How Mexicue’s CFO Keeps Fast Growing Company Rolling [Q&A]

Julia Collins tells Black Enterprise how she helped turn a single NYC food truck into a multi-million dollar business

BlackEnterprise.com: The idea that career opportunities should meet certain criteria is fascinating. What’s your personal criteria and how did Mexicue fit into that?

Mexicue CFO Julia Collins: I get asked all the time why I decided to join the company at such an early stage, before our current model had really taken shape. I joined about five months after launch. At that point we had just six employees and were operating only one core business, which was our food truck. My challenge was to figure out if this was a big idea. And if so, was it an idea that I can help bring to scale. Then, well, who am I working with? Will I learn from them? Will I enjoy working with them? And does this business or opportunity bring something good or needed to the larger world?

The Mexicue truck was wildly popular from the very beginning. After just a few weeks in operation, my partners Dave and [Thomas Kelly] were already generating a ton of buzz. However, they were very much in their initial stages as a business and had not yet developed many of the systems and processes that are currently in place. I came onboard to help implement systems and to launch our catering business. In thinking about joining Mexicue, each of these criteria were met.

Growth can be tricky in the food and hospitality industry, what’s Mexicue’s approach?

When we think about growth at Mexicue, we take a strategic approach. Each step is carefully planned from both a financial and an operational perspective. For example, one of the most important decisions that we made early on was to operate a hub-and-spoke model here in New York City. By leveraging the resources of a central commissary, we are able to achieve very strong operating results at the unit level. Our decision was based on an awareness of the unique characteristics of our local market and was validated through extensive financial modeling. Decisions about how we grow beyond New York City will be shaped by a combination of experience and also extensive research into the unique market characteristics of future locations.

This year you partnered with the New York Jets at Met Life Stadium. How did that opportunity come about?

Basically, the Jets wanted to add some variety to the food options for fans. I believe their people did a market tour of 30 different trucks and really fell in love with our food and the concept. They scoured New York City for the best food trucks and selected their four favorite trucks to invite as vendors outside of the stadium. We are having a great time serving fans during home games. Next year’s Super Bowl is being held there in 2014, so we are tremendously excited about that.

Can you break down what percentage of revenue comes from each of your ventures, i.e. catering, truck, brick-and-mortar sites?

We generate relatively equal revenues from each business unit. However, the fastest growing segment of our business and the one that we are aggressively expanding is our brick-and-mortar restaurant division. We are very much inspired by the incredible growth of the fast-casual segment of the restaurant industry. Concepts like Chipotle and Panera have experienced explosive growth over the last five years. Because of our unique fusion of southern American barbecue and Mexican cuisine we think we’re really poised to really make waves in our segment.

Speaking of making waves, I mean, do people ever seem surprised that you’re in such a high-profile position with the company?

I think a lot about what my mother experienced as a young entrepreneur in the Real Estate industry twenty to thirty years ago. So much of what she taught me was to be confident in every situation. The reality is that while we have come a long way in terms of the diversity that you see at the executive level of modern businesses, we still have a long way to go. So, of course there will be times when someone underestimates you, when someone questions your credibility or your authority, solely based on the way you look. In these situations it can be easy to feel slighted or to question yourself, but the most important thing is to wake up everyday believing in yourself. If you believe in yourself then you will project confidence. And that kind of confidence can be disarming.

What’s your advice to small businesses in your industry looking to expand that might not have the brand-recognition of a Mexicue?

Really, just to be the master of your own destiny and stick to what your philosophy and main goals are. That’s really what is going to give you an edge. Think really carefully about what consumers need and want … try to find a white space, a part of the market that’s under-sourced or under-served. I like to think that conceptually, Mexicue had a little bit of imagination behind it. So my advice overall is to figure out what’s not out there and to base your consumer experience on that.

There’s a temptation to be overly influenced by what you want. But, for example, we found early on that people weren’t so concerned with low calorie or low fat foods from us, but they were asking us where it was produced, where was it raised. So as a result, we put more of an emphasis on locally-sourced proteins and meats. The same thing happened with food that was gluten free or not genetically modified. We learned that attitudes around health and sustainable methods have influenced customer behavior, and we adjusted.

You learned how to do two things well.

Right. You have to be ambidextrous. The reality is that to make an impact in a market of this size, or any size, you cant just be good at serving delicious food. You also have to think about hospitality. You can be doing well financially, but you also have to be sound from a purely operational perspective. [The executive team] are products of a generation that grew up learning how to multitask — it’s how we were educated and socialized — so it’s natural for us to think about ways in which we leverage our strengths not just in how we serve food, but how we serve the public and our employees. Because staying competitive means you’re constantly looking for ways to shore up areas of your business. And if those ways are powerful and unique, then you win.

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