Diary of a New Food Truck Owner, Part 13: When Yelp Makes You Cry

Diary of a New Food Truck Owner is an ongoing series where we talk with Meg Hilgartner, co-owner (with Siri Skelton) of a fledgling San Francisco mobile soft-serve ice cream business called Twirl and Dip. In this installment, Meg and Siri endure weeks of rain, uncover the simmering rivalry between two ice cream machine makers, and explain why they avoid looking at their Yelp page at all costs. Read all the installments.

We've been officially open a little more than two months, and we just got to the point where we have paid ourselves a little bit! We're still not making enough to actually pay our rent from the business, but we're doing very well, considering we've had a few setbacks.

One problem has been the weather. There were three weeks of rain in San Francisco in March, and I was sitting on the couch crying and shaking, thinking we were going to go under if this kept up. There's just no point in going out on a rainy day. I'll amend that: I sometimes sell ice cream if it's rainy and warm, but if it's rainy and cold and blow-y, like it is in San Francisco, we're sunk. The customers don't show up and it's just miserable.

The other problem we're encountering is that when the weather is hot and we're selling the most ice cream, one of our machines chokes because it's working so hard to keep up with the volume. There have been hot weekends where we served 200 people, and oh man is it ever stressful when you have a big long line of people and all of a sudden the machine isn't making the ice cream cold enough. If you leave it alone, the machine catches up pretty fast and serves the ice cream correctly, but it might be four minutes, it might be eight minutes. That's a long time to wait! People walk away; we lose business.

It's caused complaints, in person and on Yelp. I try not to look at Yelp in fact. The last time Siri looked, she was upset for the rest of the day. Some people love us and rave about us; other people complain that the ice cream is too soft. We know! We know! It's too painful to be struggling with this and also have it hammered in over and over again. I just stay away from Yelp.

We're working on buying a new ice cream machine. It's kind of a scandal. The machine we have right now that we're dissatisfied with is a SaniServ. There are a lot of people who feel that SaniServ makes a better machine than their rival, Taylor. It's kind of a Ford/Chevy thing. SaniServs are easier to clean and look kind of cool and old-school. Taylors look cheap in comparison. We feel like we're cheating on all the people who talked up SaniServ to us, but we're buying a Taylor. Taylor has developed all these high-volume machines, because McDonald's is one of their clients. It's listed at $21,000. Ouch.

One of the best things about the work these days is being in the park all the time. In one location we're in the trees; in the other, we're down by the water with this long, long view. People come up to the truck and ask us, sort of suspiciously: "How did you guys manage to pull up in a park? Are you guerrilla selling?" No! We're not! The cops would be on us in a hot second; we see them plenty. They wave. They don't stop for ice cream.

Even though it was a real slog getting through the permit and rental process with the city [see: diary entries 1-12], I'm so glad we did. Because it's getting harder for people to get trucks onto the street. San Francisco has made it easier to get permits for a food truck in the city, but now there are so many people applying for permits that it's getting harder and more competitive. You have to find a spot that's not too close to a similar brick-and-mortar business. It's going to be a big old fight for spots. We're lucky we don't have to be in it.

The thing I'm also excited about this week is that we're going to be in the gay pride parade in San Francisco, June 26. [San Francisco City Attorney] Dennis Herrera's office called us up; they're going to pay for us to give out free cones. We're going to give out little mini cones, chocolate and vanilla, and l sold them on doing popsicles, because, as I said, it'll be a pop of color, and it'll be good for the vegans. It wasn't about that, really. It's because our ice cream machine needs [the extra time for] a rest.

Follow the Twirl and Dip truck's progress on Twitter.