Just like crafting a perfect dish, starting a successful business often involves following a recipe of sorts.
So when Hadensville resident Linwood Cowan decided in 2018 to become the fulltime owner-operator of his own food truck, SandTopia, he knew he needed to put things in the right order.
Cowan was already a pro in the kitchen — a lifelong passion for cooking would lead him to obtain a degree from Johnson and Wales University’s Charleston, South Carolina campus in 1993—but he knew he still had plenty to learn when it came to operating what is essentially a fully-equipped commercial kitchen on wheels.
With this in mind, Cowan began seeking out as much information as he could and talking to local food truck owners around Richmond about their own experiences. He immersed himself in learning the ins and outs of the business and eventually found himself a truck, giving it a shiny black paint job an emblazoning it with his company’s new logo.
These days, Cowan can be found serving up his menu of fresh-made sandwiches all over the Richmond area, with local stops including Rockville’s Midnight Brewing and Lickinghole Creek Craft Brewery in central Goochland.
While Cowan isn’t one to toot his own horn too much, his legions of happy customers seem to have no problem doing it for him: not only are his reviews excellent, but this year SandTopia also earned second place in Style Weekly’s poll of best local food trucks.
While the dream was his, Cowan is the first to say that keeping the truck running smoothly is most definitely a team effort. Often by his side as he cooks are his wife Melissa and his daughter Lamya, 16, who has already proven herself a savvy social media manager for the business. His younger daughter, 12 year old Maleah, has been known to get in on the act as well, said Cowan, explaining that building something he can share with his family has made the journey all that much sweeter.
Cowan said he has also benefitted along the way from others’ willingness to help when he needed it, from offering advice on how to prepare for events to telling him where to take his truck for repairs. Cowan also credits Penny Grant, whom he met through his church and eventually brought on to help run the truck when he couldn’t be there, as a key factor in his success thus far.
Of course, like any other endeavor, running a small business is not always smooth sailing. Cowan says his learning curve in the beginning included figuring out which items weren’t working and narrowing the menu to items that he could prep efficiently. Selling food is also a notoriously challenging business from a finance standpoint, and cost control is critical. Staying organized and mindful can often mean the difference between an operation that makes money and one that doesn’t, Cowan said.
Despite the challenges, Cowan says he feels blessed to have been able to realize his dream. His advice to anyone looking to start their own food truck is to look hard at the numbers, but also pay attention to the intangibles.
After all, he explained, one of the most critical components of a strong food business may be the one that isn’t even found on a menu.
To really succeed, said Cowan, “You’ve got to be a people person.”