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January 9, 2013

When gourmet food goes mobile - UAA alum launches Wheel Good Food



Full Name: Kathy Robinson
Title: Co-owner
Name of Organization/Business: Wheel Good Food, LLC
Hometown: Anchorage, Alaska
Fun Fact: Kathy worked as a firefighter but now sticks to the heat in the kitchen.

Wheel Good Food co-owner and CTC alum Kathy Robinson
When Kathy Robinson decided she was ready to make a career change after spending 22 years in the fisheries industry as a biologist and later as the vice president of operations for a small business, she knew her decision would be life altering. She had always enjoyed cooking and entertaining, but preferred planning events to being a guest at one.

“I’d rather throw a party than go to a party,” said Robinson.

Single-minded in her decision to retool for a career in the food industry, she began the UAA Community & Technical College’s culinary arts program in August 2010. Working reduced hours at her job, she knew she didn’t have time to waste. She met with Tim Doebler, director of the Culinary Arts, Dietetics, Hospitality & Nutrition (CADHN) Division, to make sure she was on track with her courses. But she was still contemplating what area would be a good fit for her.

“Cooking is such a small part of being in the food industry, unless that’s all you want to do and work for a restaurant,” said Robinson. “I knew I didn’t want to be a prep cook, but I was waiting for the aha moment and the light bulb to go on.”

That moment came more than a year later when she began learning more about mobile-food trucks and their popularity in metropolitan areas throughout the Lower 48. Intrigued, she and her husband Richard Geiger flew down to Los Angeles to see what all the excitement was about. They spent a week exploring the city’s mobile-food trucks – evaluating truck designs, reviewing menus, sampling food, and talking to vendors about the ins and outs of running a business.

Convinced this was the direction they should pursue, the couple began making a list of everything they needed to do to launch a mobile-food truck and catering business in Anchorage. The list quickly grew, and it soon became clear they would need to employ a divide-and-conquer strategy to make headway.

The Bombolina,Wheel Good Food's gourmet-mobile-food truck,
debuted at an event for the Alaska Botanical Garden in September.
Some action items were obvious – deciding on a business name, creating a logo, developing a menu, designing a website, and of course, purchasing the truck itself. But there were a host of other, more subtle items to be completed that were paramount to the business’ success like acquiring the permits to operate and park the truck, purchasing the point of sale hardware and software needed to process debit and credit card transactions, and negotiating with the credit card companies to get the best swipe fees.

So, the two got to work, Geiger working on the point of sale research and Web and social media presence by day and Robinson working on costing, the business plan, and researching trucks by night. The days following her May 2012 graduation were full working as a lab aide to Assistant Professor “Chef Vern” Wolfram at Bakery Boot Camp, a culinary program CADHN runs for children and teens.

The defining moment came one Thursday in June when Geiger and Robinson found the truck – furnished with a full commercial kitchen – online at a dealership. They flew down to Seattle and owned it by Saturday morning.

The weeks that followed were a blur. They hurried to complete their research on how customers perceive color schemes. This influenced the creation of their company logo, which they needed in time for the truck’s wrap date when the vehicle is painted and identifying graphics are added.

“The truck itself has personality,” said Robinson. “Curb appeal is important. I wanted something beautiful. People decide in five seconds if they want to eat at your truck. You’ve got to start off right from the get-go.”

The couple’s meticulous planning was evident in all aspects of the business’ launch. To develop the menu, Robinson went through a rigorous process of blind taste tests with friends and family. She also tapped the expertise of supportive professors in the culinary arts program, including Associate Professor Naomi Everett who often taste-tested Robinson’s recipes and offered valuable feedback.

“The professors have been out in the industry and know what they’re doing,” she said. “I utilized their knowledge.”

The Wheel Good Food team. From L to R: Richard Geiger, Kathy Robinson,
Harmony Kennedy, and Jamey Walker
Robinson and Geiger’s months of hard work actualized when the Bombolina, Wheel Good Food's gourmet-mobile-food truck, debuted at the Alaska Botanical Garden’s 4th Annual Harvest Day & Scarecrow Contest last September. The truck is named after Robinson’s signature menu item, a mouthwatering chocolate hazelnut ricotta doughnut.

Since that time, the couple launched a local advertising campaign that ran on the Food Network channel and in movie theaters. They also leveraged social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to communicate with customers about their location and to build a following. These venues have provided the opportunity not only to publicize the business but also to build awareness in the community about mobile-food trucks, still a fledgling industry in Anchorage with only a handful of business owners.

To date, Wheel Good Food employs a staff of two, one of whom is also a UAA culinary arts graduate, and Robinson and Geiger are already considering a potential expansion.

“Being a business owner is terrifying and thrilling. You have to be a jack-of-all-trades,” said Robinson. “We’re one of only five mobile-food trucks in Anchorage. We decided up front we wanted to define the wave, rather than ride it or be behind it.”

Looks like they’re off to a great start!

For more information about Wheel Good Food, visit www.wheelgoodfood.com. Interested in the culinary arts program? Learn more at www.uaa.alaska.edu/culinary.