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Detours: what happens when a business venture takes an unexpected turn.

In 2010, SuAn Chow introduced the first upscale gourmet food truck to the Salt Lake Valley. At the time, food trucks were just beginning to gain popularity across the nation and were virtually unheard of in Utah.

Chow, owner and self-proclaimed "boss lady" of the Asian food-inspired Chow Truck, started the food truck because she had owned restaurants in the past but wanted to try a different approach on food service. "I wanted to introduce the first food truck to Salt Lake. I knew it was better to be first than last," she says.

It took a while for people to catch on to the trend, Chow says, mainly because a lot of people weren't familiar with the concept. But after a couple of tough years and perseverance--and thanks to The Food Network and television shows like The Great Food Truck Race--people got comfortable with the idea and Chow Truck gained record popularity.

"Flashing forward to now, people are contacting me for availability to bring the truck to their offices, private parties and catered events," Chow says. "It used to be me doing more of a sales pitch, but now we're the ones getting contacted."

Because of Chow Truck's immense popularity, in November 2014, Chow opened a brick-and-mortar restaurant in Station Park in Farmington that served the same foods she served from the food truck. Chow had high hopes for the fixed location, but less than a year later in July 2015, Chow's restaurant shut its doors, unable to find the same success as the food truck.

Here, Chow shares lessons she learned during the process and what she'd do differently if she could start over.

Be Mindful of Location

Chow was approached by Station Park to open the permanent location, and in the moment, she felt the timing was right. But the main challenge for Chow stemmed from the fact that many people in the Farmington area hadn't heard of Chow Truck. "Station Park is a really nice development, and I thought there would be a bigger and stronger customer base for Chow out there," she says. "But I found that a lot of the customer base was still very conservative and the location was more challenging for me than I anticipated."

Chow admits that she was concerned to go outside of the Salt Lake Valley area where she's well known, but she figured that because of the economic and population growth north of Salt Lake, it wouldn't be an issue.

Don't Burn the Candle at Both Ends

Although Chow had employees working for her at the permanent location and in her truck, as the sole owner, she was still tasked with the responsibility of keeping tabs on both her food truck and the Station Park restaurant.

"I initially hadn't thought running the truck and the location with the distance would be as challenging as it was," she says. "It became extremely difficult and exhausting to deal with the distance on a daily basis. With the Station Park location being part of a development, I had to be open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. The truck, depending on the season, is [operational] five to six days a week. Obviously I had staff that worked for me, but I was basically going back and forth operating both."

Know Your Customer Base

Chow incorporated the same menu at the Station Park location that's offered on the food truck, and expanded the regular menu to include specials that were popular on the truck, such as pepper-topped elk sliders. "We incorporated noodle dishes and rice dishes, but I found that customers were initially very conservative and hesitant to try something different," she says. "My food is not typical Asian fare. I do an Asian fusion, and people were hesitant."

Chow says once people were willing to try the food, many embraced it--but it took a lot longer for that to happen than the business had the ability to support.

Gauge Opportunities

If Chow could start over, she says she would think twice before accepting the first opportunity given to her by Station Park. "The lesson learned is sometimes in a situation where it seems like it's a great deal or being approached by someone is very flattering, it's not necessarily the right move," she says.

"You shouldn't necessarily feel like you only have the one opportunity. I felt a little more pressed to react in the situation because I felt at the time there wouldn't be a better opportunity arise," she adds. "I may have pursued it from that perspective, but in retrospect it would not have been the best approach to grow my business."

Proceed with Caution

Chow says while growth and expansion within a business is always good, it always comes with some risk. "Entrepreneurs are risk takers, but along with that, proceed with caution and be realistic with numbers," she says. "The potential of things not moving as rapidly as you would hope needs to be factored into the plan. I think we all need to be strong believers in the direction we choose to take, but at the same time we need to be cautious and realistic to the possibilities for a project not being successful as rapidly as you hope."

Move On

Chow says while she has plans to seek out more opportunities in the food industry in the future, operating another restaurant is not what she's interested in. "I'm open to different possibilities, but where that leads--I'm not sure," she says. "I'm not necessarily looking at brick-and-mortar again."
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Title Annotation:Lessons Learned
Comment:Detours: what happens when a business venture takes an unexpected turn.(Lessons Learned)
Author:Madison, Rachel
Publication:Utah Business
Date:Nov 1, 2015
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