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Level 7

A Little Crazy, a Lotta’ Sass: Meet Charlene, a Food Truck Owner Who Put Her Business On Wheels

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Name: Charlene Rivera

Business: Sassy Sisters on Wheels

Started: August 2015

Charlene Rivera had been working her heart out in a restaurant when, out of the blue, she was slapped in the face. Not literally slapped (thank goodness), but after hearing the restaurant owner explain she’d only bought the business to give her daughter a “hobby,” Charlene was shocked – and nervous. Rather than leave her livelihood in someone else’s hands, she decided to become her own boss. It wasn’t long before Charlene found herself the co-owner (along with a long-time friend and fellow restaurant worker, Cherry) of a busy food-truck service in Swainsboro, GA. The Sassy Sisters on Wheels were ready to roll!

What tips do you have about going into business with a close friend?

We started with three business partners, but the third person dropped out. Cherry and I were both a bit worried about being friends and partners. We knew we’d need to make compromises and talk through the good and the bad. We’ve discovered that we complement each other. I’m an early bird, and Cherry is a night owl. There are only a few hours in a day when one of isn’t awake.

The downside is that it’s hard for us to pinpoint a time to talk. My bedtime is 8:30 p.m. At that point, I’m done. Don’t even try to talk to me! We’ve found a balance by having our “owner meetings” in the truck, driving twenty minutes to a location. We try to solve all our problems in a small space in a short time, with no distractions.

How did you hone your skills for this job?

I was self-taught. I was a military wife and a really good home cook. I lived off a $300/week paycheck and as my skills progressed, I hosted parties. Originally, our third business partner was going to do all the cooking. When she dropped out, we knew we had to figure it out ourselves.

Our menu consists of burgers, wraps, salads and Blue Plate specials. Almost all our ingredients have three or four uses. For example, we offer three kinds of wraps each day, but we use the same Philly meat in different ways. Our chicken salad can be bought by cup, wrap or as a sandwich.

How do you get through slow times of little-to-no business?

We plan everything. For example, we know the period between Christmas Day and Valentine’s Day is the slowest time in the food industry. We have to be vigilant about what we purchase and when. We’re always saying, “No, this is for January.”

We buy supplies at Walmart, where you can scan your receipt and they’ll honor a lower price somewhere else. That helps us save a lot of money. Sam’s Club has a discount program on seasonal products, too. Once you figure out when you’ll need certain products, you can buy them at a specific or dedicated time. medium.jpeg

What is your most effective way to get new customers?

We do a lot of community service, and we love giving back. But we’ve got an ulterior motive, too. Donating food and time to an organization or event really helps get our name out there. For example, we provide cookies and juice to our local art council. When they’re planning their next event, like the opening of the historic theater in town, we are the go-to vendors. Over the last two years, we’ve made PB&Js for football practice and fed the team spaghetti and meat sauce before the big home game against their #1 rivals. We were there when Cherry’s son graduated from the local high school, too. Students remember who fed them each time and are quick to point out, “I want to have them cater!”

How important is it for you to connect with other small business owners, for support, insight or inspiration?

“Hello, family!” That’s the feeling of camaraderie I get from the small business community. It’s the only place I can go where people understand my kind of crazy. You have to be somewhat crazy to jump right in and start your own business with no safety net. Most people have a back-up plan or a part-time job. I didn’t. If I don’t make money, I don’t eat. You have to be crazy to be all-in like that, and this community understands.

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