Eleven years ago, I met this tall, scrawny kid working in the kitchen at Dot's Back Inn. He was just a teenager finding his way into the world. He had a quiet intellect about him, but always had a sarcastic and humorous outlook on things, which made work quite enjoyable. He was mature for his teenage years and was a good listener with a diligent work ethic. Little did I know then, that the kid would grow up to be a husband, a father, and a Fried Chicken Food Truck success story.
A friendship that started in their Freshmen year of high school, the union of Mike and Sarah Moore was no easy feat. After round three of their dating history, Mike finally married "the roommate", as he affectionately calls her. In October, they will be celebrating 6 years of their marriage and their son Jamie (named after the late Jamie Dickerson of Dot's Back Inn and Jazzbo’s Rollin’ Gumbo), will be turning 2. Last year they realized their dream of opening a food truck dedicated to the Southern tradition of Fried Chicken and even added a twist---Southern Vegan Fried Chicken.
There have been some challenges for the first-time food truckers, as Mike transitioned from years of working and managing a kitchen to the confined space of the beautifully designed (Katie Davis of Salvation Gallery) Mean Bird truck.
"It's a totally different game. Steep learning curve. I definitely don’t think I was prepared for the ways you have to think about inventory, prep, and general repairs for a food truck vs a kitchen proper. Always gotta think about how much water do I have? If I boil pasta will I have enough water to do my dishes? How much propane do I have? How much trash can I carry with me? And at the end of day everything has to be not only cleaned, but tied down. In the beginning, I know our quality suffered. I think we are getting into a pretty good groove now, though sometimes i feel like I’m cooking out of playhouse."
For Sarah, who is more familiar with front of the house presence, working at various restaurants since she was a teenager, there were other predicaments. She didn't have an inkling of the physical demands, nor the obstacle of weather changes. Facing recent Mercury bursting temperatures, has tested their endurance, as the highest reached in Mean Bird was 117º. She says they've had to turn off their iPad register multiple times because of the heat and there just doesn't seem to be enough water for 3 people during a shift. She acknowledges, "I had no idea what Mike was going through all these years!"
Sarah and Mike, like a lot of Entrepreneurial Couples, have a productive working relationship. Mike does the cooking and truck maintenance, but Sarah is a proactive creative force with her background in design, art, social media, and marketing. She and Mike balance each other's skills when conducting Mean Bird. Not all couples can work together. I find that watching couples who have been in the restaurant business are more likely to succeed due to pure understanding of how the industry works and the stress involved. Sarah and Mike seem to be able to communicate on an even keel, and as some of you may know, working in a busy kitchen does not have a calming affect.
"More of the pressure is on Mike when it's just the two of us on the truck, but I'd like to think I hold my own. And we can communicate and get everything done with cool heads, even if it's super busy."
Sarah has a harder time "turning it off" at home, and this, she admits, is a difficult result of owning an all consuming business, but always with understanding for Mike's position. She states, "I handle the business side--booking, financials, marketing, etc. I have our son most of the time, so I'm grabbing every spare minute to answer emails and make social media posts and submit event and health applications when he's napping or after he goes down for the night. And this means, I'm constantly peppering Mike with questions after he's spent 10-12 hours in a 100 plus degree kitchen."
Selling out your soft opening in a few hours is pretty spectacular and Mean Bird did just that as they set up shop back in March at Ardent Craft Ales. When they participated in this Spring's Central Virginia Food Truck Rodeo they were overwhelmed at the 100 person line that lasted over 5 hours. Sarah recalls, "After the initial shock, we looked at each other (over the head of Mike's mom who we had swindled into working with us that day), and I remember this moment of, "Well, we're just gonna do what we can, and get chicken out of the window." And it wasn't pretty, but we kept our cool and got it done." It helps that they are the only food truck doing fried chicken specifically, but they openly welcome any competition. "Bring it!" dares Mike.
Most of my Vegetarian/Vegan friends don't get to indulge in the scrumptious crunch that is fried chicken, but thanks to Mean Bird they now have this option. After a lot of trial and error, including a myriad of recipes, Mike finally succeeded at its classic faux counterpart...and yes, it's just as delicious. The Veggie Bird is handmade from fresh vegetables, whole grains, herbs & seasonings and then battered in coconut milk. It doesn't have any isolated whey protein, no isolated soy protein, no textured vegetable product, no vital wheat gluten, so it's not over processed fake meat product. Along with the rotating veggie side dishes and in-house sauces, Mean Bird makes for a great picnic table offering. You can even get it in the bucket! The menu is focused on its main event, but they offer specials per park. And, if you want that wedding catered in Southern Style, they are your people. Although the Mean Bird truck pushes out the fried chicken, they don't just cater fried chicken or Southern fare.
With the success of RVA Street Art Festival and The Richmond Vegetarian Festival, Mean Bird has worked hard in scheduling their vending locations. It isn't an easy task and Sarah says there are many factors involved from the availability of electricity to what kind of people will be in attendance. Social media outlets, such as Instagram, have helped market their whereabouts and they are smart in getting in with the local breweries in town. They can be found in Scott's Addition frequently and are planning to do Third Thursdays at Studio Two Three (Co-Founded by Sarah) where they will donate 10% of their sales to the non-profit). Isley's once a month Farmer's Market is also in their sights and every Wednesday they are doling out the goods at Martin Agency.
Seeing repeat customers or meeting new ones, Mean Bird is keeping up with the difficulty of constant schedule updates, but seeing the line that accompanies their appearances speaks volumes of their success to do Fried Chicken justice. They also have a good support system and having been in the Northside area with the long time residency at Dot's has helped cheered them on. Like all ventures, perfection is a work in progress. When I asked Mike what Jamie would think of his venture, he responded with, "I think he would be equal parts proud of me going for it and disappointed that I kept doing this stupid kitchen shit instead of getting a real job. I think he would also think my son has a dumb name."
What They are Tasting
Sarah loves Fried Green Hanover Tomatoes and likes to enjoy a Ballast Point Grapefruit Sculpin to cool off while Mike prefers Fried Green Hanover Tomato Sandwich on sliced thin Billy Bread grilled in butter, mayo with salt and pepper as well, but his drink of choice is Stella and Bulleit Rye.
Must Have at Mean Bird
Nashville-style hot chicken sandwich with Green Goddess sauce and Lemon Dill Potato Salad
Where to Find Them
They also have one of the coolest kickstarter videos I've seen and gives you a good idea of who and what they are.