In 2011, when Chris Kese and Chio Burga decided to open a Peruvian food business in San Francisco, their first instinct was to go the traditional route with a brick-and-mortar restaurant. Instead — “thankfully,” they say — they started small with a food truck, a farmers market tent, and rented prep tables in a commercial kitchen.
That first year running Lima Peruvian Food was “an intensive study in how to run a food business,” they say. Starting small “allowed for us to make some mistakes with little consequences and learn from them. It worked out perfectly.”
They secured a standing spot at Off the Grid, a self-described “roaming mobile food extravaganza,” where a representative from Facebook approached them to cater an employee party. The success of that venture took them in a new direction.
From Food Truck to Catering to … Whatever Comes Next
Just a few years later, they have four employees and feed about 300 people a day, Monday through Friday. They have prospered in catering due to a measure of control usually absent in the restaurant business.
“It is a very efficient business model,” they say. “We organize all of our meals a week before so all of our kitchen prep is very calculated. There are no leftovers and everything comes freshly made for that order.”
Financially, they found cash flow to be difficult in the beginning. But steady growth, being flexible about grabbing new opportunities, and learning on the fly how to manage their books have brought the enterprise greater stability.
“When we first started we weren’t very organized,” they say. “We learned on the way. Our bookkeeper came in and cleaned everything up and taught us QuickBooks. Now we can run the numbers, manage our back office, and, of course, we always keep learning.”
They say smart use of technology has been key to their success, especially when it comes to managing money.
“There is no need to have a bulky office these days,” they say. “There is QuickBooks. There are companies to run your payroll, organize your vendors, sell your products.”
But, they caution, technology shouldn’t be viewed as an end in itself but as a tool to organize and streamline your business: “Make it work for you in smart ways. It can help you stay lean, and then it’s easy to pivot at the right moment.”
Time For Another Pivot?
Now Kese and Burga are contemplating a new venture, a “front-of-house space” like a takeout window, where they can interact directly with customers again. It’s all part of what they see as an evolving strategy to follow opportunities as well as maintain their passion for the work.
“Don’t get attached to anything,” they advise. “We need to constantly challenge ourselves not to get too comfortable with any particular way we work. Keep your company as lean and as agile as possible. And as you move forward don’t force your original idea, it should just flow into what the market wants.”
In this case what the market wants is lomo saltado (flame-seared flat iron steak) and seco de pollo (chicken breast marinated in wine-cilantro stew) served up in family-style trays. Or in little paper dishes from a take-out window. Or both.