From truck to shop

Featured Sliders / Food & Drink / Stories / September 15, 2020

La Chica Loca, Ready Popped balance mobile, brick-and-mortar businesses

Story by Madeleine Leroux
Photos by Liv Paggiarino and Shaun Zimmerman

Food trucks have been popular for a while now, and Jefferson City has become a home for quite a few in the last few years.

Two local favorites have been La Chica Loca and Ready Popped Kettle Corn & More, but fans no longer have to find the truck to find the goods as both have added a brick-and-mortar store to their mobile business within the last year.

Amanda Jensen, owner of La Chica Loca, hands an order to a customer in August.

La Chica Loca opened at 306 E. High St. early this year, capping off what had already been a turbulent year before the pandemic hit. Originally starting as to-go burritos from a bag, the business had tried to operate out of a storefront once before, but it was short lived. They quickly had to evacuate in mid-2018 because of a damaged common wall in the 200 block of High Street.

That’s when Amanda Jensen and her husband and chef Greg Atkinson moved to a food truck on East Capitol Avenue. Things worked well enough, at least until the May 2019 tornado came through and dealt another blow to Jensen’s business plans. The truck was destroyed, slammed against the back wall of Avenue HQ, which was also destroyed.

“I proceeded to spend at least three months laying in bed,” Jensen said, describing how she felt after losing her truck and equipment in the tornado, with very little insurance coverage to help. “We were really getting popular, I was starting to get all these huge catering orders. I hadn’t paid myself anything, but I felt like maybe, someday, I would be able to pay myself something.”

But Jensen realized she had something that could ultimately help. Before opening La Chica Loca, she spent 15 years marketing restaurants and knew a good story like what her business had gone through could help get things rebuilt.

The La Chica Loca food truck participates in Food Truck Friday on July 31 in front of the Miller Performing Arts Center.

“I started the business with $1,200. I lost my building, I lost my food truck,” Jensen said, recalling her thought process. She called a friend experienced with video to help her record her story and get a Kickstarter going, which ultimately raised $16,000 by January 2020. “It was really amazing.”

That funding helped Jensen relaunch her food truck, but after further problems were discovered with the truck, she opened the brick-and-mortar shop on East High Street, which has quickly become a popular spot for breakfast and lunch.

The doors to La Chica Loca’s brick-and-mortar location have been closed to customers for a while, as Jensen tries to balance keeping the business operating with keeping her employees safe during the pandemic. When it first hit, Jensen quickly closed her doors, launching a website and online ordering, and even helping a few other small restaurants set up similar operations. She still questions whether closing the doors is the right call, but ultimately wants to do whatever she can to keep people safe.

“I just don’t want to ever hurt someone else with my decision-making,” Jensen said.

With the doors closed, the restaurant matches one of the major advantages of a food truck, which is a quick turnover of customers, allowing for a higher profit. But Jensen said she enjoys spending time with her customers, which is more difficult on a to-go model.

“I love people. My customers have supported me through everything and so I really like to be able to walk around my dining room,” Jensen said. “It kills me right now that (the dining room is) closed.”

Customers approach the Ready Popped Kettle Corn & More food truck during Food Truck Friday on July 31 in front of the Miller Performing Arts Center.

Better customer interaction is one of the things Luke and Kara Ready like about having a brick-and-mortar shop as well. The couple opened a shop on West McCarty Street in December, but started their mobile business nine years ago, taking over popcorn duties at an annual picnic and fall supper after the regular vendor fell ill. They quickly began expanding to area parish picnics and other special events before their son was born with a rare brain disorder and they stepped away from the popcorn business to focus on him.

But eventually, the mobile popcorn business came back as a great way to work and still maintain a flexible schedule that allows both to be there for their now 7-year-old son. Kara Ready said the main focus of the business is really to give back to the community as a way to give thanks for all the support they’ve received as a family.

“It takes a village, you know,” Kara Ready said. “We were looking at how can we give back.”

That’s why they like to focus on serving fundraisers and nonprofits. The shop on West McCarty Street features a “giving wall” where a portion of the proceeds from popcorn sold off that wall goes toward various area nonprofits. The Special Learning Center is always listed as the Readys said the center has done so much for their son.

After several years of running a mobile business, the brick-and-mortar shop has come with some difficulties, even before the pandemic hit. Luke Ready said the toughest part is managing store hours and figuring out how best to staff the shop. They can’t offer full-time hours and the store is typically open about three days a week. (Luke Ready noted that they actually hired three people before the pandemic who unfortunately had to be laid off.)

“That’s probably the most difficult part,” Luke Ready said. “Opening the store has definitely been a challenge.”

Rose Ready, 2, puts on a kettle corn sticker from her parents’ food truck, Ready Popped Kettle Corn & More, during Food Truck Friday on July 31 in front of the Miller Performing Arts Center.

Another challenge is letting people know the store is there at all. The location on West McCarty is hidden from the street; it’s across the parking lot from Big Whiskey’s in a small white building that is not visible from the sidewalk. (The Readys said they have signs coming in that they hope will help with the visibility issues.)

For Jensen, the brick-and-mortar shop has only helped her visibility. When La Chica Loca was solely a food truck, Jensen kept it in one spot, on East Capitol Avenue, which was a bit hidden, she said, though people at least thought the food was good enough to search for it.

“It’s really fun to be able to drive off in the truck,” Jensen said, laughing about one of the advantages of the mobile side.

The truck is also handy for catering jobs, Jensen said, as everything is already together and you simply have to pull up to the site. But having a restaurant of her own allows Jensen easy access to a full kitchen, stocked with supplies, that is more comfortable to move around and work in. Things are more complicated in the truck, she said. For example, it’s not just as simple as turning on a faucet to grab some water, the water tank must be filled first.

For the Readys, the shop has been great for their corporate and wedding clients, who can come to the brick-and-mortar location for taste tests, as well as for pick up and drop off of popcorn bars, which the business rents out.

“It can all be done in store, which makes things a lot easier than with the truck only,” Luke Ready said.

Plus, they can have the shop open while doing prep work in the back for special events, which was not an option when the Readys only had the truck and made the popcorn out of a shop at home. Having the shop also helps during the holidays, when winter weather makes food trucks a bit more difficult to operate and people are interested in purchasing locally made items for gifts.

And if a special event gets canceled, but the popcorn is already made, the Readys are able to package it and place it for sale in the shop.

“We’re adapting,” Kara Ready said.

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