Food Concession Menus – Know Your Market

fair food

fair food

In the food concession business, when it comes to menus, it can be a challenge to identify and pin down your market. Because your market is, literally, a moving target.

In one day your customers might be attendees of a farmers market in the morning, and Harley Davidson riders, enjoying a swap meet, in the afternoon. The following weekend you might have your concession at an art and wine show. Then, two days later, you find yourself setting up at a five day county fair.

I don’t know any menu that can maximize sales at every event. Cotton candy is for kids, and fajitas are preferred by adults. Event goers admiring art while tasting wine are not likely to buy a corn dog. But, they might buy chocolate dipped strawberries or oysters. The reverse is true for people attending a motocross race.

Most concessionaires serve a menu based on their ambition. Generally, concessionaires who earn well over fifty thousand dollars a season operate highly productive concession booths and serve a menu that has broad appeal. The food they serve can be prepared and served to hundreds or thousands of people within a short window of time. They dominate large events, such as state fairs and large sporting events. These high attendance mega events attract a wide demographic of attendees and the earning potential is huge. There, too, booth space and other operating costs are equally huge. For these food concessionaires the critical mass bar is high, but, when reached, so is the pay-off.

However, large events are not for everyone. In my world most concessionaires prefer to work smaller special interest events and festivals, such as horse shows, farmers markets, car shows and small fairs. They cost less to participate, and the attendees are usually more receptive to a variety of menus.

In either case, no matter what your business model, menu, and type of events you work, achieving critical mass is key. The bar is high for concessionaires who operate high production booths, selling food at mega events. The bar is much lower for others who sell economically at moderate events. There, a less productive menu that appeals to fewer people might work just right.

There is more to reaching critical mass in sales than the popularity of your menu. More on that in a future post. Your comments are encouraged. Maybe you have a different perspective.

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Food Carts, Food Trucks, and Food Concessions Serve Different Markets

fair food

curly fries, corn dog and lemonades

Not long ago food trucks were called “roach coaches” and served quick snacks to industrial site workers. Now, food trucks and food carts seem to be on every street corner and discussed on every form of media. In fact, just today I was listening to Here and Now on NPR, while the host, Robin Young was discussing mobile food trucks with Richard Myrick, editor of Mobile-Cuisine Magazine.

Myrick pointed out that many carts and trucks are opened by chefs and culinary entrepreneurs because they are less expensive to start and run than a traditional restaurant. It seems, as a result, many mobile food businesses are becoming known for the unique quality of the dishes they serve. This makes me wonder about the difference between street food, served from food carts and trucks, and so called, fair food, served from food concessions.

Whereas, many street food vendors are making a name for their selves based on the quality of their menus, concessionaires at festivals and fairs are known more for serving outrageous junk food. In fact, last summer, food booths selling deep fried sticks of butter and deep fried Twinkies were winning awards for the best food at many state fairs. Can you imagine street food carts having the same success with such a menu? At first glance, it sounds like only street food vendors serve good food because that is where all the good cooks are. But, that’s not it.

Food sold on the street is different from food sold at fairs because the market is different. Like restaurants, street food businesses are generally open full-time, and depend on a steady clientele of repeat customers for their success. Food concession businesses, on the other hand, are open part-time in a variety of markets, and therefore, must serve hundreds or thousands of customers within a very short window of time. Food sold from a concession business must also have a higher profit margin to offset high operating costs.

Perhaps, more importantly, people who attend fairs and festivals eat differently. They allow themselves to splurge on food that is not particularly good for them while enjoying an infrequent “special event”.

I occasionally meet professional chefs, who, as new concessionaires, show up at fairs with newly minted manufactured trailers, fully equipped and prepared to serve gourmet food. I never see them return the following season. It’s likely because; they had the wrong business model for the market.

That’s not to say; there aren’t successful concessionaires serving gourmet food at special events. But they are the exception. Until the market evolves, it is hard to earn a consistently high return in the food concession business unless you serve traditional fair food that is fast, cheap, and, often loaded with calories. I think the market will evolve. Just as people in urban areas now like grabbing a quick meal of quality food from street vendors as an alternative to the menus available at fast food franchises. They could soon look for similar quality in their food as an alternative to typical fair when they attend special events.

But, if you think it is a simple case of achieving critical mass in whatever food sales market you serve, it’s not that simple for concessionaires. The special events food sales market is hard to nail down because all special events are different. County fair goers eat differently than art show goers.  More on that in a future post. I welcome your opinion.

 

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When Food Carts Close for Winter They Lose Income, Not Headaches

food cart

food cart with awning, tables and heater

Recently, as I drove through Portland Oregon, I passed several food carts that were closed for winter. It got me wondering what the operators of these carts do for income while they wait for better weather to re-open in the spring. It also makes me wonder why these people chose to open a food cart rather than sell seasonally at special events with a food concession. I assume the need for a full-time income is the main reason.  But, if a food cart is forced to close for lack of sales, what is the advantage of having a food cart? Do they prefer to sell from a stationary location, regardless, rather than set-up at temporary events? Or, are there other reasons?

I suspect that many food cart operators want a full-time income but didn’t know in advance of opening how well they would do month-by-month. It is no small thing to design a food cart and menu, become licensed, and commit to a location. And, it is not until the cart has been open through the seasons that they learn if their location and menu will produce a steady income. At that point, if their location doesn’t sustain adequate sales, it is difficult and expensive to move a food cart to a better location.

Food carts depend on foot traffic for business. When the weather is cold and wet too many customers remain indoors or rush past clutching their umbrellas. Depending on their location, some food carts can provide their customers a warm, dry place to eat with an awning, propane heater and picnic tables set in front of their cart. Other carts are restricted from doing this.

Aside from the loss of income, closing for the winter months creates other problems. While the food cart sits shuttered the operator needs to worry about vandalism, theft, frozen water pipes and mold. And, the rent still needs to be paid. For those carts operators who remain open though sales have slowed to a trickle, the task of supplying the cart, preparing food and maintaining its quality, and the long hours sitting within the small cart watching the beans bubble, with very little return at the end of the day, creates its own angst.

As I look out at the freezing fog I am glad my food concession is tucked-in for the winter. I don’t need to even think about it until spring.

I think next time I’m in Portland I will buy my lunch from a food cart and tip generously, even if the weather is a gully-washer.

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Starting a Food Concession Business – Ask Yourself This

concession tent

concession tent

Two things I really like about the food concession business are the variety of food booths, and the people who run them.  Go to any event and you will see concessionaires who are young, old, educated, uneducated, liberal, conservative, cheerful and cranky. They run food booths of every description; from concession tents, concession trailers, and pushcarts, to food trucks and stick-joints.   Every concession business is operated in a way that suits the needs of the operator. They are run part-time, full-time, simply or with gusto.

I have known many concessionaires who hit the season hard with a robust crew, and a full calendar of contracts at large events and fairs. Some of these people make well over one hundred grand during the season. I also know as many other people who hold down full-time jobs, operating their concession at a handful of weekend events where they hope to make the extra money they need to feel financially secure.  There is no shortage of semi-retired couples who pull a concession behind their motor coach as they travel the country.  Last summer I met a group of students who were collaborating on a concession booth to pay for college.  They figured each would make enough to fully pay for a year in school. I didn’t doubt it. Four strong, energetic young people can manage a full-service concession with ease. I meet a lot of families with concessions. Many are started by parents who raise their kids in the business, then, as they get older, pass the business on to the next generation.

The flexibility of the concession business to be individually customized to suit the needs of the operator is unusual amongst small businesses, and one of the key reasons people go into it.  A concession is most rewarding when the concessionaire first examines their own personal needs, abilities and goals and then designs their business to accommodate their personal situation.

Four questions should be asked and answered by anyone starting a concession business.

  • What is your purpose for starting a concession business? Do you need extra money to help make ends meet or buy the extra things you enjoy? Is your job at risk? Do you need to earn money for college? Is your retirement nest-egg inadequate? Are you tired of working as an employee?
  • Ultimately, what do you expect to achieve from your concession business? How much is enough? Will an extra twenty thousand dollars provide you a more satisfying retirement? Perhaps an extra five or ten thousand dollars will bridge the gap in your inadequate income or make a down payment on a new car. Perhaps you need to earn enough from your concession to entirely replace your existing income.
  • What are your financial resources? Do you have the financial resources you need for start-up capital, as well as enough reserves to see you through the first season or two of low returns?
  • What are your personal skills, resources, and capabilities for seeing your plan through? Will you be juggling your time and energy with other responsibilities such as parenting small children or working another job? Do you have the skills required to manage a business, or drive a large vehicle and pull a trailer?

The monetary rewards of running a concession business are almost always proportionate to the operator’s investment. A moderate investment of time, energy and capitol will produce moderate returns.  A small investment will produce small returns, a large investment; large returns. Fair enough.

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Food Carts, Food Concessions – What’s the Difference?

food booths

temporary food concessions

You may have noticed the food cart craze sweeping the nation. I gotta say, it’s been a long time coming and I’m thrilled.

About 25 years ago I, and several other food concessionaires created, what might have been, the first “food pod” in the state. We found a vacant lot with easy access and visibility and arranged our booths so customers could easily pull into the lot, select a meal from one of several menus, and be back on the road within minutes. Unfortunately, our food pod failed miserably.  Maybe our menus and booths were wrong for the venue. Maybe our market’s preference for corporate fast food was too entrenched. Or, perhaps it was a good idea whose time had not yet come.

But, on the bright side; the experience taught me the real difference between a food cart and a food concession.

In my mind, whether we are talking about food stands, food carts, food trucks, food booths, food trailers, or food concessions, they all fall into one of two categories; stationary or temporary.

A stationary food cart, trailer, truck, or kiosk is essentially a conventional “storefront” operating full-time at a single location. Though they are usually hard-wired to utilities, they are on wheels and are considered mobile food units by the health department.  Some food trucks and light-weight carts are not hard-wired and may follow a daily routine or route. These are also licensed on a yearly basis as a mobile food unit. A food stand or tent that is not on wheels cannot be licensed as a mobile food unit. All of these are usually referred to as food carts or food trucks.

A temporary food booth sells food at short term venues, such as; fairs, festivals and special events. Any style of booth, whether it is a cart, trailer, tent, truck, or wooden stand can be licensed by the health department on a temporary basis as a temporary restaurant. These are usually referred to as food concessions or food booths.

There are major operational differences also. Over the years I have run both temporary and stationary food booths, and am partial to temporary booths selling at short-term special events. My bias is purely personal. Both types of booths have serious advantages and disadvantages. Perhaps your experience can contribute to this list.

food carts

stationary food carts

Stationary Food Stand Pros:

  • Stability. The daily and weekly routine of opening, closing, and shopping for supplies.
  • A full-time income. Working full-time creates a consistent income.
  • A full-time schedule. Working five or more days a week, year around, expands sales and creates a steady market base.
  • Menu flexibility. A food cart can more easily experiment with a variety of unique menus and successfully develop a niche.
  • Familiarity. Getting to know your steady customers can be very rewarding.
  • Operational ease. Once the business is started, the daily operations are not difficult.

Stationary Food Cart Cons:

  • Stability. The daily and weekly routine of opening, closing, and shopping for supplies can make you feel like a slave to your business.
  • Managerial restraint. Lease contract obligations can restrict independent decision making.
  • Time investment. Running a business full-time requires a tremendous investment of time.
  • Commitment. The hours of operation must remain consistent or sales will suffer. Your customers depend on you to be open during your regular hours making it difficult to take personal time away from your business.
  • Bureaucracy. The visibility of a stationary food cart requires a willingness to abide by all the governmental rules and red tape. Licensing requirements can be very involved.
  • Large initial investment. It takes a relatively large amount of capital to start-up any stationary food cart, no matter how small.
  • Boredom. When business is slow being cooped up within a small food cart can be boring, or become claustrophobic.
  • Vulnerability. Uncontrollable and unforeseen events can greatly impact and jeopardize your investment. Lease conflicts, road construction, and unforeseen competition are just a few of the many uncontrollable hazards that can ruin a business. If a location does not work well for you it can be difficult to pick up and move your business to a new location.

Business location is a key component of a temporary concession as well. The difference is that whereas a stationary food cart has the same location week after week, with sales remaining somewhat constant over time, a temporary concession has a new location on a weekly basis, for good or bad. And, a temporary concession’s sales will vary as widely as does the quality of the events, and location within each event.

Continuing on…

Temporary Concession Pros:

  • The possibility of making a relatively large amount of money in a short period of time.
  • Independence. Complete control over the management of your business.
  • Limited time investment. Most temporary concessions operate seasonally, enabling owners to spend time doing other things during the off-season.
  • Diluted risk. If for any reason an event bombs the next event provides new possibilities.
  • Variety. Every event is different.
  • Autonomy. The concession business is a cash business, has minimal licensing requirements, and is relatively unregulated.
  • Family. Families who operate their concession together share the workload and spend time together experiencing different communities. Young people gain confidence by learning a work ethic, responsibility, cash handling, and public relations skills. This could be the perfect seasonal family business.
  • Fun. What could be better than earning a living in a relaxed environment where people are there to have fun?

Temporary Concession Cons:    

  • Sale time limitations. Annual earnings potential is condensed into a very short season of opportunity. What’s worse, each event has a limited period of optimal selling time.
  • Risk. Breakdowns, poor weather, poor health, low event turnout, faulty event organization, and employee no-shows are just some of the many things that can prevent an event from producing the way it should. This risk is magnified by the limited sale opportunities of the season.
  • Uncertain income. High risk and event variability make it nearly impossible to calculate future income.
  • Lack of control. Certain factors that greatly affect sales are uncontrollable. Most notable are weather, economy, and decisions made by the event coordinator, such as space location, duplication of menus, over abundance of competition, and poor planning.
  • Physical demands. Stocking up, traveling to and from events, setting up, conducting business, and tearing down are physically and mentally stressful. Doing these tasks repeatedly over the course of the season can be mentally and physically exhausting.
  • Menu restraint. A food concession cannot easily experiment with unique menus. It can be a challenge to develop a menu that is highly sale-able while at the same time be unusual enough to secure event contracts.
  • Managerial complexity. The managerial tasks of a transient food business can be complicated. Booking events, securing multiple licenses, traveling, staff management, bulk quantity food product management and handling, and vehicle maintenance, are all time consuming, energy consuming, and costly.

Incidentally, in case you have ever wondered – that last point is the main reason you’ll pay twice as much for a corn dog at a fair.

 

 

 

 

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Concession Support Vehicles – Work Horses of the Mobile Food Business

my truck

my truck and stock trailer

One thing you don’t often hear mentioned in any discussion about the mobile food concession business is: support vehicles.  Support vehicles are the grunts of the concession business – working humbly and hard behind the scenes transporting the booth, equipment, stock and living quarters to and from events. Whereas some vendors manage with a single pickup truck, others have a caravan of trailers, trucks, and motor homes.

My first support vehicle was a borrowed pickup truck. It pulled my small concession trailer and a little extra stock. At night I rolled-out my sleeping bag onto the floor of the concession trailer. In the morning I brushed my teeth in the hand-washing sink. A few years later I was able to buy a used Chevy window van. Though I couldn’t stand upright to dress, at least I could sleep without the aroma of fryer grease in my nostrils.

As the years went by I had several concession trailers and several trucks with campers. Then, as the quality of my events improved, I added a tent with a separate menu to my business. With that I needed an entirely different support vehicle. I needed something that would pull my concession trailer and its stock. The same vehicle also needed to haul my tent with its equipment and stock. I also needed a place to sleep while I was away at events. Because my business has only one driver – me – I needed an all purpose vehicle. This was a tall order.

I considered all sorts of vehicles. Initially, I thought I might get a motor home with a ramped “toy hauler” on the rear. It was easy to imagine myself traveling in luxury with a hot morning shower, kitchenette, wood paneling and a real bed to sleep in.  The question was whether or not a motor home was built to pull and haul the substantial weight of the entirety of my business.

My next idea was to modify a small bus with a handicap lift, which would come in handy for loading and unloading stock. I was pretty sure a bus had the under carriage and power to do the job. I also really liked the funky aspect of curtained windows and custom built amenities.  I didn’t go so far as to picture Ken Kesey’s bus, “Further”, with psychedelic flowers, but I was close.  Alas, neither a motor home nor bus was within my price range.

After many months of rubber-necking used vehicle lots I came across a 1979 Ford F600 high box. It had been retired from Columbia Helicopters in Canby Oregon, where it was used to service logging helicopters.  It had a 4 speed split shift transmission, heavy springs and a 380hp gas engine. The box was insulated and had high windows so I could see out. Under the belly on one side was a 6000 watt Onan generator. On the other side was an air compressor. It carried two 50 gallon fuel tanks. I asked my mechanic to check it out. He pronounced it a pretty good truck. The price tag was an affordable $5000.

I was in love. Over the next few months I walled the 14-foot box into two sections. Within the front 8-foot section I installed bunk beds, a table, a small toilet closet, a plumbed sink, and carpeting. In the rear I installed a lift gate. The air compressor I sold, and now use that belly box for storing tools and spare parts.  With this truck I pulled my concession trailer, hauled a tent, and equipment, and enough stock for two food booths. I also had a comfortable sleeping quarters.

A few years later I decided to focus my business entirely on the tent so I sold my concession trailer and bought a 12 foot utility trailer. Now, this trailer hauls my entire concession business. In the rear section of the truck I carry the plastics and breakables so they don’t get jostled or smashed by wayward equipment in the trailer.

After fourteen years I still love my old truck. But this love affair could be on the rocks.

To be continued…

New subject: Have you noticed how online tutorials always seem to think you already know what you’re doing? I gave up on widgets, sidebars, and RSS feeders and have ordered two books on Amazon.com about learning WordPress.  In the meantime, please continue to excuse this blatant self promotion: Learn about the concession business, my book, Food Booth, The Entrepreneur’s Complete Guide to the Food Concession Business, the Mobile Concession Business Plan Workbook, etc. etc. Go to my website, www.foodbooth.net

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Food Booths – Big and Small

I am now in the process of designing a new food booth. I want one that is small and easy.  I am doing this because I am getting older, less energetic, and perhaps, a little cranky. Let me explain.

concession cart

ice cream cart

I have always operated tent and trailer concessions with large and difficult menus. Currently, I travel to 3-5 day events in my truck, pulling a stock trailer. I arrive a full day early to set-up my tent booth, equipment and tons (literally) of stock. Each event requires a substantial investment in time and energy. Sales are good, and I almost always drive home from an event with that warm-fuzzy feeling of a job well done.

Once-upon-a-time I ran my concession from early spring, well into fall. Over the last ten, or so, years I have been, one-by-one, eliminating some of my events. Each year certain events have faced the chopping block due to poor sales, unpleasant work environments, excessive logistical complications, and difficult coordinators. I now find my event calendar has gone from twenty-six events down to my current six. OK by me. These six events are my old favorites and highest producers. However, this past season one of those six was completely rained out causing my income for the season to take a big hit. I scrambled to extend my season by booking some new events. I scoured both online and printed event listings, but, found that getting booked into the right caliber of event for my booth/business was harder than I thought. Every event I checked on was too big and expensive, too small, too far away, had no space available for my menu, did not have room for my supply trailer, or had no power and water. And, nearly all of them seemed to be more hassle than I wanted to take on.

I also noticed that many events in the listings were local single day events. Small events are a problem for me because, with such short operating hours, they don’t produce enough sales to support my rather labor intensive and costly booth.

This is not a problem that cannot be overcome. Like many concessionaires I too can have two food booths; one for the big events, and a small booth for the small events. Sure, a small booth with a simple menu won’t make anywhere near as much money, but, nor will I need to hire help, fill huge fuel tanks, or spend days away from home. Heck, I won’t even need to put my dog, Kenzie, in the kennel. I am beginning to feel that old familiar feeling of creative excitement and nervous energy that comes with taking on a new project.

Kenzie

my dog, Kenzie

Over the winter I am doing a feasibility study. I want to go into this enterprise with as much information as I can. At my age, I am no longer willing to blindly invest my money and energy on an enterprise unless I am fairly certain of the payoff. Questions that must be asked and answered are:

  • What menu will I serve? What can I sell that is popular at small events; few other vendors are selling, and has an adequate profit margin?
  • What are the logistical considerations of the menu? What are the preparation, equipment, storage and transport needs of my menu? Does my menu require condiments and paper products? Will my menu need equipment to prepare that runs on electricity or propane? Can I keep the logistics of this menu simple enough to warrant doing small events?
  • How much will it cost to build my booth? And, what will I need to transport my booth, equipment and stock to each event?
  • What costs will be incurred by this menu? Aside from stock (groceries to be sold), what are the costs of booth space, equipment, and licensing?
  • What licenses are required? At one day events should I license my booth as a temporary restaurant or a mobile unit? Every county has a slightly different licensing structure and fee.
  • What events will I do? What, and how many venues can I schedule? What are the space fees, dates and hours of these events? What are the regulations and competition at the events I am considering? Can they provide me electricity or water if I require it?
  • How many sales will be needed at each event for the booth to profit? The higher my profit margin and lower my operating costs are for each event, the fewer sales I will need to cover my cost. Sales beyond that will be pure profit. How much money do I expect to pocket from each event? Can I keep my expenses low enough so my goal is feasible?
  • What am I overlooking?

Stay tuned.

Barb

p.s. I have yet to figure out the sidebar goodies on WordPress, so until I do, please excuse this blatant self promotion – you can get a copy of my book, Food Booth, The Entrepreneur’s Complete Guide to the Food Concession Business here.

 

 

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Food Concession Blog Launch – GASP!

food booths at Skamania County Fair, Washington

Technology gives me a headache. Social media gives me the willies. However, after much encouragement from others I have decided to start blogging about my experiences in the food concession business. Please have patience as my learning curve is steep. This repulsion of mine for new technology and social media comes naturally to one who grew up in the sixties and seventies when “big brother” was the boogeyman. Now I worry far less about government oversight and control than I do about corporations keeping data on my personal life. Or worse, cyber do-badders trying to infiltrate my activities on the web. I like to live my life without some giant entity or millions of internet creeps knowing what I am up to.  This is one reason the concession business has been such a good fit for me. There is very little oversight from the government. I like working in an environment removed from the corporate world of big business and banks. It’s just me and my customers.  I am free to run my business as I see fit in relative anonymity.

That said; I want to help make the business more accessible to other people who want to make money selling food at fairs, festivals and special events but don’t know where to start. All sorts of people run food booths- from students paying their way through college, to folks approaching retirement with an inadequate nest egg. Some are entrepreneur free-spirits, while others are simply trying to make some money. I am particularly passionate about reaching those who are unable to earn enough money with a regular job. Or, worse, can’t find a job at all. In this difficult economy people who are under-educated, over aged, parolees, or in fields with little job growth are in desperate need of an alternative. I personally know how this feels.

In 1972, at 17, the path I chose was to drop out of school and head for Alaska where I acted on my dream of being a free-spirit living off the land. There, I experienced high adventure as the bride of a halibut fisherman. Ten years later I was divorced and back in Oregon with a baby. I quickly learned that holding down an 8 to 5 job, commuting two hours a day, and living for the weekend when I could finally spend time taking care of my child and the home-front,  with too little time or money, was a tough way to live. I had learned as a fisherwoman that there are some jobs that are different. I wanted a job where, instead of trying to mold my life to fit my job, my job would be my life. I set out to find a small business that Wednesdays were no different than Saturdays and the year wouldn’t be spent anxiously anticipating a two week vacation.  I found that line of work in 1984 when I started my food concession business. During the event season my daughter was tucked away at a babysitter’s on weekends while I worked. Then, during the week, and for the entire off-season, my time was my own. During the event season I was making more money than I had previously while working a full-time, minimum wage job. When my daughter, Megan, became old enough she worked with me in the booth. She learned responsibility and a strong a work ethic. She grew to be self-confident.

Nearly three decades later I still love the concession business and look forward to the start of each season. I can’t imagine any other business that I could have started, as I did, on a shoestring, learned on my own without benefit of experience, and made as much money. It has its disadvantages but they are minor and can be overcome. I want to share with whoever is interested what it means to be a food concessionaire.

Some topics in future posts I want to discuss are:

  1. Pre-season start-up activities.
  2. The agony and ecstasies of hiring help
  3. My favorite memories of the 2011 event season
  4. My observations about different menus
  5. Certain political issues that cropped up this season
  6. My observations on effective signage
  7. Gossip
  8. New rules
  9. Coordinator beefs I have
  10. Mentoring activities on a new booth start-up
  11. How to do a start-up feasibility study
  12. Analyzing operational logistics of a new food booth
  13. A discussion on support vehicles

I look forward to hearing your input and any suggestions you have on future discussions.

 

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