+ By Brenda Wintrode + Photos by Gregg Patrick Boersma
“I’m terrified to quit my job,” says Diane Gatdula, who co-owns Glazey Days Donuts with her husband of 27 years, Tracey Gatdula. She gave her employer ample notice, and in May, she left her full-time job to work six days a week for the couple’s mobile catering business, selling warm mini cake doughnuts topped with gooey, sticky, made-from-scratch glazes and compotes.
Seven years ago, these parents of two grown children found themselves in the opposite situation, when an unexpected layoff for Tracey resulted in an exhausting, fruitless job search. Diane remembers the urgency for the two-income family to do something. Then, the doughnut idea struck them. At his previous job, Tracey had created a successful revenue stream by making and selling doughnuts at the business’ annual fall festival. “We’ll make doughnuts,” they said—what did they have to lose? “We were managing businesses for other people for years, so it was just natural we started managing one for ourselves,” says Tracey, who will keep his full-time job managing K&B True Value in Annapolis.
Borrowing $10,000 from Diane’s parents, they spent every penny on a mini-doughnut machine, food supplies, and a bright yellow pop-up tent. They started at a Pasadena flea market, and two years later were able to buy a pull trailer on their own. As of this past March, Glazey Days has 25 weddings scheduled for 2019.
Entrepreneurship and self-reliance also came naturally to Truck of Deliciousness owner Chris Robertson. “My family has a heating and air conditioning business, but I wanted to have my own success. I didn’t want anyone to tell me I’ve had something handed to me,” he says. In 2014, the 29-year-old Broadneck High School graduate bought his truck with his own savings and by liquidating stocks his grandfather bought for him.
The start-up months were not without tough lessons. “The first time I had to order food from Sysco, I ordered way too much. I had to throw a lot of it away,” says Robertson. He narrowed the menu choices, focusing on his best sellers, one of which was a grilled cheese sandwich with an herbed butter spread inspired by TV chef Alton Brown’s recipe. “I thought [Brown] needed a few more ingredients in there,” says Robertson, who learned to cook from watching his mother and Food Network. Diane Gatdula similarly garners and changes recipes for the dozens of doughnut toppings she makes fresh for Glazey Days. “I’m not a great inventor but a great tweaker,” she says.
Food truck owner John J. Talman IV started CrabTownCurbs Cuisine in 2014 on a foundation of food service experience and a bit of entrepreneurship in his DNA. The former Middleton Tavern sous chef started in his teens working in the kitchens of many Annapolis restaurants, such as O’Brien’s (back when it was called Fran O’Brien’s), Chart House, McGarvey’s Saloon and Oyster Bar, and Main Ingredient (now Main & Market). Business ownership runs in the family: his father, John J. Talman III, now deceased, owned Talman’s Office Supplies and Equipment on Church Circle, and his brother owns Post Haste Mailing on Russell Street.
The 53-year-old Annapolitan’s cooking career flourished when, in his early 20s, Middleton Tavern chef Arthur Gross mentored him in the culinary arts. Says Talman, “[Gross] taught me patience, process, leadership, and how to make sure the team is together.” Talman inspects every dish before it is passed through his truck window to the customers. His biggest sellers are crab dip and crab cakes. “People eat with their eyes. It has to look good,” he says.
Talman feels the same way about his truck. The crisp white silhouette of a skipjack and the Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse against an aqua background were taken from a photograph his father took during his time as Anne Arundel County photographer from the late 1960s through the early 1980s.
All of the food truck owners are acquainted. They work the same county food truck rallies and corporate events for the seven warmer months of the year, feed each other from their trucks, and give each other referrals. All three boast word-of-mouth marketing plans complemented by social media sites.
Festivals, weddings, concerts, and corporate events financially anchor the businesses of the three businesses. A large standing order from the US Naval Academy sustains Truck of Deliciousness through the winter months; Robertson delivers 800 grilled cheese sandwiches weekly for the midshipmen’s lunches. The Towson University marketing and e-business major fitted a 26-foot trailer with a five-foot grill and two deep fryers to meet the demand. “I was planning on making a bigger trailer for bigger events, but this pushed me to do it,” says Robertson.
The Gatdulas are considering future expansions, a franchise, or perhaps a seasonal pop-up on a beach boardwalk. Plans remain on hold until the pair can ensure their high-quality food standards can be replicated.
This year, Talman will offer a take-and-make option for his customers. He will sell the base of his popular crab dip for customers to assemble at home—just add crab. His eyes widen when he discusses the product’s potential retail marketability.
The trending food truck business model comes with challenges. All owners were initially surprised by the amount of physical work involved in pre-event food prep and post-event equipment degreasing. “The work is hard,” says Diane Gatdula. They have all experienced many of the same joys and the humbling trials of building something from nothing. “I’ll never stop learning,” says Talman.
Robertson accepts the hurdles of the food truck business that come with the successes. Customers have responded positively to his scrumptious delicacies, and he sees many repeat customers for his bacon cheeseburgers. “I’ve been fortunate enough to make good food and stand behind a good product,” he says. The sandwich slinger knows that someday he will inherit W. Robertson Heating & Air Conditioning, an Annapolis business co-owned by his grandmother and father. Robertson works there during the busy summer season. In the meantime, he’s proud of the fact he has invested in himself. “Everybody has to risk it for the biscuit to be successful,” he says. “You just gotta believe in yourself.”
Tracey Gatdula looks back on Glazey Days’ business growth during the past seven years and finds it pleasantly shocking. “We’re lucky. We’re very lucky. We know how blessed we are because our food truck is so popular,” he says.
The food truckers pass on the same hard-earned advice to newcomers. Keep the menu simple. Make everything fresh. Take risks, and be prepared to work very hard. █