Emily Frank's C'est Cheese food truck celebrated its second year in business in July 2014.
Emily Frank launched her C'est Cheese food truck after being laid off from a corporate job in the printing industry.
Emily Frank, left, got help from her SCORE counselor Jane Vanderhorst, right, before opening C'est Cheese, her grilled cheese food truck.
CINCINNATI – Emily Frank didn't make lemonade when life handed her lemons back in 2011. She made grilled cheese.
More precisely, she started C'est Cheese, a grilled cheese food truck.
Frank had been living in Chicago and working as an executive in the printing industry when she got laid off.
"I had had a job since I was 15," said Frank, a Cincinnati area native who graduated from Sycamore High School and University of Cincinnati. "It was the first time I thought, 'What do I really want to do?'"
Frank soon realized that just because she had been good at her job, that didn't mean she enjoyed it.
"I was your typical workaholic – a single woman who managed 85 people across six states. I lived on airplanes and in hotels," she said. "Everybody hates their job, but I didn't realize until I was forced out of if it that, holy crap, I did not enjoy that."
She used her severance package to spend that summer figuring out what she wanted to do next and decided she wanted to move home to Cincinnati and start her own business.
Insiders can read more about how Frank started C'est Cheese, the local organizations that helped her and why her advisors think she's been so successful with the business.
There's more to the story when you become an Insider. WCPO Insider's membership is an additional benefit on top of everything you can get for free on WCPO.com. We created an entire digital organization dedicated to bringing you exclusive access to in-depth stories that you can’t get anywhere else, handpicked events, and incredible savings on things you love to do. To find out more click here.
More precisely, she started C'est Cheese , a grilled cheese food truck.
Frank had been living in Chicago and working as an executive in the printing industry when she was laid off at the age of 37.
"I had had a job since I was 15," said Frank, a Cincinnati area native who graduated from Sycamore High School and majored in political science at the University of Cincinnati. "It was the first time I thought, 'What do I really want to do?'"
Taking The Grilled Cheese Plunge
The city had changed a lot since she had left it 17 years earlier. Over-the-Rhine was blossoming with new activity and businesses, and the city's first food trucks had started to open.
Frank had always loved the food world but figured it would be too expensive and too risky to open a restaurant. Owning a food truck seemed like the answer.
When it came time to decide what kind of food to sell, she went with grilled cheese because of its comfort-food appeal and the simplicity of the menu she could create.
She moved back to Cincinnati in November 2011 and started her business for $22,000 with the help of two friends who loaned her money.
Her first day in business was City Flea in July 2012. And within six months, she had repaid both her friends and had money in the bank.
Now C'est Cheese has annual revenue "into the six figures," said Frank. Business is going well enough to support Frank and the two people she employs full-time during her busy season, from early April through October.
The Power Of Energy, Enthusiasm
The primary reason for the food truck's success is Frank herself, said Jane Vanderhorst, founder of Vanderhorst Consulting, Inc. She has been advising Frank as a SCORE counselor since Frank began developing her business plan. (SCORE is a nonprofit whose volunteer business advisors help small business owners at no charge.)
Frank also got advice as a finalist of Bad Girl Ventures, a program for women entrepreneurs, where she learned a lot about marketing, finances and the legal matters that business owners must navigate.
"That's her number one reason for success – Emily," Vanderhorst said. "Her energy, her enthusiasm. I went to her first event at the City Flea. There were people I brought there that asked for gluten-free bread. I went two years later with the same people. She addressed them by first name and said, 'Hey, good to see you. What do you want on your gluten-free bread?'"
Frank said lots of customers are surprised when she remembers their names or their favorite orders.
"There's something about being in that window," she said. "If I've met you through the window of my bus, that means the world to me. You chose to come see me. It's just as important for me to get to know them so the next time they come, it means as much to them as it does to me."
Part of Frank's passion for customer service stems from her corporate experience in the printing industry, she said.
"I was director of client services," she said. "I built relationships with my clients that I had for years. Deep down, people want to do business with people. And that's important to me."
Strength In Numbers
Frank also decided early on that it was important to bring some order to the city's growing food truck scene.
She started the nonprofit that became the Cincinnati Food Truck Association in early 2013 to campaign for "safe, affordable and legal access to street food in metro Cincinnati," and to give the food trucks a voice in discussions with city governments and other groups.
"I thought it would be helpful for the board of health, for the city, for city council, for all these different departments or organizations to work with one source," she said.
The association has helped veteran food trucks advocate with Cincinnati City Council and has become a sounding board for people who are new to the business locally, said Elizabeth Romero of SugarSnap! Sweet Treats. She helped start the group and is now the association president.
"There's so many more trucks. Every day we get more emails," Romero said. "It's growing – that is for sure."
The group has about 28 members out of the roughly 40 food trucks now in business locally,
That's not to say that everybody in the business gets along 100 percent of the time, Frank added. The food truck business is, after all, a business. And business can be competitive.
When a bunch of trucks are lined up at an event, all are working to attract customers and their spending. Frank doesn't apologize for working hard to make C'est Cheese a success.
"Everything I've done – everything I do – is a business decision," she said.
All that work shows, from Frank's active presence on social media to her networking efforts to find business parks and other locations that aren't crowded with competitors.
"She's just tireless," said Marc Michaelson, owner of Michaelson Homes and one of the friends who loaned Frank money to start her business. "She's just constantly marketing herself and her company."
It's a far different life from what she had in Chicago with her corporate job and fancy vacations, Frank said, but she's fine with that.
"I used to think that having this amazing salary and being able to travel was really great. But at the end of the day, who cares?" she said. "It's on my own terms. That is worth more than you can put in the bank."
For more information about C'est Cheese, go to http://cestcheesecincy.com .
For more information about the Cincinnati Food Truck Association, go to http://cincinnatifoodtruckassociation.org .
For more stories by Lucy May, go to www.wcpo.com/may . Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.