Food trucks are all the rage these days, no longer confined to just the neighborhood ice cream man or the Oscar Meyer Weinermobile. And a handful of Paleo entrepreneurs are among those bridging the gap—finding the accessibility, mobility and affordability of food trucks to be the way to go when it comes to feeding the masses with fresh, real food with a flare.
Picnik is one of those “must-stop” eateries on wheels, if you ever find yourself deep in the heart of Austin, Texas.
Known for its “butter coffee” (à la Bulletproof), homemade bone broth, breakfast tacos, Paleo muffins and blondies, and a rotating, seasonal menu of Paleo-friendly lunch and dinner options, Picnik offers everything a Paleo foodie could want.
Founded by 20-something Naomi Seifter in February 2013, Picnik staked its claim as the only Paleo food truck in a city known for its health and fitness culture, home as it is to Whole Foods headquarters, an active triathlon and running community, a thriving yoga culture, and tons of gluten-free, vegan, vegetarian and Paleo menu options at area restaurants.
Seifter said she felt called to open Picnik after surviving through, and eventually recovering from, years of chronic poor health before she started eating Paleo. From celiac to eczema, numbness in her limbs, acne, chronic fatigue, constipation and GI disturbances—you name it, she experienced it. And she wasn’t completely disconnected from her health. Prior to going Paleo, Seifter was an active yogi and sought to feed her body real, nourishing foods through a vegetarian lifestyle, with oats, corn, rice and quinoa as staples in her diet.
Fast-forward to life after college, and a trip to India is where her Paleo journey began.
I caught a nasty bug (I’m assuming a parasite) and ended up hospitalized overseas, which left me bedridden for two weeks and flooded with five different rounds of antibiotics,” she says.
I started to become much more in tune with my body and my reactions to food as I built my mind-body relationship with my yoga practice, and decided to begin eliminating things that didn’t fuel me. I started with tofu and soy products. Next, I eliminated quinoa and beans. Slowly, I started adding meat back into my diet, with very positive responses. I felt like I was finally moving in the forward direction. I began looking online for resources for limited diets and stumbled upon the term ‘Paleo’ in Mark’s Daily Apple.”
This,” says Seifter, “is when my second ‘a-ha’ moment happened. For the first time since I began my difficult relationship with food intolerances, I felt like there was a community of people who struggled with my exact same problems. That exposure piqued my interest in the Paleo diet, and it was a very quick transition for me to adopt Paleo as my lifestyle and method of healing.”
Little did she know that only a few years later, she’d be sharing the Paleo lifestyle with the entire city of Austin.
Seifter shared how she’s paying it forward today:
Q. Prior to starting your business, what were you doing for work, hobbies, passions? What did life look like?
Seifter: I got my bachelor’s in musical theatre/fine arts from Syracuse University. I got my 200- and 500-hour yoga teacher certification from the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Center headquartered in Val Morin, Quebec, and apprenticed in Ashtanga yoga under certified Ashtanga instructor Kino MacGregor. I moved to Austin, Texas, in January of 2012, and by February 2013, we finally found the perfect place to open Picnik. I was waiting tables at Nordstrom when we stumbled upon the perfect food truck, so I quit my job, liquidated the small amount of savings I had and politely begged my mom for money to assist me in opening my concept.
My Mom, coincidentally, found herself equally passionate about the Paleo lifestyle after transitioning from the Standard American Diet. She had married my stepdad, who had lived on a variation of the ancestral diet for many years. As someone who struggled with her weight for many years, she tried it and experienced her own set of miraculous results. My mom and stepdad were willing to take a risk on me and help support me through my first year of business while I attempted to prove that there was, in fact, a need and an industry for Picnik.
Q. How did it begin to take off? Any distinct “a-ha” moments in your journey?
Seifter: The biggest “a-ha” moments for me came from listening to my fiancé, Kevin. Kevin has a very traditional palate. He loves the flavor and comfort of the Standard American Diet, but he has always looked for an opportunity to make better choices. He was the first person to suggest to me that we should consider having a chocolate chip cookie on the menu. When we first opened, I dreamed of an outlet to execute my creativity without creating predictable food. For example, one of the best soups I ever made was with local rabbit. It was so delicious. I was so excited, thinking everyone was going to flock to the shop to enjoy it as much as I did. I learned very quickly that rabbit was not a product customers wanted. Most people shivered at the thought, and many referred to their childhood bunnies. This was a turning point for me in the business to begin focusing on products that people like Kevin liked, as that really was a good indication of our clientele. It seemed to work quite well!
Q. What challenges have you faced/did you face in the process of starting and running a business?
Seifter: What challenge haven’t I faced? As an entrepreneur, you have to learn and perfect every position in your business. I feel like I have gone to culinary school, [and] gained a master’s in business and a master’s in accounting all at the same time. There have been times where I have worked 20-hour days for months at a time, and times where I have learned to step away and focus on myself. I have gone from a person who has never managed a team to being the leader of a staff of 20 people. I have gone from doing everything myself to delegating responsibilities to my team members.
The biggest challenge for me is constantly inspecting what I expect. There are hundreds of thousands of moving parts in our operation. We are open seven days a week, and things are constantly shifting. You can never get comfortable, because the business is always different: growing, stabilizing, shrinking, growing. It is unpredictable. As a result, you always have to be on your feet, and you always have to ensure you are maintaining the integrity of your product. This comes down to creating a strong infrastructure where everyone is crystal clear on their performance expectations, as well as getting the right management team in place who shares your vision, belief and ideals. One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was, “You need to get the right people on the bus.” This was in reference to hiring the right team. It makes all the difference in the world. There should be a mutual respect between the team and leadership so that everyone is working towards a common goal. The team should be empowered to assist in improving the operation, and management should be open-minded enough to listen and take feedback to help improve systems. I have always believed in hiring the best people and paying them well, and as a result, you get a strong, empowered team who is excited and passionate about their work.
Q. Any advice for other entrepreneurs who want to start something?
1. Hire a CPA. Do not wait.
The numbers are the most important thing in your business. If you have any question about where your money is going, inventory adjustments, tax reporting, payroll, payroll taxes, it is in your best interest to outsource to someone who thrives in the financial space. We have an in-house bookkeeper, as well as a CPA who prepares flash P&Ls weekly of our business. She reconciles our bank account and properly pays vendors and employees. It makes a huge difference for us to understand exactly how our expenses and revenues are impacting our business. I waited a year to hire one, and that was a terrible mistake. I ended up making many mistakes that were preventable and negatively impacted me down the line. Now, the business runs like a well-oiled machine, and we have a proper infrastructure for accounting.
2. If you aren’t willing to put everything in your life on the line, don’t go into business.
Business is risky. It is a risk financially, and it is a risk personally. While you are building your business, it requires a daily commitment to prioritize your work, and oftentimes can cause stress and negative impacts on your personal health and your personal relationships. I was blessed to have a wonderful partner who shared the common goal of building Picnik, so he was willing to subject himself to all of the tough times that come with starting a business, but I could imagine the type of work required by an entrepreneur could definitely cause people to deal with hardships in their relationships. It changes who you are. It puts you in a permanent state of fight or flight. It requires a very specific type of person who can deal with these stressors. If you are lucky, eventually, your business will stabilize and you will learn enough lessons to put your life back into balance, but it could easily take years. You have to be willing to have patience and put your life in a position of compromise to live for your passion.
In addition to the above, I feel very strongly that you have to be willing to risk your finances in order to achieve your goal. If you don’t care enough about your product or process to invest your own hard-earned cash, then I truly don’t believe you will be willing to work as hard as you need to in order for your business to succeed. I wanted to give up thousands of times. There were circumstances where things were so difficult that I couldn’t imagine working through another day. However, the fact that I had my own resources on the line continued to remind me that I knew I didn’t have another choice. I couldn’t just give up; I believed so much in what I was doing that I was able to risk it all. Truthfully, I believe that is the only reason Picnik is here today. I can imagine it would be easy to give up if all of the money you have invested is from other people. It is easy to lose someone else’s money. It is more difficult to lose your own.
3. Get the right people on the bus.
This is applicable to the people you share your life with and the people you share your business with. Kevin is incredible. He shares my passion for Picnik and shares my vision. It makes it easy for us to grow as a team and as a couple. We are very different people, but we have common goals and attitudes about life. Self-improvement is never an argument; it is just a constant drive in our life.
The same is applicable with the people you share your business with. Don’t hire people because they are cheap labor. They won’t do anything to fuel your business. Invest in the right team and hire people who believe in your cause and share the same consciousness about what you do. They will be a bigger investment, but they will continue to breath innovation into your vision, as they are perfect extensions of you. I learned the hard way. I started out by hiring some individuals who wanted to work at Picnik for all of the wrong reasons. Once I learned how to hire the right people, people who were passionate about the same things I was passionate about, it began to fully transform my business. It also allows you to empower your team to make decisions. They feel like they have ownership in your business and they want to help it grow and succeed. It is a truly remarkable thing. If you hire people for the wrong reasons, they will show up and perform like hourly employees. They see no future in your company and they will do the bare minimum in their performance. Run as fast as you can from those people.
Q. What’s the best advice you’ve been given in your entrepreneur journey? And are there any resources that have shaped you?
Seifter: The best CD series I have ever listened to is called The Psychology of Achievement, by Brian Tracy. I was exposed to it when I worked at Lululemon. The fourth CD is about goal setting, and it has truly transformed the way I think about my day and my future. It has taught me everything from prioritized to-do lists to envisioning the future of my company to creating active deliverables to achieve what I want. I have listened to it several times. Whenever I am feeling confused or lost, I spend the afternoon listening to that CD to refocus my energy and get clear, conscious goals. Funnily enough, when Diane Sanfilippo and I gave a business workshop this year at Paleo f(x), we both talked about that CD.
Q. What are your visions and goals for your company? Anything coming up we should know about?
Seifter: I’ve always believed that Picnik is a model that could easily exist anywhere. We are looking to optimize and expand our food concept, and in order for us to do this, we need to get into an indoor space which is wired for what we want to accomplish. We will keep the trailer, but the future of the business will exist in brick and mortars. We are beginning our expansion in Austin, but hope to expand our concept nationwide.
Q. Anything else you want to add?
Seifter: If you think you are up for the challenge and you aren’t satisfied with your current job/life, then take action, make a change and do it now. Although entrepreneurship is difficult, there is nothing more satisfying than building the life you want to live. It is truly the dream of a lifetime.