Caitlin Schumacher spent six years as the pastry chef at the lauded Charleston restaurant FIG, before turning to breakfast with her new venture: A food truck called Girl Nextdough. Now she’s making bagels, breakfast burritos and pastries out of the truck parked on James Island. We talked with Shumacher about her entry into the hospitality industry, the creative freedom her new business has allowed her, and what it was like learning to drive a food truck.
Did you always know you wanted to cook professionally?
I’ve always been obsessed with food for as long as I can remember. My family life was very much centered around food – going to the farmers market with my dad on Saturdays and getting bagels, our weekly Sunday lunch when my grandmother would come over, or just anticipating the special foods that would be prepared on holidays.
I baked a lot as a kid, mostly with my best friend. We would do lemonade and cookie stands in the summer, hot chocolate and brownie stands in the winter. We even tried to sell chocolate chip cookie dough to our parents – our ‘company’ was called Cups O’ Dough. As far as taking that passion into the professional realm, it never really occurred to me until after college.
I had been working towards applying for vet school. I also considered becoming a high school French teacher. When I graduated, I decided I wanted to take a year to “do something fun.” I just so happened to see an ad in the classifieds for an entry-level pastry assistant at Magnolia Grill in Durham, NC.
At that time, it was known as THE fine dining restaurant in town. It was a place my parents had gone for special occasions; we had both the Magnolia Grill cookbook and Karen Barker’s Sweet Stuff at home. I couldn’t believe this was a job I might be able to have at such a celebrated restaurant with these renowned chefs when I had no real experience in the field. I started working at Magnolia in 2009 and immediately knew that I had found my people and found my calling.
How did you decide to make the transition from restaurant work to food truck?
I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit and known that I eventually wanted to work for myself. Opening a restaurant or a bakery is such a huge endeavor with massive funding requirements – particularly with Covid I knew that wasn’t realistic for me. Serendipitously, my friend Melanie owned the Scram food truck and decided to relocate to Jersey City and sell the truck. So I had this opportunity presented to me where the truck was for sale, created with love by someone I love, fully outfitted for a baker. I would have never predicted that I would open a food truck, but I thought to myself, “if not this, then what? If not now, when?” and just decided to go for it.
What have you learned about yourself and your business in the transition?
I have been working in restaurants for so many years. I was nervous that I would really miss the aspect of being on a team and experiencing this symphony of all these people with different skills working towards a common goal. That’s a powerful thing and pretty special to be a part of, especially when the restaurant is busy and you’re having a strong service.
I do miss those things, but I’m also really loving the singular focus of what I’m doing now. The company is just me and my dad right now, so I’m fully immersed in all aspects of the operation from the menu writing, sourcing ingredients, truck maintenance, service and so on. I’ve never felt more “in the zone” and I love that.
Was it hard to learn to drive the food truck?
It wasn’t particularly hard, but it was terrifying! There is no rear view mirror, and it’s pretty much impossible to check your blind spot. You’re sitting very top-heavy, so taking a turn too fast can be sketchy. My truck is a 1977 Ford and, for the most part, it does great. But it has some personality quirks. You can’t drive it faster than 55 mph. It doesn’t like to idle at a stop light, particularly when it’s cold, so sometimes it just turns off while you’re sitting in traffic. The gas tank gauge doesn’t work, so you have to keep track of how many miles you’ve driven. And then there’s been a learning curve of working with the generator, water pump/waste water tank, gas lines, etc.
For one thing, I love breakfast foods and I love going to sleep early and getting up early. I think I do my best work in the morning. Secondly, I knew I wanted the truck to be focused on baking. I wanted it to be clear that this was a baker and a pastry chef running this truck. And I felt that breakfast gave me the opportunity to bake sweets, my first love, but also to refine my bread-making skills and offer savory options as well.
What are some menu items you are excited to have the freedom to make?
Oh man, we have fun with it! I’m open to any idea as long as we can source the best ingredients and execute it to my standards. Right now we’re working on a bagel dog as well as a pizza bagel. For Halloween weekend we did a Snickers bar Danish that was silly but delicious and something I would never make at a restaurant. We usually have a breakfast burrito and switch up the fillings every week. It’s been a lot of fun to indulge some of my low-brow tastes and try to elevate the idea with technique and execution.
What has been your biggest hit so far?
People seem to really love the classics – our biggest seller is the bacon, egg and cheese bagel sandwich. We do a lox bagel with shallots, capers and dill that’s popular. People are pretty into the cinnamon bun.
How did you decide where to set up shop?
I knew I wanted to be on James Island, and preferably close to where I live. I basically drove around looking for parking lots (empty, abandoned, shopping centers, other small businesses) – anything I thought was visible and had a place for people to park, even if the space had no ambience whatsoever.
In Charleston, you need permission from the land owner to park somewhere, so I did a lot of creeping on county tax records to find land owners, and then cold calling to ask if I could park there. I eventually found my space on Camp Road by reaching out to the owner of the shopping center, who directed me to another one of his tenants who was opening a shop and specifically wanted a food truck. So that worked out nicely.
Is Charleston a good city for food trucks?
I’m pretty new at this, but so far Charleston has been a great city for me. We’ve gotten a great response from the neighborhood and lots of invitations to do events around the city.
How has your restaurant experience influenced your menu and practices?
The food truck is basically a tiny restaurant. I treat it the same way I would a restaurant kitchen – cleanliness is everything, sweep whenever I can, deep clean the truck every day after service. My dad and I have a lineup before service where we talk about the menu and areas that we want to focus on that particular day, whether that’s trying to make the coffee program more efficient or making a point to recognize our regular customers. We line it up after service as well – we look at the sales and the numbers, we talk about what worked well and what didn’t and how we need to adjust for the next day.
As far as menu writing, I try to balance it the same way I would a dessert menu. We try to have at least one gluten free option. If there’s bacon on the bagel, then we’ll put sausage in the burrito. If one of the sweets is chocolate, we’ll try to make the other a more seasonal fruit-based option.
What has the response been like?
The response has been incredible – we have the best customers ever. We have some very loyal neighborhood people that come see us almost every weekend, as well as some food and bev industry friends who are huge supporters. We’re a lot busier than I expected, and we couldn’t be more pleased.
What should we look for from you in the near future?
We’re about to roll out a winter holidays menu this month. I absolutely love holidays, so we’ll do some fun festive treats for sure. I’ll probably take a few weeks off from regular service in January but hopefully do some brunch pop-ups with friends. I’ll be cooking at the Charleston Wine and Food Festival in early March, which is exciting. And then, I don’t know how near in the future, but we’re talking about the idea of incorporating some kind of pre-order system. I’d also like to offer some family-style menu items that people can take home and heat up for dinner – like a pot pie, for example.
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