Stephanie Ruggiro’s new work space might be just as cramped as her old cubicle in New York City.
It’s also hotter.
But after she lost her job with an advertising firm a year ago, the 25-year-old figured the food truck industry had more to offer than the corporate world.
So she found an old FedEx truck and turned it into STUFT, which sells gourmet stuffed potatoes.
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“Sitting in a cubicle for eight hours a day wasn’t for me anyway,” said Ruggiro, who lives in Cary. “Being laid off was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Food trucks are becoming staples at office parks and breweries throughout the Triangle. Raleigh and Durham host food truck rodeos, and Cary hopes to soon approve rules that would welcome food trucks to town.
Ruggiro, a graduate of Green Hope High School and UNC-Wilmington, says the food-truck business gives her freedom – “Who doesn’t want to be their own boss?” – and an increasing amount of opportunity.
But the industry poses unique challenges, and Ruggiro has little experience in the food world. She learned most of what she knows from her parents, who owned restaurants and are “awesome” cooks, she says.
She also spent a day working with American Meltdown, a Durham-based food truck specializing in cheesy sandwiches.
“You need the flexibility of a master yogi, an addiction to adrenaline and a sense of humor,” said Paul Inserra, owner of American Meltdown. “Things are gonna go wrong, and you don’t want your team to hate you.”
Inserra started his business two years ago, when the local food-truck scene was just blooming.
Since then, he’s seen dozens of new trucks around – some for only a short time.
“There’s a long list, maybe 20 deep, that have launched and flopped since I’ve been around,” Inserra said. “It’s tough. You have long, long hours. And we’re wondering how long it’ll be before the area is too saturated.”
But Ruggiro seems to be a natural, he said.
And Ruggiro thinks STUFT has the ingredients to be successful. Memorable name: check. Niche product: check.
“I haven’t seen any other stuffed potato trucks around,” she said. “Definitely not any that serve buffalo chicken and Asian short ribs on them.”
Food that pairs well with alcohol: check plus.
“Potatoes absorb everything,” Ruggiro said. “It’s great ‘drunk food.’ ”
Fittingly, Ruggiro’s first glimpse at the demand for her potatoes came April 26 at Raleigh’s Brewgaloo beer festival.
STUFT, one of 30 food trucks at the event, sold 350 potatoes at $6 to $8 apiece.
“We were continuously busy for eight hours straight,” Ruggiro said.
She also got about a dozen business cards, which may prove useful as she books her schedule on weekdays.
She admits that owning and operating a food truck is harder than it looks.
Before she began the process of finding customers, she had to find a suitable truck and someone skilled enough to retrofit it.
“Trying to find someone to outfit the truck is really, really hard,” she said. “It was like Tetris trying to get everything to fit.”
The project cost about $60,000, but the gutted FedEx truck now has a fryer, grill, convection oven, refrigerator and two sinks.
Ruggiro’s parents pitched in a little.
“When you have a child that shows as much drive and determination as she does, and you can help them, you do it,” said her mother, Lynn Ruggiro.
“It’s hard to get off the ground when you don’t have much money to start,” she added.
Stephanie Ruggiro’s brother, Anthony, saved the dollar bill from her first sale. It came on a sunny afternoon at Bombshell Beer Company in Holly Springs on April 24.
“You gotta save it,” he said, tucking it under the register.
Wearing her Pabst Blue Ribbon hat backwards, Ruggiro stuck her head out the food-truck window.
“You don’t need a degree to run a food truck,” she said. “But it helps.”