When she first hit the road in the Treats Truck in 2007, Kim Ima was one of the very first of the new wave of so-called fancy food trucks. Selling homey, retro desserts under the motto of “Not too fancy, always delicious,” Ima was at first seen as a novelty, a cheerful anomaly on the streets of Midtown. The zeitgeist, of course, soon caught up with her, and what was once seen as a novelty became a model of success for other would-be truckers to follow. Ima’s sugar dots, caramel cream sandwich cookies, and cupcake cones have proven so successful that she’s now planning to open a storefront on Court Street sometime in 2011; she also has a cookbook in the works. Before heading out of town for a much-needed holiday, Ima found some time to catch up with us about food TV tourists, dealing with the cops, and what she has in common with three-card monte players. Tune in tomorrow for the second half of our interview.
How’s your summer been?
Pretty good. The weather is always challenging. Some of those days in July were hard to take, but business-wise, my customers, my regulars, most of them still come to the truck even when it’s hot and humid. A lot of them come on a certain day — it’s part of their routine. So sales were good and then also the truck was on a few TV shows. What’s interesting is that this summer I got a new group — I have my regulars, and then this summer, because of the TV spots, I got a new category, which was people from other places who seek out the truck. Tourists. People would say, “I’m from Seattle, and we saw you on Kid in a Candy Store, so we wanted to see you.” There were ways that the show phrased things about my treats, like “the ice cream cone that never melts” [Ima’s cupcake cone], so people would come up to the truck and say it exactly the way it’s said on the show. It’s so funny.
What’s been selling well this season?
All of the sandwich cookies — we now have a lot we do every single day. Like the Chocolate Trucker, which is a sandwich cookie with buttercream in the middle. We had a naming contest [for the cookie] and now we have different kinds of Truckers — Double Chocolate Mint, Chocolate, etc. I love it when people come up and casually ask for a Trucker. [Laughs.] Also, the peanut butter sandwich cookie, a lot of people like those because they’re gluten-free. People more than ever say, “I hear you have gluten-free cookies.” And we have been doing a lot of cupcake cones this summer — the “never-melting ice cream cone” — and of course standards like brownies.
In addition to Midtown, you have a few stops around town — can you glean anything about the character of the neighborhood based upon what sells best there?
There are definitely neighborhoods that like certain things. Or sometimes not even the whole neighborhood but three or four customers. They really like something and I start bringing more of it and then other people start getting it, too. Or certain things will sell really well all of a sudden — everyone wants lemon cookies or oatmeal cookies. I had one customer on 45th and Sixth who said, “I think you should put coconut in your chocolate cookies. When are you going to do it?” Finally, I said, “I’ve got your cookie. What’s your name?” So now it’s called the Coconut Mitch. I usually make that only for that neighborhood, but then other neighborhoods started requesting it. I think he’s pretty proud — he passed an email around his office to share the news.
You seem to have such a good rapport with your customers.
The customers have been fantastic. They’re the best part of [the job], whether it’s naming cookies or people who come a certain day of the week. But maybe that’s the case not just with trucks but with small businesses in general.
So much has changed for food trucks since you started out.
One change I’ve noticed is we’re in the middle of this great wave of enthusiasm about food trucks. It’s exciting: Besides the building of your own brand, there’s a bit of built-in momentum, so for food trucks that start now, they’re not so foreign or unusual. People do pub crawls and now they do truck crawls. There’s a truck walk every Friday in Midtown. Sometimes it’s tourists, sometimes it’s locals, and it’s so lovely.
There’s also a lot more of partnerships and co-branding. A truck is a moving billboard. I’m a small-business owner — even though things are going well, there’s still a lot of juggling cash flow and figuring things out. So with cross-promotion, it’s nice because the company acknowledges you have something to offer and you get a bit of money, too.
And then greater popularity brings greater competition and scrutiny, and measures like the proposed anti-food-truck bill. Some people argue that there are too many trucks on the road.
There are a lot of trucks, but also there are a lot of other commercial vehicles on the street, too. What is the actual issue as far as food trucks competing is that even if you sell 30 different things, there are only so many places you can park. Everyone has their understanding of what’s respectful — are you going to respect that on Tuesday and Thursday I’m parked there? Of course regulations are necessary, but the problem is that the rules aren’t clear and that they change.
Have you had any issues with the cops lately?
I have spots that are really well-established, but every once in a while something comes up. Thirty-Eighth and Fifth Avenue is one of my oldest spots. I don’t have a problem with other trucks parking there, but there was one time this summer when three cops came up and said, “You’re not supposed to do business at a parking meter.” I explained that I have permits from the health department and have been here for three years, but they said I wasn’t supposed to do business there, and pulled out this list of regulations. They said, “We’re not going to give you a ticket, but you’re not allowed to be there.” But they never showed up again. I don’t know what happened. Other cops want to make sure I’m feeding the meter. Some don’t even check — they just walk by and wave. And a lot of cops buy cookies from me.
It’s a little troubling because we all work so hard to establish our spots. That’s the store, and if the store can’t open … I do feel like I’m a cross between a small-business owner and a three-card monte player: I’m always on the verge of grabbing my folding table and running down the street. The amazing thing is that, for the most part, it works out.