I am a chef who started my own food basket with my husband just before the pandemic – this is how we successfully stayed open
- Lissette Morales Willis, 33, is a chef and food cart owner based in Portland, Oregon.
- She and her husband opened their Poppyseed Food Cart in January 2020 to make gourmet foods more accessible.
- This is what her job is like, as freelance writer Molly O’Brien has recounted.
- See more stories on the Insider business page.
This narrated essay is based on a transcribed conversation with Lissette Morales Willis, a food cart owner based in Portland, Oregon. It has been edited for length and clarity.
I grew up in Rubidoux, California where there weren’t a lot of great restaurants. My parents worked a lot, so in high school I started to take responsibility for cooking our dinners.
When I was 23, I began an apprenticeship in cooking at the 10th Restaurant, a seasonal mountain top restaurant in Vail, Colorado. There I met my husband, Tim, and we both experienced “fancy” food for the first time. It has become our dream to share this feeling and make fine dining more accessible, instead of being intimidating and expensive.
As an apprentice, I was assigned to baking. Tim and I decided to move to Chicago so that I could take culinary training at a pastry school there. There we worked as “interns”, playing for a week or a month at a time in various Michelin starred restaurants.
In September 2017, we moved to Portland and continued to work in restaurants. We’ve always had the idea of starting a food cart, with me on the pastry and Tim on the savory dishes.
We received our cart in September 2019 and kept it for a few months while preparing and equipping it for cooking.
The cart itself cost $ 30,000, so we did our best to be thrifty and buy supplies from Craigslist, Goodwill, and used kitchen supply warehouses. As a food vendor, obtaining operating permits was also a long process. In January 2020, we moved it to the Killingsworth Station food cart pod for inspection, and we officially opened it on January 16.
We both love the outdoors so it’s great to organize an outdoor dining experience. The food pod scene is also a fun place to hang out and get to know our community. As Killingworth will be transformed into an apartment complex over the next few years, we are preparing to move to Hinterland Bar and Carts in December.
Owning and managing a food cart comes with some unique challenges.
Tim and I have a 3 year old son, and finding reliable childcare can be difficult. We don’t have any very close family or friends here in Portland, and the nearest daycare is about 45 minutes from the food truck. Depending on the activity, we pay for childcare one or two days a week so that we can work together. Otherwise, Tim works on the truck over 60 hours while I take care of our son, and I work on prep after hours.
Being a female cook, sometimes the hardest part for me is getting the same respect from customers as Tim. When a customer is unhappy, I try to remember that everyone has different food tastes. But as a chef, you do this to make people happy, so it’s hard not to take the feedback personally.
Our daily tasks on the cart include doing lots of dishes.
Each day begins by making a list of the items we need to pick up before going to the cart, which often includes stops at farmers’ markets, vendors, supply stores, and bakeries.
At the cart, we unload, unpack, put away supplies and assess what needs to be done. Before starting to cook, we fill the three-compartment sinks, put away the dishes that have dried overnight, turn on the gas, turn on the nightlights and get to work.
There isn’t much room to do more than one task at a time without cleaning up, so we spend a lot of time doing the dishes. At the end of the day, Tim brings our son Eliah and I go back to being “mom” while he takes over.
Our first week on the job was tough – we didn’t even do enough to pay the gas bill.
It takes a while to start making money, and the pandemic hasn’t helped. In the first three months of 2020, we brought in just over $ 2,000. Much of this was due to the fact that about $ 1,200 a month went to daycare. Since then, there has been a slow but gradual increase in activity.
As a small business owner, I have learned the importance of being flexible and understanding. A schedule is really just a “guideline” for your day or week – and if something doesn’t get done, you can do it the next day. Every day we can learn something new. We certainly made mistakes, but we don’t hold them back for ourselves or against each other.
In the future, we always want to cook with as little space between us and the outside as possible. We don’t know what it will look like but we want to build close relationships with local farms and resources to be part of a strong community network.