By Nina Huang
Northwest Asian Weekly
Earlier this year, Sean Jen quit his job at a consulting firm to start his own Taiwanese food truck. One of the few of its kind in Seattle, Jen wanted to honor his heritage as well as the food he enjoyed most.
Growing up, food was very important to Jen. His earliest childhood memories were spent cooking with his grandma cooking Taiwanese and Chinese foods.
“I still remember the sandwiches she used to make me when I came home from school, as well as the vegetables she would plant and cook from our backyard. Without a doubt she was my first culinary inspiration. Her food is what brought my whole extended family together every weekend growing up,” he said.
After Jen’s grandmother passed, his mother continued to teach him how to cook and helped to refine his palate for traditional Chinese and American home cooking techniques.
“Time spent in the kitchen while my mom experimented with different sauces and meats were very fundamental to my development as a cook and especially as an eater,” he said.
When it came time to starting his own food truck business and fulfilling a dream of owning his own restaurant, Jen was ambitious, and wanted to cook everything Taiwanese.
“I wanted to be a one-stop-shop for all the big food attractions at the Taiwanese night markets; oyster pancakes, big chicken cutlets, and stinky tofu. Unfortunately, logistically that is impossible to do as a food truck. Other food truck owners have stressed the need to be simple; and that’s something I am learning,” he said.
He has also received feedback from other food truck owners that his food has a stronger emphasis on preparation because of his unique dishes: braised pork belly, beef shank, and hand-rolled and flattened green onion pancakes. These dishes aren’t easy to make en masse.
Typical day for “It’s Bao Time”
Jen’s typical day starts around 8 a.m. at the commissary kitchen. He and his team of two employees go through a checklist to ensure everything is working and ready to go. Some of the food preparation takes place the afternoon before, but they have to prepare the fresh vegetables, rice and last minute sauté items the morning of. Once everything is securely packed in the truck, then they head out to their designated spot in South Lake Union around 9:45 a.m.
They are ready to serve by 10:45 a.m. and that’s usually when the first customers of the day start to trickle in. As expected, 11:30 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. is usually the peak lunch hour.
“It’s actually a challenge to manage the process. We have to be able to slow or speed up the prep time. For example, we’ll have to heat up certain ingredients to match the customer flow, and we don’t want food to get cold or take too long to serve customers. We have to ramp up and ramp down as necessary,” he said.
Jen explained that food truck owners nowadays rely on this type of data analysis of customers and their orders to help determine the timing of an average day.
At around 1:50 p.m., the team packs up and heads back to the kitchen to do the dishes.
Jen does most of the cooking in the afternoon as well as the grocery shopping. He said that he often has to make stop at multiple stores because there isn’t a one stop shop for his menu.
He also receives weekly pricing info from the grocery stores to help plan out his shopping agenda for the week to maximum efficiency and minimize costs.
Challenges & looking ahead
As the business ramps up, Jen said that social media and branding is a big challenge.
“As a reluctant user of social media myself, it’s hard to turn 180 degrees and force yourself out there as a business. Being a mobile enterprise, food trucks require active and extremely current information out there to constantly engage with their customers. That is something that we are currently trying to learn,” he said.
Jen’s short-term goal is to expand his presence onto the University of Washington campus where there is a large international community. He already has a few loyal fans who go out of their way to visit him in South Lake Union.
“We love being in South Lake Union, but it’s less personal during the lunch rush. I like to make connections and talk to customers, and when there are returning customers, there is no greater satisfaction than to know that your product is well received,” he explained.
Jen’s goal is to eventually have another truck or a storefront in the next three years to really maximize exposure to customers.
Though it was hard for Jen to quit his full time job, his family has been his biggest supporters. Even though being in the food truck business goes against everything they are comfortable with, Jen is grateful for their support. (end)
You can find “It’s Bao Time” parked at 333 Boren Ave N on Mondays and Fridays, and 320 Harrison Street from Tuesdays through Thursdays.
The truck will also be at several upcoming events including the University of Washington’s Taiwanese Student Association Night Market on May 9.
Nina Huang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.