From Product to Vegan Food Truck to Restaurant in 2 Years: How Mattie’s Foods Did ItDavid Cawthon
At one point or another, the thought has probably crossed your mind: I want to start a food business … but I don’t have any experience, and I’m not sure where to begin? Oh, maybe someday …
Don’t let that though fade just yet. You can start now. And here’s your playbook:
Follow two KC go-getters who put on their aprons and their entrepreneur capes to conquer their vegan vision for a new food business. Learn what they needed to get started in Kansas City, who helped them get cookin’ and how they’ve primed themselves to run a food truck and make a seriously big business move during the pandemic.
An accidental business inspired by healthy eating
Sisters Arvelisha Woods and India Pernell, former co-owners of Salon Mattise, could cut hair like no one’s business—but these seasoned entrepreneurs were hungry for more. They stumbled onto an idea that would inspire vegan-friendly versions of savory and hearty staples, like burritos, nachos and mac and cheese … but they were puzzled about where to start. In fact, if you ask them, they didn’t really plan to start a food business.
“The idea for Mattie’s Foods fell into our lap,” Arvelisha says. “We had no intention of doing any of this. It was accidental.”
Like many happy accidents (and good food businesses), their idea stemmed from a love of food as well as their late grandmother Mattie, the smiling woman who’s a staple of their branding. India says when she and Arvelisha were kids, her grandmother would cook some amazing dishes with fresh ingredients, like spaghetti, all from scratch. (No pre-made noodles here.)
“Seeing her in her element in the kitchen, that’s where we get a lot of inspiration,” India says. “There was always something on the stove, always something cooking.”
In 2001, Mattie, a sufferer of diabetes, died of pancreatic cancer. That and a fast in 2015 helped inspire the sisters to focus on a healthy diet.
“The ailments she suffered from were the spark that inspired our focus on healthy eating, really, vegan eating,” Arvelisha says. “We knew that if we could change the way we eat, we would see different results for ourselves.
“And now, her legacy lives through Mattie’s Foods.”
I can’t believe it’s not cheese … or meat
After India and Arvelisha adopted vegan diets, they encountered a big problem, which was another thing that helped inspire the concept of their current business.
“We had a die-hard relationship with cheese and dairy,” Arvelisha says. “It was one of the things we did not want to let go. So going vegan, we were trying to figure out how we could mimic cheese.”
So India got to work in the kitchen. The first iteration of her cashew cheese was iffy. So the two started tweaking the recipe, trying this and testing that, until BAM … tasty vegan queso. They couldn’t believe it. But other folks loved it. After they connected with Xander Winkel at the Ennovation Center in Independence, Missouri, and got some help with licensing and manufacturing their queso, they were ready to bottle and sell their “impossible” cheese in stores.
But why stop there? Everyone knows after you’ve developed tasty vegan queso, there’s one logical next step you have to take … say it with me … vegan jackfruit nachos. And they had to make them in a way that all you vegan skeptics wouldn’t know you’re not eating beefy, cheesy tortilla chips.
They knew they couldn’t keep all this good food to themselves; they had to bring it to the people. So, they set up a mobile food pop-up where they could get their food-business reps in and learn the art of slinging vegan cuisine. Things were going well … so well, they closed their salon in 2018 and went all-in with their new venture. And that’s when they thought about making a huge move.
A long look before the leap
For many new to the food business game, opening a restaurant might seem like a no-brainer. But you might be surprised that there’s a lower barrier to entry.
After India and Arvelisha talked with a bunch of restaurant owners about what it takes to open a brick-and-mortar eatery, the duo realized that feat would actually be a giant leap for them … and a potentially fatal one for their food business.
However, there was another way they could get going right away: a food truck. Luckily a good friend was willing to sell a truck they could use, and it was a good deal. So they bought it.
But even though they had new wheels, they were stuck.
“We had the food truck, and we had the food,” India says, “but we were wondering, ‘How do we do this?’ We had to step back, and that’s how we ended up in ELEVATIONLAB New Venture.”
And that was a lightbulb moment.
“If we’re really going to do this and we’re going to succeed in it, we are going to have to do some more research on the business,” Arvelisha says. “Anyone can do great food, but not everybody is going to have a viable successful, sustainable company.”
The dollar is in the details
Their business coach Rebecca Guebbels helped them get their prices nailed down and mapped out the smallest details of their business, like the cost of the spice on their vegan macaroni. The class, which they took for $75 because of an Urban Business Growth Initiative Scholarship, even helped them nix food and drink ideas that weren’t cost-prohibitive.
They realized that, for them, their food truck was a gateway to opening faster than they ever could with a brick-and-mortar restaurant, but it wasn’t cheap. Most of the equipment on the truck was broken, it needed new paint and repairs, and it’s paperwork was out-of-date.
On top of all that, they had four only weeks to hit the April 2019 deadline for their inspection, or their food truck wasn’t going anywhere.
“We were just kind of scared and wondering, ‘How do we do this?’” India says. “So taking that New Venture class, it kind of just prepared us to hit the ground running.”
But that wouldn’t be the last stop for some much needed help, which, by the way, there are over 240 nonprofit organizations in KC that can help anyone start or grow a business. Just let us know if you want an introduction. (It’s free.) Here’s our number: 816-235-6500 and you can also tell us what your business needs here.
Xander at the Ennovation Center made sure India and Arvelisha had their ducks in a row before they moved forward, such as proper business documentation, their business license and their research. But this connection led to others, like checking out a Greater Kansas City Chamber meeting and connecting with fellow small businesses in Independence, Missouri; in fact, one business owner they met at that meeting ended up printing their food labels and creating graphics for their food truck.
The sisters also worked with Square One Small Business Services by Mid-Continent Public Library; pros there, like Morgan Perry, Kelly Head and Hannah Taylor, helped them identify their customers, set the right prices and test their concept.
“Going through all of the smallest of the smallest details, it made our business be so much more productive and so much more successful because we did not have anything that we skipped,” India says. “We didn’t just go into it head first not knowing anything. We really went through product-testing, making sure that this product is something that would be beneficial for our city, if it’s something that they actually needed.”
And that careful planning helped them get their food truck up and running. They saw an increase in customers and demand. They were named the 2019 Food Truck Rookie of the Year. Customers couldn’t get enough.
“The great thing is all these Resource Partners worked together to help us do what we wanted to do and coach us from the process of getting into the truck and later working in the truck,” Arvelisha says. “They were there every step of the way. That’s what we love. Everybody is connected in KC and so we never felt like we were lost.”
But bigger things were ahead … and so was the pandemic.
An opportunity during the pandemic
Mattie’s Foods has made a few shifts during the pandemic, including setting up pre-orders for their usual food-truck fare and selling their tasty treats at the Ennovation Center. As always, their customers have been key.
“That’s the most important thing about it, the people. And they motivate us every single day,” India says. “The people keep us motivated with their desire to see us, asking us where the truck will be today. Having those die-hard Mattie’s fans, they’re like our support.”
And all that love and labor and support eventually presented an opportunity that they had eyed since the beginning: opening that restaurant.
And so, in August 2020, during a pandemic, they opened a brick-and-mortar location in Brookside at 633 E. 63rd St., Kansas City, Missouri.
Now, they’re serving up things they couldn’t before in the food truck, like cinnamon rolls, breakfast sandwiches and more.
And so back to that though in your head: I want to start a food business, but I’m not sure how. Yeah, it takes work and some ingenuity, but there are also many resources and experts in Kansas City who are ready to help you, like they helped India and Arvelisha.
So India has some advice for all your dreamers who want to be doers.
“Just do it,” she says. “Fear can settle in and you might think, ‘Oh, I don’t think I can do it, and I don’t think I …’ No. You can do it. Get a plan first, and then just do it. Map out your vision. And then, go for it.”