Diary of a New Food Truck Owner: Part One

Diary of a New Food Truck Owner is an ongoing series where we talk with Meg Hilgartner and Siri Skelton, owners of a fledgling San Francisco mobile soft-serve ice cream business called Twirl and Dip. In this first entry, Meg describes wrangling a 500-pound industrial soft-serve machine, and having to throw away the results of most of their recipe-testing sessions.

We didn't want to work at night anymore. We both worked at restaurants, and we were sick of slaving away while all our friends were at parties. So we wanted to start our own food-service business, something we could run in the daytime. We kicked a lot of ideas around, but we settled on soft-serve ice cream because most of the stuff around here is terrible. There's vanilla that doesn't taste like vanilla, chocolate that doesn't taste like chocolate, the soft texture is nice but the flavor is awful. We knew we could do better.

The first thing we had to get was a soft-serve machine. There are a few home machines, but generally it's a product that you need an industrial machine to make. We found one used we thought we could afford, but when we drove out to see it, the people selling it wouldn't turn it on to show us it worked. "You can't run the machine without product in it," they said. "It'll ruin the machine!" Which we now know is true but at the time we were like "Ooooookay, then."

In the end we handed the guy $5000 and we were the owners of a 500-pound machine that possibly worked...which we had to then get home. We'd thought far ahead enough to bring a truck and a big guy, but we didn't have anything to secure the machine with in the truck bed, or oh, a ramp to get it up on the truck or anything. Thank God the people selling it had a ramp, but then there it was, on the truck, and no ramp to get it off. Oh, and by the way, once you get it off, to make it function, you have to have 220 volt electricity instead of the 110 that you have in houses.

We ended up having to rent a ramp from a builder's supply company, and leaving the machine at a relative's house. Now every time we want to test a recipe, we have to make up the ice cream mixture at my house, then drive half an hour to the machine to see if it works.

Right away we realized by choosing soft-serve we gave ourselves a couple of unique problems. One, we were going to have a hell of a time developing recipes, because there really aren't any recipe books for soft-serve ice cream. Most soft-serve is made from this industrial powder that you mix with water, which is why it tastes so bad. And two, we wouldn't be able to store what ice cream we made, for later tastings, say, to compare two versions of a flavor we made. Soft-serve ice cream isn't like regular ice cream. Regular ice cream, you mix it up, you freeze it, then you can store it indefinitely in a freezer. Soft serve isn't storable. Once the ice cream is mixed, it has to go through the machine to get to the right texture, and once it comes out it has to be eaten right away. If you freeze it, it turns into a big, icy mess. We wanted to do some really different flavors, so this was going to be hard.

Next installment: Meg and Siri look for real estate and start the recipe development process.