brings his lunch,but came to check out which food trucks were outside.
“I’m a native North Carolinian,so I like good barbecue,” he said.
The three barbecue trucks and one macaroni and cheese truck Adelson owns are doing well now,but like any career,his has had its ups and downs.
His previous experiences in restaurants include starting a wholesale bagel shop called Planet Bagel and a Peruvian chicken company called Pollo Paradise. Neither of Maryland-based restaurants is still in business.
“It was worth a shot,” Adelson said. “It was an educated guess. It was a swing and a miss,that’s all.”
But Adelson has been moving forward,describing his barbecue truck as somewhere between a midlife crisis and a midlife epiphany.
“It’s a midlife crisis,but it’s also consistent with everything I’ve ever done,” Adelson said.
As far as what’s next,Adelson is thinking outside the box.
“I’m going go on ‘Shark Tank’ and make a pitch for a branded food truck,” he said. He would like to pitch his business to the TV show as a “new category of casual catering.”
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