“It’s the kitchen that serves Nashville,” explains the chef and owner of a food truck known as, “City Kitchen.” Michael Gilbert is one of those guys who has a heart for service and a mind for business. The South Carolina native began his food truck business in 2016 and has been serving Music City and surrounding areas since.
The story of Gilbert’s exodus from his place a birth to the cradle of music is not uncommon in Nashville. It began with a dream to make music, progressed through a series of obstacles with plenty of antagonist interplay, and resolved into a love story after he met a Vanderbilt coed named Jennifer at church. In 2006, he married that Missouri girl and became so happy that he lost the inspiration to write.
Now, that isn’t really such a negative thing; certainly not as bad as it sounds. Writing is so often driven by angst or by the exploration of the complex emotions that surround desires, hopes and struggles. Finding the love of your life has a way of making those emotions clear and dissolving the introspective anxiety that fuels that type of art. So what does that have to do with a food truck?
The Beginning of the Business
The creative energy within Gilbert still needed an outlet while the adult in him needed to eat and pay bills. He began to think about how he may combine his favorite past experiences with a way to earn a living in a manner that would be meaningful to him.
The Birthplace of the Business – Favorite experiences?
The only boy of four children, Gilbert noted that getting into cooking was something akin to an act of rebellion against his mother’s traditional stance that the kitchen was meant for his sisters. “When I was young,” explains Gilbert, “I noticed that cooking was an immediate way to receive praise. In college, if you can cook, you make a name for yourself quickly.” Pointing out something that many cooks seem to enjoy about the craft, Gilbert said, “I love working with my hands. You immediately see the end results of your work.” With a degree in Speech and Communication Studies and a small handful of occupational experiences under his belt at the time, Gilbert had a lot of options open to him. “I’m a food guy through it all.” The contented culinarian declared, “I fought it, man. I worked a lot of jobs and tried different things, but I always came back to food.” Sometimes a thing is just meant to be. Gilbert stated, “‘Cooking’ has been the door that always continually opened for me. There had to be a reason for that.”
The Soul of the Business – Is it just about cooking?
“Faith influences what I do,” Gilbert told me, “That would be the same no matter what I did.” He continued by explaining a bit about his driving belief, “Who you are is more important than what you do, because you bring who you are to everything you do.” Faith helped Gilbert understand that God laid this path out before him. It was a road he felt he had to take, even though it was tough. He may wish at times, as we all do, that he could be something else; maybe something more; something different. Something NOT an entrepreneur. However, as with other people who have stepped into their life’s calling, Gilbert is happy. “I have a purpose,” he told me, “I have an opportunity to use the gifts I’ve been given… leading, feeding, serving.”
'I have an opportunity to use the gifts I've been given... leading, feeding, serving.' ~ Michael Gilbert, owner of City Kitchen food truckClick To Tweet
I’m humbled by the thought, as I write this post, that there are people like Michael Gilbert in the world who sincerely believe that the ability to serve others is a gift. ~Herch
“I love cooking, but I love what happens around the table.” explained Gilbert, “I love the gathering.” As he continued to discuss his philosophy, I began to see an alignment with my own thoughts on this subject. He understands what “NOMS” means! I just recently tweeted about this, in fact.
“The activity of dining with people is important to me,” he noted before moving on to talk about how being people-focused is more important than being so worried about the product. “That doesn’t mean I don’t care about the product,” Gilbert expounded, “But people come first.”
The Heart of the Business – People Come First
This “people first” approach became more evident with every query I made. For example, when I questioned Mr. Gilbert about the business accomplishment that he’s most proud of, he didn’t hesitate when he answered, “Christmas bonuses.” With a genuine smile, this gracious business owner told me, “I wish I could have given my staff more than I did. But this year I was able to give them some extra money.”
He runs a successful business, has a fantastic menu, the respect of his peers and a solid plan to grow. He’s had menu items touted in the Tennessean on their list of “Top 5 to Try”. He could have mentioned any of those things, but the one thing that pleases him most is being able to do something extra for his staff. “My favorite,” Gilbert related, “is catering a wedding or large event where we get a really nice tip. I love being able to forward that to my staff as an extra reward to show my appreciation.”
“I have a great staff,” bragged Gilbert, clearly proud of his people, “They’re on my team.” It isn’t just because of a Christmas bonus or the occasional tip. Those things are window dressing. The real foundation behind the success of Gilbert’s team has everything to do with his connection to the people on it. “You have to communicate, and communication is not static,” expertly noted by the Communications graduate. “It’s a constant conversation.” Gilbert explained that it isn’t enough just to tell your team what you want for your business. “You have to model your vision.” Do you want to serve great food? Do you want to be fast? Do you want your customers to be happy? Model the behaviors that will make those things happen in front of your staff. According to Gilbert, that’s the way you build a unified team that cares about you and your business; a team that will follow your vision even when you’re not around.
About leadership, Gilbert told me this; “I’m always reevaluating my management style. You get systems in place to handle processes, but it’s different when you deal with people.” Calling on lessons learned from past management experience, Gilbert humbly explained, “Sometimes you just suck at it and you have to apologize. You won’t handle every situation the right way the first time. But that’s ok as long as you respect your people and you’re willing to go back and make it right.”
His love for serving people was further disclosed as he spoke about his clients. “When I sit down with a client to talk about catering an event for them,” Gilbert told me, “I want to understand who they are and to know what their vision is so I can serve them better.” There’s more to building that human connection than simply taking an order; a practice that speaks to this food truck owner’s success!
The Business of the Business – Harder than you think
There were challenges getting into the food truck business. Like most new entrepreneurs, Gilbert quickly learned that the work of cooking and serving wasn’t the hard part of running a rolling restaurant (saying “running a rolling restaurant” 5 times really fast wasn’t the hard part either, though I think you should definitely try it! Out loud. Right now!). Anyway, the hard part is the business side of things like permits, taxes, payroll and insurance.
“Getting all the permits was a challenge,” remembers Gilbert, “I wanted to do things the right way, but it’s sort of like all these places you need a permit from don’t communicate with each other.” He shared his belief, common among small business owners, that the system of licensing and taxing at city, county, state and federal levels is cumbersome and unnecessarily bureaucratic. Gilbert agreed that a resource site or checklist would have been helpful at the time he was getting started. Maybe someone could write a blog and dedicate it to this type of thing!
While the Tennessee Department of Health provided many of the hurdles Gilbert had to overcome in the beginning, they were also one of his best resources, “The people at the Health Department – even the inspectors were helpful. They want you to succeed.” Gilbert continued, discussing his constructive relationship with department officials, “They aren’t looking for those ‘gotchas’ just to give you a hard time. They really helped me figure things out.”
The Struggle Continues
“I thought that the hard part of this would be the long days. You know, the ‘kitchen hustle’,” Gilbert noted. He wasn’t talking about a type of Culinary Dance, but rather the fast-paced, high energy work that happens in a full service food biz.
He went on to explain some early confusion about his business license, “I was laying on the floor, just staring at ceiling. I was upset. I had found out that I needed a business license and I didn’t have one at the time. But I was already paying taxes.” With a shrug, he explained, “It was a hard day and I was frustrated.” Then, with the sound of resolve in his voice, he told me, “But it’s like swimming across something big, like the English Channel. You get two thirds of the way across, and it’s more work to turn around and go back than to move forward. I wasn’t about to turn around.” Gilbert literally picked himself up off the floor determined to move forward. He never looked back.
The Name of the Business – What’s in a name?
What’s in a name, anyway? A lot of food trucks are christened specifically for the type of cuisine they serve. Some bear the title of their most popular signature dish. That name lets customers know what to expect when they walk up to the order window. “City Kitchen is a vague name,” Gilbert explained about his dubbing strategy.”That was intentional because we do more than just street food. We also do a lot of catering for larger events like weddings.” The smart thing about this approach is that since he isn’t pigeonholed into a particular style of menu, City Kitchen can prepare just about any type of food based on customer needs. For example, they can prepare food for a casual party or offer more elegant selections for a wedding that requires higher end catering. “I wanted to have options open to me without having to rebrand my business for special occasions.” And as a matter of fact, “It’s a kitchen serving our city,” Gilbert cited proudly and in such a dogmatic tone as to declare immutable truth.
The Values of the Business – Faith, Hope and Love
Serving his city is something Gilbert is serious about. He has run programs to help neighbors in need. A small portion of each ticket would go to someone in the community who needs food. His business makes donations to Second Harvest Food Bank, and has done discounted rates for teachers. City Kitchen has also helped and advocated for End Slavery Tennessee, an organization focused on preventing human trafficking and helping the victims of that particular evil. “I wanted my business to reflect my values.” Gilbert told me. These are values rooted in his faith and family. After his wife, Jennifer, earned her PhD, she went on to serve as the president of a non-profit called the ‘PiK Foundation‘ (Prevention is Key). The organization focuses on things like nutrition and education for families in need.
Being lead by faith into an occupation that enables you to provide hope to people… that’s a calling. That feeling in your heart you get when you are able to serve someone, to provide a need, to feed them, to make them smile… that’s love. These values are so interrelated that it’s difficult to tell them apart sometimes, but in the end, the greatest is love. It’s always about love.
The Running of the Business – Lots of learning!
When I asked Gilbert what he’s learned about the nuts and bolts operation of a food business, he almost glazed over. It was like it was too much to process; too many answers to give all at once. I should really know better than to ask a question like that, because that seems to be a common response with food business owners. But it is amusing to see them try to come up with that one nugget of wisdom they might give me. “The right bump in the road is not your friend,” Gilbert exclaimed, “I definitely learned the value of a good bungee cord.” After a chuckle, remembering a story I wish I’d had time to hear in full, the food truck veteran noted sagely, “A three dollar bungee cord can make the difference in saving a thousand dollars worth of product.”
The Tools of the Business – How to get things done
Another item of value in the City Kitchen truck is the chef’s knife. Believing that this is a tool no chef or cook can perform a good job without, Gilbert supplied two of his staff with their own knives as special gifts. “We got them each a knife suited specifically to them.” Gilbert recalled. These knives fit those employees so well that one of them actually named her knife Patrick. “Everyone knows who Patrick belongs to,” Gilbert explained with a fond, but earnest smile. “I haven’t even named my own knives.” Gilbert’s favored brand is Shun. “I like a good, Asian style knife for the versatility.”
Reaching into his pocket, Gilbert took out a familiar too. Well, familiar to me and probably every other tinkerer, handyman or dude in general; a Leatherman – Skeletool Multitool. “You can do everything with one of these on a food truck. Screw something down, break down boxes, cut some twine, just whatever.” explained Gilbert. I couldn’t agree more with his assessment. I don’t know how anybody gets by without one, personally!
Lastly, Gilbert talked a little about his point of sale system. He uses Square for services like invoicing, payroll, tips, and inventory. “Square is pretty dope.” declared Gilbert. And I think someone at Square should probably add that tag line to ALL of their marketing collateral right away!
The Advise of the Business – Lessons to pass to others
“Be funded. Make sure you have your finances in order,” replied Gilbert to my inquiry about what advise he would give to a fledgling entrepreneur. But he didn’t stop there. “Be brave. Be patient.” Then he stressed, “And know this ahead of time – It’s going to cost more than you think. It’s going to take longer than you think. It’s going to be harder than you think.” Following that, he quickly admonished, “None of those things mean starting a business is bad.” He finished by quoting his pastor, Randy Draughon of Midtown Fellowship, “‘Hard’ is not bad. It’s just hard.”
The Plans for the Business – What’s in store?
Like many business owners, now that Gilbert has achieved the milestone of establishing a successful operation, he’s looking to expand his horizon. “This plan is part of the reason for the vagueness of the name.” he explained, “I envision ‘City Kitchen’ being like the mother company with other, more specialized food trucks underneath that. They’ll be named after their specialty or whatever they serve.” While some may want to explore ‘brick and mortar’ options, Gilbert enjoys the freedom of the mobile kitchen. “I could do an event where I bring a couple savory trucks and a sweet truck to provide everything the customer needs. I could tailor it to the event like that.”
With plans to grow the company’s social media presence, increase clientele and create successful strategy, there’s no doubt City Kitchen will do well. Knowing his philosophy of vigorously supporting the community, developing staff personally and leading with both his mind and his heart, I’m excited to see Michael Gilbert’s business and family flourish, so that he can better serve Nashville for years to come!
Find and follow City Kitchen online!
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