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Opening a rib shack food cart in Portland, OR. How stupid am I?

I am a software engineer by day, but one of my passions is smoking pork ribs. I’ve been thinking about opening a rib shack here in Portland. I have been wanting to open a non-tech business and this is something I’m actually passionate about.

I have business experience, but nothing in the food industry. I’m planning to start fleshing out a business plan and getting an idea of the start up and operational costs because I have no idea about either.

I’m curious if anyone out there has experience with these types of businesses and could point out some of the potential pitfalls. I don’t know if this is a good idea or if I’m just asking for trouble.

Thanks!



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33 replies on “Opening a rib shack food cart in Portland, OR. How stupid am I?”

So I own 6 restaurants and a restaurant bookkeeping and consulting business (I’m happy to talk more directly if you really want to dive into this).

I would strongly suggest working in a restaurant/food truck and seeing if its for you before opening up a place. Margins in the restaurant industry are notoriously small, hours extremely long and BBQ in particular is very challenging (Long cook times, holding the product causes it to decrease in quality over time, and it’s somewhat undervalued by consumers).

The advice I give to anyone wanting to open a restaurant because they love cooking is that the actual cooking is about 10 to 15% of what you need to do. Tons of time is spent on HR, Ordering, Finance etc. Go work in someone else’s restaurant/truck and learn with their money.

Edit: One other thing that I forgot to mention that should absolutely be the case. Incorporate the business (LLC) and never ever sign a personal guarantee for anything relating to the business, this limits the potential blow back to your personal life (to only the financial losses within the business, assuming you don’t throw business expenses on your credit card). Not to mention any liability from food poisoning etc.

BBQ is a particularly tough food-based business. The food costs are very high because it’s all protein, but people view the finished product as a very low cost “home style” type food. The beef pork and chicken wholesale cost over the last 6 months have gone up dramatically. Lastly the time inputs are huge, and since so much of the preparation has to be done in advance up to 12 18 or 24 hours, it is nearly impossible to predict with high accuracy how much you will actually need for sales so there’s a lot of food waste unless you get real creative.

I’m not telling you this to discourage you sounds like it could be a real fun passion project Just be aware of challenges here and Don’t quit your day job

Rather than going full food-truck business, you could buy or build a tow-behind smoker. Then advertise yourself for weekends/events so you can keep you day job. Throw your profits back into the business and eventually open a regular location.

I watched a local couple start and build a business like that here in rural KY over the last five years.

If you’ll start slow, you can decide hobby business vs. growth w/o investing too much up front.

Here’s my .02. Don’t do it. This is probably the worst time to think of opening a restaurant. The whole industry is changing in front of us and we dont know what it will look like in 1 or 10 years. It is one of the most difficult industries to be successful in. I worked for almost 20 years in restaurants everywhere from dishwasher to corporate marketing and General Manager. I missed countless celebrations with friends, holidays with family, and just quality time with my wife until we said enough is enough. I love cooking and even now my friends still ask me why I don’t open a restaurant when they eat my food. My wife and I just laugh and remember how grueling the restaurant industry is and how it can eat you alive. Even if the numbers worked out for you, there’s so much more to consider.

Hey OP, I live in PDX and have a few ideas. First, look into the association ORLA (Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association). I bet they have support for start-up restaurant businesses. Also, with everything crazy going on with COVID, I’ve speculated that Food Carts may actually do better than proper sit down restaurants (social distancing, risk, etc.). Plus, it’d require less up front capital and give you an opportunity to build a cult like following (easy to do with good food in PDX) that you can use to expand into a dine-in restaurant once the future becomes a bit clearer.

Hey OP, I’m not sure if this is completely relevant to you but you should look into ‘Trap Kitchens’. They have them here in the UK and they basically make similar bbq food to you but they only sell the food on certain days of the week and all food is pre-ordered. Could help you with dealing with demand initially? They also operate heavily on social media.

I have done the math on a rib truck, it doesn’t work out. Or at least the profit is not worth it for the amount of time and work.

There are rumbles of meat shortages because of Covid. This has already started to drive the prices up from what I can see. Careful not to get squeezed in the middle of that.

If your goal is to make money, I’d find a different avenue.

I am a classic trained chef – lived and cooked in some of PDX finest restaurants from 2010-2013.

Lmk if you have any further questions. Will visit in pdx next time

No specific experience here , but being in the Portland area and loving food it’s something I’ve though of before. Multiple times.

I think you might find your own answers if you start to dive into the financials of it. How much it costs to rent a space downtown, licensing associated with serving food to the public. Where would you get your meat from?

This might be me overthinking it but sticking to pork could either allow you to specialize or shoot you in the foot depending on what people in the area are driven towards (I’m just thinking of recent health crazes).

My buddy built a bbq truck out of an old tiny school bus. People loved it and he made good money. Funny enough, he sold the truck and became a back-end web developer.

I do not own my own business and never did. But I’ve been thinking about it, wanting to and researching for a long time. So don’t pay me too much mind.

Let me summarize all the advices I’ve seen from a ton of research over many years.

Whatever business idea you have everyone will say it’s terrible and will have a million reasons why.

There is a point you just have to do it regardless of what anyone says. If it fails miserably than it failed. I guess be ready for that as best as you can. The other possibility is it didn’t fail.

So if you try something you could potentially make it happen. If you don’t, you obviously will never make it happen.

I help produce the Lone Star Plate podcast, which has a few good episodes on food trucks you might find interesting.

I have experience and I’m working on a tech solution for food cart entrepreneurs.

Good luck. Keep costs down. And have a good sauce. Price right and keep at it.

Suggest you break down your idea to find what it is that inspires you most – cooking, your special recipe, having people love your product, getting a following/fans, escaping the grind, taking risks.

One you analyze the reasons, you’ll be more likely to anticipate the challenges and also benefit from the rewards.

Keep us updated on what you decide!

I’m a food broker, I sell food to restaurants and such, and I’ve seen countless restaurants come and go. What everyone here is saying is true, low margins, long hours, unstable workforce, etc…

There’s this idea that like 80% (or whatever) of new restaurants go out of business in a year. While that might be true, I’d say that 80% of restaurants are run by fucking morons. Egotistical fucking morons. These people literally can’t math. They have a grand idea, borrow themselves into a hole, and refuse to compromise. As a software engineer I’d say you’re probably smarter than most people who give it a go.

Do your research, start small, test your market and make adjustments. Sell what people want to buy! Just because you want to smoke ribs doesn’t mean people want them. I’ve seen so many people, think, “Oh I want a high priced italian restuarnt!” in an area where a $5 lasagna dinner is considered splurging. Then they wonder why it didn’t work…

Just, don’t be dumb, and be open. Just give people what they want to pay for. Nobody gets rich by sticking to their guns.

Just off the top of my head, Portland’s got:

1) Podnah’s – the sides are better than the meat

2) People’s Pig – best meat in my opinion

3) Reverends – serves its purpose for the Sellwood area

4) Matt’s BBQ – within a food pod on Mississippi, a place you’d bring your out of town friends to

5) Road Runner – serves its purpose in Foster-Powell

6) Holy Trinity – never been but know of it

7) Russell St BBQ – never been but know of it

8) Delta Cafe – never been, heard good things

9) Reo’s Ribs – When they first opened this place was legit. But they’ve had a long history of bad luck and it’s pretty mediocre now, but I remember they had good corn bread

That’s just on the eastside of Portland-proper. And that’s just the most well-known that I could think of off the top of my head. I’m willing to bet there’s at least another dozen that aren’t as “famous.” I live in PDX, I love BBQ, but I just don’t know if another bbq cart would be a smart move.

A big issue I the food industry is gross margins being down to about 4-5%. I love the food cart idea, that’ll give you much better margins.

It’s a great idea but I have to warn you that restaurants have the lowest profit margins. Good luck!

I don’t have either restaurant or food truck ownership experience, but I do eat at quite a few of the BBQ spots in Portland and the surrounding area. I gotta ask, how much of the PDX bbq scene have you tried? From Matt’s BBQ to Holy Trinity, People’s Pig, Reo’s Ribs, Reverend’s, Podnah’s… and the dozen or so other spots, will your product be better and rise above the competition? If this is truly your passion and you want to forge ahead, maybe you can get your feet wet by working for one of the many places already in Portland?

Not stupid at all. If you have killer BBQ recipes then go for it. People eat that shit up (literally). Although your margins won’t be as high as and it’s pretty labor intensive but you can still do very well. I love BBQing as a hobby and know it’s take time to get your meats to where you want them.

Best of luck to you! Hope I get to try it one day!

A few miles north of you there is a woman that regularly posts on a town community chat on Facebook (4K members) to put in orders for tamales off her 2-3 item menu a day or 2 ahead of meeting up at the supermarket parking lot to distribute.

Could be an idea to get you going with minimal risk, cottage law protection, and covid best practices.

Yeah I would begin as a catering delivery type setup where you take orders all week and then smoke/cook starting Friday night and deliver to the customers Saturday and Sunday night! There are a few entities in LA that work like that! They promote heavily on IG and Facebook! You can get eater or things like it to write about you as well.

start small to valididate the idea.
cook and sell it on social media. once u build a traction and see positive, use your investment money to go full force

I think this is a great idea, look at locations with outdoor sitting, there are some food pods advertising on craigslist for $500 mo in rent with great foot traffic and space (this is key post-covid) also food pods want something different and BBQ is definitely hard to find in the area so you can easily get into one of the pods around town.

From a customer perspective however, BBQ is expensive here, The People’s Pig is awesome but It is only worth it family style, same with Russell’s menu. I wish I could find a bbq place around that can offer portions for 1 and not be a pulled pork sandwich.

good luck and post again when you launch I will be there.

All of the arguments here are absolutely correct regarding protein costs and consumer expectations. You can defray some of these costs with more gormet side items (think brussels and corn) that use the tools you already have and have low food costs. Making these items as good or better than your ribs is the only thing you can do to save your ass in this situation.

Bbq has the highest mark up and pork ribs is without a doubt does best with margins because you sell by the piece not by weight. I’ve found a lot of success with bbq started in a food truck and now own a restaurant we predominantly sell burgers but we do smoke bbq on the weekends and as specials during the week. My business is in TX so anything bbq fairs well and can always draw a crowd if done right.

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