Lee’s Summit, Missouri | Main Street, Microenterprise
Brandon Simpson is standing in the middle of a dream come true. In just a few weeks, he’ll be opening the brick-and-mortar version of Jazzy B’s in Lee’s Summit.
For the past six years, he’s been testing his market and his recipes through Jazzy B’s food truck, a widely recognized and craved mobile eatery that specializes in BBQ fusion. Think BBQ brisket tacos and smoked chicken wings (he makes his own BBQ sauce). And that thing he does to fries? Words just can’t do it justice.
In that time, he’s seen Kansas City’s food truck scene explode from just a few trucks roaming the streets, trying to get people to take a chance on a new idea, to a full-fledged fleet that are satisfying, and even redefining, Kansas City taste buds.
Personally, he’s reaped and repaid the rewards: Brandon has increased more than tripled his food truck revenue, been featured on the Food Network and served as a mentor and example to aspiring food truck operators.
The Price of a Dream
Since childhood, Brandon’s wanted to open a restaurant. In 1998, as a football player and undergraduate at Northwest Missouri State, he finally had the tools and education he needed to map it out: he wrote a business plan, calculated the budget—and landed on a price tag of $1.2 million
“That just wasn’t feasible,” he says.
He graduated with a degree in food and restaurant management and set out into the work world. For 10 years, he stayed in the industry, gaining experience of the ins and outs of running and managing a restaurant, while always keeping a catering gig on the side. But he was frustrated by the confines of the corporate franchise and in 2008, left the kitchen for a job in sales.
That lasted two years. In 2010, his sales job—and the company he worked for—fell victim to the recession. Unemployed, Brandon “was stuck, sitting there, wondering what I was going to do now.”
It was time to dust off the dream.
Rev the Reality Checks
In 2010, Brandon took his first steps toward that 1998 business plan: he opened Jazzy B’s Food Truck. With a lower entry point than the original plan, the food truck allowed Brandon to build an audience for his BBQ fusion.
“It was a real eye opener,” Brandon now tells aspiring food truck operators in his “Business of Food Trucks” class, hosted in partnership with Mid-Continent Public Library and the Ennovation Center. In a six-week program, he walks foodpreneurs through the steps of opening their own food truck, both the realities and the rewards.
His first reality check: People won’t buy what they don’t know.
With one of the first food trucks to hit Kansas City streets, Brandon found that people were reticent to try something new. He burned through five menus before he found his culinary charmers. And yet still, he struggled. Challenged both by the novelty of the food truck and BBQ fusion, Brandon was lucky to clear $150 in day. “And no one can survive off of that.”
Second reality check: Parking and praying doesn’t work.
“It’s just not a good business plan,” he says. Instead of relying on the whims of unpredictable foot traffic, Brandon deliberately built his reputation and recognition with catering and big-crowd events. He soon built a following and a mouthwatering menu.
Third reality check: You can’t beat them, so join them.
The first three years were rough, Brandon admits. More and more trucks started roaming the streets, seduced by the prospects of a low overhead, lucrative business where you could set your own hours. Brandon had already survived the harsh realities behind that little piece of fiction. He’d also done his homework on how to build a thriving food truck business.
“I was watching the food truck movement in other cities and realized that the best way to attract new customers was to build awareness,” he says.
He joined with Michael Bradbury, owner of the Funnel Cake Truck, and in 2014, they co-founded the Kansas City Food Truck Association, the first food truck organization in Kansas City. Through it, Simpson and Bradbury hoped to provide a single point of contact for the association’s trucks; mentor new operators; and create an organized way to work with municipalities and governmental bureaucracies to review codes, ordinances, procedures and enforcement that better address the realities of the food truck industry.
Flash forward to just a month ago—March 2016. Brandon’s famed purple Jazzy B’s food truck (it was supposed to be blue, but the painter mixed the wrong ratios) is parked outside of the shell of a former Lee’s Summit BBQ joint. A temporary vinyl “Jazzy B’s Coming Soon” sign covers the former tenant’s stenciled lettering. Brandon points out the kitchen, the Bearcat room (of course) and where picnic tables, children and BBQ fans will line up in front of a live band.
You can see in his eyes that little boy who dreamed of owning his own restaurant, the student who never gave up on a dream despite the daunting improbability, both ready to jump on out of the measured words and careful considerations of the experienced entrepreneur.
With a tinge of anxiety, yet teeming with excitement, Brandon admits: “This was always part of the plan.”