How a restaurant’s closing led to a catering business – and North America’s First vegan organic lunch truck

The Cinnamon SnailAdam Sobel’s workplace went out of business on the same week he was buying a house. Three years later, he’s poised to realize a dream he’s been working towards for more than eight years: the launch of North America’s first vegan organic lunch truck.

The Cinnamon Snail will be serving vegan food to residents of Hoboken, New Jersey starting Sunday, February 14th, with service to Brooklyn planned in the near future. I spoke with Adam this week to find out more about his plans: how he got here, where he’s going, the pros and cons of being clever when naming a business.

What is The Cinnamon Snail?

The Cinnamon Snail is like a mobile vegan restaurant. It’s organic and totally free of any animal products, and also free of artificial colours and unnatural food products. We don’t do much that’s deep fried, we do vegan donuts, and thats the one thing we do that’s deep fried, but it’s like any kind of taco truck or grease truck you see on the street except it has really gourmet, nourishing foods. We have a display case full of vegan pastries and we have a full industrial kitchen inside of the truck to create just about anything we can think up.

It’s not going to be cruising around so much: there are a lot of complications that keep us from doing it like an ice cream truck would. You have to keep your oven and steam tables running and they’d be sloshing around full of boiling water; it’d be a nightmare. Parking a truck of that size is crazy, so we’re going to have to show up way earlier just to find our location. We’re going to try to be around the same location every day, it may be a block up or down. We’ll post on Facebook and Twitter our exact location where we’re parked every day.

We’re starting with 9AM to 3PM. We’re doing a pretty awesome vegan breakfast/brunch every single day, five days a week, Monday to Friday. During the summers we’re hoping to bring the truck to some bigger music festivals and things like that.

We’ve also got really awesome biodegradable packaging, I don’t use any plastic at all. That’s important to me.

How important are the ethics of food production as far as your reasons to do business?

It’s a tricky thing trying to make a good solid business out of soemthing that doesn’t violate your ethical principles. It’s tough, something in the way our economics work in this civilization is so much based on doing business in a really unethical way: sourcing products as inexpensively as possible, made by people in third world countries that don’t get fair treatment and pay, and it’s really tough.

People look at organic and vegan food and say “wow, the price tag that comes with that food is really high” and are sometimes unwilling to pay that, not because that food is priced so high but the food that they’re used to is priced so low based on how unethically it’s been manufactured, from the packaging to the distribution to the growing of the plants. The whole thing in my opinion requires a revamping and much reform to be up to my ethical standards.

I can’t say this is a great opportunity to make a lot of money and to have a lot of financial success in terms of the type of success our civilization agrees is valuable. To me it’s just a means of doing the service for this world that I feel is the most positive and beneficial for everyone and also if I can manage to put food on my table and have a roof over my head that’s cool but I don’t ever expect to get anywhere further financially through vegan and organic food. The cost of making it happen and trying to make it accessible to people means that there’s not such a high profit margin, to me anyway.

Beyond that I’m really interested in a large scale transformation of the consciousness of human beings. I believe human beings are so capable of love and kindness and being very creative, kind creatures. The way our species is living right now is something that I don’t agree is human nature. I don’t think that the tendencies and trends of human life are something that’s inherent in human beings. It’s something that has evolveed and passed down generation after generation, teaching our children violence and selfishness and a lot of negative traits that I don’t believe are our nature.

I think it would take very little to incite rapid transformation in this world where human beings can blossom into the kind hearted creatures that we can be. That’s my underlying goal, to avoid a lot of unnecessary suffering for animals and human beings, but I guess that’s part of doing things ethically. It’s the same thing I guess.

OK, let’s move to the logistics of running a food truck – what kinds of permits did you need to get?

Pretty much anywhere in the country you really have to abide by all local regulations and ordinances which vary town to town and city to city. It’s not like you can take the truck on the road and stop in every town across the country or something on a road trip living in the truck; I always hear people fantazising about something like that.

It’s really quite complicated. Different towns have different requirements. The town I live in for instance, Red Bank, is somewhere where I would have loved to run this truck, but they have very strict ordinances which regulate food vending of any kind. You can’t even run a food truck here at all. Even ice cream trucks, it’s very hard for them to operate here at all.

New York City, for instance, has very complicated outdated vending laws. Basically the way it works there is that every single person working in the truck needs this photo ID badge, which means they have to complete a health course and submit tax ID information, and beyond that the actual truck needs this permit that’s like a decal on the truck, and the city hasn’t issued them since about 1991. If you try to operate without them they’ll try to confiscate your vehicle and there are really hefty fines about it. It’s a very complicated thing. We’re part of an organization that’s working to change it, it’s called the Street Vendor Project, which is awesome, they’re part of the Center for Urban Justice.

Hoboken was surprisingly very welcoming. Of the towns and cities I was interested in vending in, they’re pretty welcoming for the most part. Their fee is relatively low and there’s not a lot of extra restrictions as far as parking other than it’s very difficult to park in the city. It’s relatively encouraging compared to other cities I was looking at where you might need to rent space from a property owner or something like that.

Are there health regulations? Do they vary by city?

There are but by and large they conform to national standards. There are some differences, for instance, on what’s required to have on a truck in Hoboken vs New York. There’s no specification to the capacity of fresh water and grey water you have to allow in Hoboken and there’s a specific minimum you have to meet in New York; little differences like that but it’s very much everything you would have to deal with in a restaurant. In New Jersey one person on the premises has to be a graduate of a ServSafe manager certification program which is a comprehensive food safety program that’s pretty much accepted nationally; I think there’s only a couple of states now that don’t require it for restaurants. You need to have insurance, etc, this kind of stuff.

Have you tried selling from the truck yet?

We really built the truck ourselves, with friends who have expertise in those areas. Everything’s tested, and I’ll probably do some of the prep work this week in it, which will help to get comfortable in there, it’s a really great kitchen, I’m not worried about the functionality of it. Sunday will be the first time serving the public out of it.

It’s really a beautiful looking truck. We had a friend of ours who’s a graphic artist do the design work and had it wrapped completely and it looks amazing, like heaven or something.

The Cinnamon Snail food truck

This might just be the slickest looking food truck I've ever seen.

This isn’t a new venture for you, having run an organic catering company before that. How did that evolve into this?

I’d been the chef at a really nice vegan restaurant here in Red Bank called Down to Earth. I’d been working there for a number of years and it changed hands and very quickly went out of business at very short notice.

I was in the position of buying a house the very week that it closed and I quickly put up a sign on the restaurant saying that all the regular customers could order dishes from me, and it rapidly evolved into a catering company. We got a really good review in a local magazine and things picked up very rapidly without too much work.

As I did more and more catering jobs I would aquire more of the necessary equipment to really do the full service catering, weddings and stuff like that, and during the week I would offer a menu of items available for pickup, different entrees and stuff I was going to have available for whoever wanted to pick them up. We also started doing a very popular stand at our local farmer’s market that people were coming from out of state for.

This truck has been really my dream for maybe 8 years or something like that so to see it really come into fruition is very exciting. It’s going to allow us to serve a lot more people.

Pardon the pun, but it sounds like the truck’s an organic byproduct of your catering company! Is the catering business still happening?

We’re still catering events and we’ve got some weddings lined up for the spring and summer. We also always try to do a fair amount of charity and donation catering.

Has it been a full time job?

Yes, that’s what I do.

OK, one last question: I run a site called Vegan Porn, and I’ve always had mixed emotions over the name, whether or not it’s limited my growth. Now as the owner of Certified Orgasmic…

My mom really tried to persuade me not to do Certified Orgasmic, she wanted me to pick a different name, and after a while she admitted it was kind of clever, but the one thing that really gets us is that our website has a hyphen in it and if you don’t use that hyphen people will go “oh I went to your website and that’s really kind of disgusting, what do you have going on!” so I keep looking and waiting for that domain to become available again, but that’s the only place it kinda get us.

The Cinnamon Snail makes its maiden voyage on February 14, 2010, and I’m told that the first 100 customers will get a free vegan donut! For locations and other updates, you can find them on Twitter and Facebook. For more on Adam’s catering company, you can visit certified-orgasmic.com – just remember that hyphen! 🙂

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