This is the final installment in a three part story about two Marine veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars–Ruben Diodonet and Sam Finan–who, after their final deployment, followed their dream to own and operate a food cart in New York City.
Part 3 “We both said let’s do it and I quit my job and we started cooking.”–Sam Finan
Sam enrolled in 2018 Fall semester courses at the International Culinary Center where Ruben also received his training. The six-month intensive program took him through every aspect of professional cooking–knife techniques, foundational cuisines and recipes, stocks, sauces, pastry, presentation. At the end, the school arranged an internship for him in the kitchen of a high-end trendy Italian restaurant in the West Village. Still cooking and managing a restaurant, Rubin began sketching out different menu concepts for the truck. They applied for loans, cashed in their savings, and opened a business bank account where they each contributed $20,000. Then they began the labyrinth process of applying for food handling certifications and vendor license.
At any given time, there are 2,900 legal vending trucks on the city’s streets selling you breakfast, lunch and dinner. Their owners had sometimes waited years as they moved up the license wait list. The thousands of other trucks/carts/ vendors have either bought a license from someone who changed them an enormous rate or they’re unlicensed, avoiding arrest by roaming from one corner to another.
Sam and Ruben fell into a special category. 100 licences are reserved for veterans; disabled veterans; and disabled people who are not veterans. In a sort of bad news/good news situation, their application was fast-tracked because they were both certified by the VA as suffering from physical injuries and a high level of post traumatic psychological damage–flashbacks, anger management, emotional withdrawal–that they had more or less under control.
The one restriction to the Vet license is that you are given a permanent location near a city park. If it proves to be a dud, you’re pretty much at the mercy of the local police patrol if you shift to another spot. The men lucked out again with the availability of 23rd Street and Broadway where one of Ruben’s previous trucks had been successful. It was at the heart of the city’s tech district, crowded with publishing companies and literary agencies and, on most days, a lot of foot traffic. Their nearest competition would be a Shake Shack inside the park and Ruben and Sam were sure they could beat them with an enticing menu and low prices. They chose a curb near the second oldest monument in New York, the grave site of General William Jenkens Worth, a veteran of the Seminole and Mexican-American Wars.
Whenever he was not in school or his internship, Sam was at Ruben’s house hashing out what kind of food interested them. The most successful trucks offered a varied menu that attracted repeat customers. To be profitable, the dishes would have to be quickly prepared, using good quality, yet cost-effective, ingredients. Ruben kept circling back to Cuban-Chinese, the kind of food served at the restaurant his mother took her family to in Jackson Heights. Sam had his own connection to the cuisine from a restaurant in Sunset Park where he hung out as a teenager after he and his friends finished their night roaming. Memories brought them the scents of arroz frito rice, fried plantains, black beans, slow roasted pork.
“We looked at ways we could kick up the traditional menus, like using Cuban bread, stuff it with sofrito, topped with Bahn Mi style pickles,” Sam explained.
They consulted an administrator at the Culinary Institute who had deep experience of running a truck. He advised them to keep the menu simple by sticking to five items they could easily vary. From that, they began to develop a menu that revolved around four proteins–chicken, steak, pork, Cuban baked beans–presented in either a sandwich, rice platter or salad.
Ruben worked out a menu with a distinctive combination of flavors then proceeded to conduct tastings to refine the recipes. “We did it the same way I would do in a restaurant. You’re constantly cooking, have people taste it, get their feedback, then go back and work the recipe again,” he said.
By this time they had acquired a small truck and began to sketch out what it would look like, eventually landing on a black background decorated with red symbols from each culture. A red rose became their logo. They bought a 2005 Ford Expedition that could fit their equipment and food shopping. If needed, it would be able to pull the truck.
The challenges before them was an on-going conversation. Ruben’s wife had given birth to a son and Sam had little financial reserves to fall back on if they weren’t successful. They knew the hours would be long and expected the work to be constant in order for the business to be profitable.
“We’re Marines, we have a work ethic and know how to suck up pain. We both could handle the bullshit that’s out of our control. It made it easy to say screw it and go for it,” Sam said.
Early one May morning, they parked the truck in front of the Worth monument, slid open the window and waited for the lunch crowd to find them. From that first morning, customers lined up in front of the truck, intrigued by the unusual menu. Ruben grilled, Sam tended to the customers. The Cuban coffee proved addictive. The sofrito ropa vieja sandwiches (beef slow roasted in their house sofrito, topped with a Bahn Mi style pickle cabbage slaw, and a creamy swiss and sofruito aioli) sold out. Sweet sesame chili chicken over coconut rice became a stable. Salads of slow-roasted pork or tofu marinated in a special soy sauce and spice mix, and cafe con leche, coquito, mojito, and morir sonando smoothies couldn’t be blended fast enough.
The truck’s tight interior demanded coordinated steps at rush hours. Ruben, lazar-focused, moved seamlessly fast from grill to finishing station. Sam, genial and humorous, kept customers occupied while prepping salad orders before finishing off Ruben’s executive chef touches and packing them into serving boxes while, at the same time, making coffee and smoothies. They closed the serving window late in the afternoon and towed the truck to a city-licensed food commissary where they could store extra food and safely park it for the night.
The one major drawback proved to be the commissary. The people who ran them wouldn’t stock the men’s special ingredients and charged extra for weekend parking. The cleaner the men hired from the commissary began to steal beverages and chips from them.
The menu also turned problematic. “We realized it was giving our customers too many options,” Ruben said. “It was too ambitious for them to figure it out.”
Sam added, “I kept having to explain what Cuban-Chinese food was and on top of that how you needed to first choose a protein, then how you wanted it–as a platter, sandwich or salad,” Sam added. “It took a lot of time getting through orders.”
They decided to simplify the menu and cut out expensive ingredients to lower their costs.
“The trouble with that is, when we took off beef, for example, customers who really liked it stopped coming back,” Sam said.
The business was also affected by the weather, something they hadn’t factored in at all. Late spring heavy rains stretched on for days on end forced them to stay home. Once, Ruben stepped out of the truck backwards, slipped on the wet curb and twisted his ankle so bad he went to the VA hospital to check if it was broken. That left Sam to man the truck by himself.
“If you miss a week, people start looking somewhere else. That forces you to start building your customer base all over again,” Ruben said.
When business fell off, they increased their social media presence and signed on to Grubhub. The day’s intake varied from $900 to $125 for the same 19 hours of work.
Relentless seven days a week, twenty-hour days, began to wear on them. Ruben, who lived near the commissary, loaded the truck for the day and drove it to the city. Sam picked up bags of cilantro and tomatoes, water jugs and milk then took the subway to the park and waited to help navigate the truck through sidewalk crowds to their spot. They pulled and pushed the truck into place, set up the generator and gas tank, stocked the beverage container, arranged condiment containers on the prep table and the refrigerator, prepped the grill, made coffee. The truck opened around 11 and closed usually around four. Returning to the commissary maybe by five if the traffic wasn’t bad, the men spent a few hours cleaning the truck, replenished box containers, napkins, utensils, bags and beverages. After the commissary, they both shopped for the next day’s ingredients and headed back to the commissary to cook, dice, and pickle for the next day. The truck didn’t go out on weekends but that’s when the men did the major shopping, bulk cooking, chopped vegetables and fruits, mixed their spices and special sauces.
One more factor came into play. Ruben. He took on the major burden of food preparation because he had more experience.
“It was easier for me not to delegate,” he acknowledged.
Sam realized the wide gap between their expertise. He looked up to Ruben as the superior cook but, at the same time, wished Ruben would teach him more.
This was a fact, not a source of contention between them. As Sam said, “it’s fair to say that Ruben needed a more experienced partner and I was looking for more chances to learn from him. But it goes back to being a Marine and having that camaraderie where we knew we could count on having each other’s backs to get the job done.”
In late July, prime vacation weeks, customers disappeared. Tourists rarely raised the truck’s intake. Rain continued off and on through August.
“We had a long stretch where we couldn’t go out. I was able to build a bond with my son that I hadn’t been able to do before. My wife’s a strong woman but she was on her own a lot with the baby and going back to work. Being with them as a family–that was really my big eye opener,” Ruben said.
“The truck started to take away my joy in cooking,” Sam said. “I didn’t have a life outside the business and I wanted one. I missed being a social worker, too. We talked a lot about how we could keep the truck going but we both knew we were at the ‘Come to Jesus’ moment.”
Neither considered ending the truck’s run a defeat. If they had not won the war, they succeeded in creating incredible food and, for the whole time they were open, their customers appreciated their efforts. They had accomplished a shared dream together.
The truck now sits in Sam’s parents’ driveway, waiting for a new owner. He began seeing someone and recently started working as a social worker again. Ruben’s wife would like them to move to Florida but, until then, he’s enrolled in a VA program that helps disabled veterans to develop their careers. He’s looking to finish his college degree, maybe take the police test again. His heart, though, remains in cooking.
“I don’t think I can go back doing it in the city again,” he said. “What I’d like is to find a way to give back to youths who were like me when I was younger. Maybe teach them to cook.”
The full story–Part I, II, II–is available on my website, with recipes, include their famous sweet chili marinade/sauce.