Working off books as a chef can be pretty rewarding – that is until you get laid off with no severance or unemployment the very same week that you and your wife are due to close on your home.
Chef Adam Sobel had to pivot fast – and not for the last time. Adam began to private chef more, ramped up his catering, and hustled at the farmers market.
After a year of hard work, he had saved up enough to buy a beat up old food truck off of Craigslist. He didn’t have any expectations – or even a business plan. He did it because he felt like it and had visions of people seeing really yummy looking food lining up down the street.
Opening day got lots of PR, news coverage, and attention as The Cinnamon Snail was the very first organic food truck in the country. But… it was a freezing cold winter in Hoboken.
And that’s about where the trouble began.
Launching: Timing is Everything
The lines of excited hungry people seeing all of his yummy looking food did go down the street, but it didn’t last. Cold freezing rain won out, the line dwindled, and Adam was forced to let his colleague go. That meant it was up to him to take orders, cook, clean, and then wake up at 2am to start making donuts. Every day. And all for the pleasure of making a mere $200 a day – not even enough to cover gas and supplies.
Slowly, as freezing winter gave way to Spring, and loyal customers began returning more often and bringing friends, it got busier. And Adam was able to hire someone to help with orders on busier days – and then someone to make pastries at night. For once, he could finally grab more than a few hours of sleep at night.
By the end of his second year, he expanded to bring on a small prep crew to make sauces while he was out on the truck.
It wasn’t until year 3 that the truck was able to be out and making money without Adam.
Team = Freedom…?
For the first winter since starting, Adam was able to travel and have his truck out there running without him.
Freedom at long last!
Except… freedom doesn’t come without its dangers if done wrong, and Adam learned quickly and harshly just how disastrous it can be to step away from your business at the wrong time.
“In hindsight, it was reckless to leave that early on.”
Food service is a tough business – especially for food trucks. He stepped away before he had a well oiled training machine in place to allow the transition to happen more seamlessly. The key to a more successful hand off would have been not just more training, but more personal mentoring and finding the right managerial staff that could exceed his managerial abilities.
The right managers – and Adam Sobel did find a few over the years – astounded him, managed responsibility, and were remarkable. They were worth everything and more.
Growth: From Food Truck to Restaurant
Fast forward, and by 2016, Adam had not just a thriving food truck, The Cinnamon Snail, but he had his new restaurant, The Pennsy, in Penn Station. And he was growing. Fast.
Now with a staff of 50-60 employees, he had to hire an HR person, something not typical for a restaurant – and for sure not a food truck.
Things started falling apart when he couldn’t be everywhere at once and he realized that managing a giant team was not his bag. He didn’t enjoy it, didn’t want the quarterly meetings, writeups, and compliance paperwork. He did it, but wasn’t great at it, and didn’t enjoy it.
There’s a lot that us business owners have to do that we’re not even remotely qualified to do. For example, in food service, payroll is complex, with tip allocations, and so many little details unique to the industry. Not only would Adam not have been good at it, but he didn’t enjoy it, and it would not be the highest and best use of his time. This is one of the many roles that it made sense to staff.
This growth also forced him to standardize what was previously a much more organic business. He had to dull down his more renegade business model and create actual SOPs and practices. It wasn’t fun or exciting. But it’s part of what happens with growth.
“I’d rather be focusing on making better dishes than making better spreadsheets.”
At last, though, Adam Sobel had the right team and systems in place, multiple sources of income from the restaurant to the food truck to the catering to the chef consulting and more.
Collapse: The Unexpected
And then… 2020 arrived.
“Just before the 2020 COVID pandemic thingy hit, I got a call from my landlord at The Pennsy, my main location in Midtown Manhattan just above Penn Station. In four weeks, they would be closing the building to begin a half-of-a-billion-dollar renovation. I had 30 days to figure out how my now bloated overburdened business could survive losing our main revenue stream.”
Adam had 3 days to liquidate his entire business. With so many people about to be out of work and facing food insecurity, it was a no-brainer to give away the thousands of dollars of ingredients and prepped food from his production kitchen. He announced that they were giving it all away for free, and the next day there was a line of people out the door for hours, picking up bags of ready-to-eat food and ingredients to cook with.
That took care of the food, but there was also the equipment and build out of the production kitchen in Brooklyn that he’d spend around $300,000 on. It had to shut down forever, and there was no worse time to sell resistant equipment in modern history. Everyone was shutting their business down, and no one was opening anything up. He literally got $5,000 at auction for all of his equipment, which was not even enough to pay half a month’s rent at the kitchen.
Was this a failure? Or a blessing in disguise?
If there ever was a time to pivot, this was it. Perhaps there was a better way to spend his talent and time than 4-5 hours a day commuting. Adam got to step back from what he was doing with The Cinnamon Snail and ask himself some very pressing questions. What if he could build a new business closer to home anyway? How could he create something new that is more aligned with the person he became as he’s grown?
“More than anything, as the dust settled, I got to be a fully present dad to my kids, husband to my wife, best friend to my doggy, and finally have time to be present for myself too.”
Since this pivot, Adam has gone beyond his best selling cookbook, Street Vegan: Recipes and Dispatches from The Cinnamon Snail Food Truck and now teaches live classes.
Even better, he records his classes so students can forever learn his recipes through his classes online, even if not attending live. Budding chefs – both at home and in restaurant kitchens around the globe – can up their game with mouth watering recipes that will delight their families and guests, all without Adam having to be there.
Adam once again has a crowd lining up for really yummy looking food just like he always dreamed. But this time the crowd is online and his mission of reducing suffering through front line activism and feeding humans delicious plant based food has a far greater reach than ever before.
Key Takeaways from Adam Sobel’s Interview
- Bigger isn’t always better. Smaller businesses can be far more profitable, support your lifestyle better, and be easier to run than bigger businesses.
- You don’t have to be a “businessperson” or an “entrepreneur” to start a business. Adam barely graduated high school – and even then only by sheer luck – and doesn’t claim that what he does is smart or well conceived. But he still takes action towards his mission. Even if it’s scary or new.
- “Passive income” can be a misused buzz word. All of your businesses will require some level of “work” to maintain or grow, even if it’s the boring stuff like taxes and business filing. Yes, hire team members to help out, but a lot of things will still rely on you as the business owner.
- Set yourself up for success with proper systems in your business – and then the right people to run those systems. Only then is it responsible to step away from the business and let it grow without you for periods of time. Doing so before then can be disastrous and irresponsible.
- His talents were better used not commuting 4-5 hours a day. A pivot in business to support a lifestyle that is more in alignment with what you want in the world and your life can be game changing.
- Even in the worst of circumstances, there are opportunities. When faced with a tremendous amount of food that would go to waste and a city of soon to be unemployed humans facing food insecurity, Adam created a win-win.
- His best opportunities came from saying YES to ideas without a plan – or expectations – because he felt like it. Too many of these ideas can be overwhelming, but sometimes the best businesses come from saying yes and listening to your gut.
Connect with Chef Adam Sobel
- The Cinnamon Snail on Instagram
- The Cinnamon Snail on Facebook
- Street Vegan: Recipes and Dispatches from The Cinnamon Snail Food Truck: A Cookbook
- Chef Adam Sobel’s Cooking Classes
- Chef Adam’s Website, Cinnamon Snail