Ready to Roll
One food truck business was forged by friends over a poker game, the other when an entrepreneur laid all his cards on the table.
Robert Raber, B.S. ’96
“Hello? ... The onions should be in the truck. ... The mayonnaise? I don’t know. If it’s not there, we’re out. ... Alright. Bye.”
Robert Raber, B.S. ’96, co-owner of the Kommie Pig food truck, says it doesn’t take a genius to make coleslaw—but for his recipe, you do need mayonnaise.
Raber and I are chatting in a tavern a stone’s throw away from where his partner, Russian native Andre Chitikov, is finishing preparations for lunch service. Sans mayonnaise, it seems.
“He asked me if Rite Aid sells mayonnaise,” says Raber, smirking and shaking his head after he hangs up the phone. “Even though he’s been here 20-some years, he gets clueless sometimes.”
When the pair first met in 1991, Raber had just finished service with the U.S. Army after a six-month tour in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War. Chitikov had been in the Russian military, and there was admittedly a little tension between the two.
“We didn’t exactly get along at first,” Raber explains. “He was dating my sister. They broke up, but we remained friends.”
For decades, even. Fast forward 20 years to a poker game at which Raber and Chitikov were lamenting their current jobs. Raber was tired of being a boss after working in management for more than 15 years at companies including AT&T, FedEx and Hertz, while Chitikov owned a mortgage business and was facing a fast-declining industry. Raber, who had been watching shows like The Great Food Truck Race on television, tossed out the idea of starting a truck together. By the end of the game, they had decided to join forces and make that idea their next mission.
They had little restaurant experience between them—just the drive to do something new.
On naming the truck:
“It was a tongue-in-cheek kind of thing. We spelled it differently. Everybody kind of gets that it’s a joke.”
On divvying up the roles:
“[Chitikov] does all the paperwork and the bookings. I do most of the cooking and cleaning. I let [him] talk, ’cause he has the gift of gab. He had a mortgage business for 12 years, so he knows how to wheel and deal. I’m definitely the man behind the scenes. Not that he loves the limelight, but that’s just his personality. He’s the A type, I’m the B type.”
On day-to-day challenges:
“Weather is a big issue. This winter killed us—all food trucks. It hurt a lot of the restaurant industry, but if it’s really cold, we can’t go out. If the truck decides not to start, that day is done. That’s the main challenge.”
On focusing on the food:
“You have to have something to brag about. Otherwise, why are you going to buy a sandwich from me for seven or eight bucks when you can go to McDonald’s and get eight sandwiches? I’ve eaten off of just about every truck in the city, and because it’s a labor of love and the menus tend to be smaller, I find that the food is generally good quality. When I open up a menu at a restaurant and it is too big, I know that not all the food is fresh. You don’t get that with food trucks. We don’t even own a freezer.”
On slow cooking barbecue:
“If you’re lookin’, it’s not cookin’. ... When you’re slow cooking stuff, don’t keep looking at it. ... You have to slow cook to bring the flavors out and soften the meat and let things break down. It’s not an art, it’s just a long process.”
On his UB experience:
“What I really liked about U of B ... [many] of the professors basically had day jobs, and they would come teach at night. They weren’t full-time professors, so we got a lot of real-world knowledge. They would give a lot of examples from their daily lives.”
On future plans:
“A fleet of trucks. We’re working on it. We’ll be off the trucks, hopefully managing them.”
Charm City Gourmet
David Shapiro, J.D. ’84
As a full-time lawyer with two side projects on his plate already, David Shapiro, J.D. ’84, wasn’t exactly planning to start another business.
“I was in Restaurant Depot, which is a wholesale food operation,” Shapiro explains. He was purchasing supplies for Shapiro’s Cafe, a restaurant in a rowhouse on Preston Street across from UB’s Liberal Arts and Policy Building. Above the cafe, he runs a bed and breakfast called the Mount Vernon Inn.
“I was dressed in my suit because I had just gotten out of court and I was pushing around this large cart with all kinds of bulk quantities of food,” he says.
As the story goes, a man came up to Shapiro and guessed he was either a lawyer or an accountant.
“Guilty as charged on both counts,” replied Shapiro, who studied accounting and economics as an undergraduate at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Soon, a two-second conversation grew into a half-hour chat with a chef, Chris Cherry, who dreamed of running a food truck.
Shapiro gave the industrious chef his card and told him to “call him someday.” The very next day, Cherry picked up the phone to continue the conversation, and within a week they had decided to go ahead with the idea.
“I figured it was a good combination,” Shapiro explains. “I had the interest and the capital, and Chris had the knowledge and was willing to put the sweat equity into it. We forged this equal partnership.”
On the recipes:
“A lot of trucks have just one product. We wanted to have—across the board—gourmet fare served out of a food truck. ... I think all of it is excellent, but I would say lobster macaroni and cheese is the most popular, particularly in the summertime. If people can’t go to Maine for their lobster, they come to Charm City Gourmet for their lobster macaroni and cheese.”
On his UB experience:
“For me, it was a great experience. I enjoyed it. I gained a lot. [The UB School of Law has] really blossomed ... with the brand-new building, great administration and fabulous academic scholars who are teaching there. But most [important is] the fact that the school is a living school that can deliver students—while they’re still students—and inject them into the marketplace.
“To have an internship or to work at the courts, work in business—it’s really what an institution of higher education should be, what it was meant to be, that even before you got out of school you had a taste of what your profession would offer you or what you could offer the profession.”
On juggling various ventures:
“It’s not as impossible as one may think from afar. But as my wife always tells me, ‘Don’t give up your day job.’ I practice law full time, I’m in court virtually every day of the week. That’s my profession, and that’s how I really earn the majority of my income in order to sustain all of these other businesses.”
On advice to someone dreaming of starting a food truck:
“I would have them sit down with someone who is doing it now and really understand all of the dynamics of the business and really question if this is something they want to do. I can’t tell you how many people pull me aside, particularly in court. Some of my lawyer friends, they say, ‘You know, I really want to open up a restaurant’ or ‘I really want to open up a food truck,’ and I try to dissuade them. If I try and dissuade them five or 10 times and they’re still excited about it, then they possibly have the making of somebody who can go forward.”
On future plans:
“I have three children who are now all in college. I’d love for one of them to come back and express interest in law or the hospitality businesses. The verdict is still out on that, but these are all ventures that I certainly could do as I start scaling back a little bit. ... I think it’d be a lot of fun.”