Yumpling is one of the hottest food trucks in New York City: The flaming red truck draws a lunch crowd that lines up for dumplings, crispy chicken and other Taiwanese menu items as early as 11 a.m., rain or shine.
From 11:30 a.m., when the window opens, to 2:30 p.m. when it closes, Yumpling will help 200 to 250 customers and sell 1,200 to 1,400 dumplings. One of the most popular items, the beef bowl, consistently sells out within 20 minutes — and sometimes as quickly as five.
The three cofounders — Jeffrey Fann, 35, Christopher Yu, 28 and Howard Jeon, 34 — have had so much success on the streets of New York that they plan to expand their menu and open a restaurant in the fall of 2019 in Long Island City, Queens.
As I learned after spending a day on the job with the Yumpling team, running a popular food truck in the culinary capital of America isn't for the faint of heart. "A lot of people, when they see us, they see us happy at the window. They assume it's a very fun experience," says Yu. And that's the biggest misconception: "The whole food truck game is not all happy and fun. It's just like any other start-up: There's a lot of work behind the scenes."
To begin with, the hours are long — and abnormal. "We don't really go through the same schedule and routine as a lot of people," says Yu, whose work days start as early as 12:30 a.m. and can last until 7 p.m.
Yu and Jeon alternate picking up the truck at 1 a.m. to get a prime parking spot in Manhattan or Brooklyn. In the food truck business, location in everything — and, particularly in New York City, competition is stiff. The later you show up, the less likely you are to snag a parking spot.
While most trucks will park between 3 and 5 a.m., the Yumpling team doesn't mind sacrificing sleep to nearly guarantee their spot. They park near Bryant Park on Mondays, Midtown Manhattan on Tuesdays and Thursdays, Dumbo on Wednesdays and Soho on Fridays.
Once either Yu or Jeon park the truck, they sleep in it overnight. The way the regulations are set up in New York City, someone has to be in the vehicle at all times, so they can't just leave it parked and return in the morning. They also can't stretch out in the back of the truck, since that's where the food is prepared. Instead, they turn the driver's seat into a makeshift bed.
On the night I met up with Yu to get a glimpse into his typical day, it was winter and about 20 degrees outside. It wasn't much warmer in the truck (there's no heater), so Yu relied on layers. He wore three pairs of pants and two jackets. In the summer, he deals with the other extreme: "It's tougher to sleep in the summer than the winter because the heat is just unbearable. That's just part of the process that you have to get used to."
Besides the irregular schedule, running a food truck also means dealing with a slew of problems that may arise on any given day, says Yu: "Your battery might run out, you might forget the water tank. Just like any other jobs, there are a lot of obstacles that you have to overcome. But having been in corporate jobs and now in a restaurant job, I would say I run into far more issues on a daily basis than I ever had in a corporate job."
Both Yu and Fann worked more traditional 9-to-5 roles in NYC before quitting to pursue Yumpling: Fann was a lawyer, while Yu started in finance and then worked as a headhunter. Jeon lived abroad in Vietnam running a language school.
While working in the food truck business can be a grind, "I definitely feel happier," says Fann, who stopped practicing law in 2015 to launch Yumpling. "At the very least, I definitely feel more fulfilled. I think the nature of sitting behind a desk and working on documents all day is that you don't have very many tangible things that you're touching, and that can be draining.
"It's not that the work is not rewarding at a desk job — it can be very rewarding — but I think feeding people has a very special place in everybody's minds and hearts. So being able to serve people food and hearing that people really like the food is super rewarding in a way that sitting behind a desk was not for me."
Yu agrees: "The biggest joy for us is to serve people. It's very satisfying. At the end of the day, all aspects that are tough aren't as tough when we see people giving us compliments, giving us a good review. That makes it all worth it."
"If I had a choice, I'd definitely do this all over again," he adds.
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