When you’re washing dishes for hours on end, what would you dream of? For Jacob Oliver, he dreamed of becoming his own boss and serving all kinds of different cuisines. While he may have known that “someday” he would own his own restaurant, I wonder if he knew the turn his life would take when he took a detour while en route to buy a used coffee cart. From his first table at a farmer’s market, Jacob’s journey has evolved into tiny house food truck pod dreams.
At the beginning
Jacob has been in the restaurant industry for over 15 years. He’s done it all — from washing dishes, cooking, bar managing to managing. Variety within this industry broadened his experiences — from catering, dining centers, fine dining to (this being Oregon and a center of finely crafted beer) breweries. He enjoys learning about all the aspects of the restaurant industry.
About eight years ago, he started venturing out to explore his dream of someday owning his own restaurant. Jacob started with a spot at the local farmer’s market with a specially concocted hummus. These weekend gigs gave him insights, market research and a chance to test recipes. While farmer’s markets are more of a breakfast crowd, he spoke with many people who would buy his products to take home to eat later. He tested different flavors and expanded his menu. He also started running pop-up kitchens at local events.
While trying to decide what direction to take his pop-up kitchen, he looked at all the offerings of the local restaurants where he lives in Corvallis, Oregon. What he saw was missing was a healthy version of Middle Eastern food. He wasn’t familiar with the style, and loved the challenge of learning something new. All he knew about Mediterranean cooking at the time was that he enjoyed eating it! Ramping up his pop-up kitchen to being at events and local festivals, he further honed his menu. Kalamata, being a popular Mediterranean olive, is a fun play on his last name — Oliver.
“I wanted to do something out of the norm, out of my wheelhouse. I wanted to do something challenging.” — Jacob Oliver
Kalamata, the tiny house food truck
Investing in a brick and mortar restaurant is a significant investment, and risk. It can take up to $250,000 to launch a new restaurant. If you don’t get everything right, such as location and food that appeals to the local market, you could end up spending so much more than expected, even if the doors close. Jacob had worked at enough places to learn what could go wrong, as well as what could go right. Although he loved most things about his pop-up kitchen, setting up and tearing down every time was starting to wear on him. To make his kitchen portable, he started investigating coffee carts.
“You have the flexibility to follow a neat and maybe crazy idea. Test it and see if people like it. If not, you can say ‘Well, I gave it a shot!’”
A foot in the door
Jacob says that food trucks and coffee carts are a great entry point for getting into the restaurant business. The start-up investment is lower (between $60,000 — $100,000). If a certain location doesn’t work out, it’s easy to move to a new corner to find your customers. If the menu isn’t a hit, it’s easier to test out new items or genres. With the growing popularity of food trucks, it’s not hard to sell your equipment if you want to get out completely.
One day, while on his way to check out a used coffee cart, Jacob passed a tiny house builder whose tiny homes could be seen by the side of the highway. Thinking to himself: “Hey, that’s kind of cool. I wonder if that would make an interesting rig?” then he pulled in. Within a half hour, the tiny house builder (Nathan, owner of Tiny SMART House— whom introduced me to Jacob) had convinced him to build a unique tiny house food truck. Jacob says he wasn’t a hard sell as he has the mindset to spend a little more upfront for quality and exactly what he wants instead of spending (probably) similar money fixing something that’s broken and trying to make it what he wants.
Food Truck First Impressions
“I am intentional about how everything looks. The food tastes good, but before people try it they have to see what it looks like. Presentation is important. I want my kitchen to be very clean. The outside has to be more than a rusty truck.” The Kalamata food truck customers have been very impressed. Not only is having a tiny house as a food truck unique (there are not many of these in the USA, especially not Mediterranean meals), but the quality of the structure adds to the atmosphere. By the time they see the menu, customers are already thinking “this is going to be good!”
Jacob’s Kalamata food truck tiny house is a familiar sight at local events and festivals. He also supports local causes. When he was mobile, he was rotating charities every month. There are times when people would come up and tell him how that particular charity helped them, and they would often add extra to donate directly to the cause.
“You start with these positives, and build from there.”
Food Pod Dreams
Kalamata Bistro has been a hit with the people in Corvallis at all the events Jacob and his wife attend. They saw their next logical step to be finding a place to park it. Maybe a lot where people could drive up to it instead of them moving the truck so frequently. The town planners gave the couple a map showing the zone where food trucks are legally allowed to be located. It isn’t a big area, so one weekend they walked up and down marking every option that seemed to have possibility.
One of those spots happened to be for sale. It was a former auto transmission repair garage (and before that a gas station in the ‘70s). It sparked their imagination and they started visioning what could be created. Inside the garage bay they dreamed up a family-friendly tap room with areas for kids to play. Being parents themselves, they knew the key would be to find the balance between an adult bar and a young kid playground. With the large parking lot they envisioned their Kalamata food cart parked alongside several other quality food trucks to create Corvallis’ first food pod.
The recent opening of Common Fields, the family-friendly tap room with food trucks as their kitchens, marks the start of a new adventure for Jacob and his family. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has curtailed any grand opening. They are starting off slow, with the lunch crowd for now. Once they deem it safe enough, they will hire more staff and expand their hours.
Although this is a college town, he will not be catering to student life. There are multiple game areas for kids and adults, inside and out. There’s one play area specifically for younger kids so it’s easier for the parents to keep an eye on them. Jacob prefers local and sustainable produce, and this mentality carries over to the beers they will be offering. Common Fields will be the only tap room to offer only 100% independently owned, Oregon-made, small batch crafted, brews. When other food trucks sign up, they will offer a variety of cuisines and use compostable plates and flatware.
Jacob hasn’t stopped dreaming now that his vision of owning a restaurant has come true. He’s a big believer in taking success one step at a time. Maybe someday he will own more food trucks. Or maybe he will have new locations. Maybe he will find another cool project. He doesn’t know, and that’s the joy of it.
“I want to try new things and learn new things!”
Jacob’s adventurous attitude will bring him, and the community, lots of wonder-filled new things as he explores his next success!