CINCINNATI - Emily Frank was truckin’ along in corporate America when a series of unfortunate events over a 30-day period caused her to pack up, move back to Cincinnati, and pursue her passions in the most unlikely place: a food truck.
The 39-year-old founder of the C’est Cheese Food Truck, serving up grilled cheese creations full of ooey-gooey goodness, is now a finalist in the Mutual of Omaha’s “Aha Moment” commercial competition. If she wins, Frank could appear in a national commercial spot.
Frank took a break zooming around town in the C’est Cheese truck to tell us more about putting the brakes on corporate life and her passion for food, family, and her customers.
9 questions for Emily Frank
1. You were in corporate America for 16 years – was your departure an immediate decision, or was it something you’d been thinking about and planning for over some time?
It was a total spur of the moment thing. I had a series of unfortunate instances over a period of 30 days. I was married to my job and was the stereotype of the single, workaholic girl.
On the 30th day, I was laid off. I’d never not worked and had never been in between jobs, but I took the summer off to figure things out. I realized I couldn’t go back to that world, that environment. I had a new nephew and wanted to be there for him, so I started thinking about some other options.
2. So why grilled cheese?
It was an easy thing. It wasn’t anything I’d been thinking about. I love food, I had a small catering business on the side in Chicago that was successful; I was cooking for close to 50 clients. I knew I wanted it to be in the food industry. The thought of opening a restaurant didn’t occur to me, but I’d traveled to lots of cities with cool food trucks and knew it was an up and coming industry.
Grilled cheese was a comfort food everyone could relate to. You could go as basic as American cheese on white bread or as crazy as some of the creations we have. It’s not what you grew up eating, but it works.
3. There are some delicious yet unique sandwiches you have on the menu. From where does that culinary inspiration come?
We’ve had a lot of input from our C’est Cheese friends who are regulars and created some items and names. My Nana is an amazing chef, and so I got the love of cooking from her. Eating out, though, inspires me: I love restaurants, I love the process, I love the whole dance. So I’ll take things I’ve found in restaurants and think “How can I put this in a grilled cheese?”
4. What were some of the obstacles you encountered while starting up C’est Cheese? What about some standout moments that reassured you this decision was the right one?
Obstacles. Gosh, everyday. That’s kind of the nature of the beast when you’re working with food trucks. Weather, parking, event fees. I didn’t realize that everything, like events, charge. It’s funny because I look at our first day at the City Flea in July 14, 2012 and think how ridiculously under-prepared I was. I want to laugh and cry at the same time.
But the first Yelp! review, the first time I recognized a customer as a return visitor: that’s everything I love about this business. When people really enjoy their experience at the truck, when they recognize me or Regina (the chef). It’s personal, and that’s what I really pride myself on: that we’re an experience, we’re a family. Our customers are our family. And I love that.
5. Where can C’est Cheese fans find your food truck? Are you all over the Cincinnati area, or do you have a home base where people are most likely to visit?
We don’t have a home base, but we have a few areas we go back to regularly. Our Facebook and Twitter has a full calendar. We try to hit some office parks a few times a month though, but we’re not limited to one area.
There’s a huge misconception that food trucks are just downtown, so we love being mobile! There are so many people outside of just downtown, so we work with a lot of property management companies who have a lot of tenants. It’s been really successful.
(Photo courtesy of C'est Cheese on Facebook)
My favorite day-to-day – I don’t want to call it a “task” – is working and interacting with the customers and with all the people I’ve met. I love being able to reward my employees if they’re doing an amazing job. It’s tough in corporate America, so I love that I’m in control of that and can do that for my staff. My staff is my family, and I can treat them as such. And I like the flexibility, too. I love being my own boss, that’s really rewarding.
Next page: How you can vote for Emily Frank
7. Tell us how you got involved with the Mutual of Omaha “Aha Moment” commercial search.
(Laughs) It’s so crazy to me, and the whole thing makes me laugh. I got an email from their people this summer – I have no idea how they found me – and they said they were coming to the city and wanted to talk to me. I was familiar with the “Aha moment” commercials and figured this would just be kind of fun!
I met the three people on the tour, and you just kind of talk to them and then you get a little souvenir bag and that was kind of it. I figured it was just a cool experience. Then I get an email saying my video is up on the site. It was cool seeing all the other Cincinnati videos and it was cool, but I kinda (sic) forgot about it. Then I got another email a few weeks ago, and I almost didn’t open it, and it said something like “Congratulations, you’re a semi-finalist!” And I was like, “Semi-finalist in what?”
Then I found out I was a finalist. I was taken aback by the whole thing, there are such amazing stories of people saving lives and I thought, “I’m just making grilled cheese.” But maybe my story resonates with some people. Maybe some people are unhappy in their 9 to 5 life but wish they could follow their dreams.
WATCH: Emily Frank's "Aha Moment" (story continues below)
8. Congratulations on being one of the 10 finalists! What are some of the next steps in this contest, and how will the winner be decided?
The Mutual of Omaha panel got it from the semi-finals to the finals. I believe the final process is online votes and the panel. Voting is easy, just visit their site and click my face to vote for me.
- NOTE: Voting for the “Aha Moment” contest is open until Oct. 11.
9. You made the a huge career leap to follow your passions. What words of wisdom do you have for anyone else looking to do the same in their own lives?
It absolutely is the scariest thing I’ve ever done. But I think that if you’re not scared, it’s not worth doing. I think a bit of that fear is great for your drive. But really do your homework. It’s a business first, and it is your livelihood. Make sure it’s a smart decision, that you’re not going in blind and not doing things because it seems fun. Write a business plan, seek out advisors. Really be smart about it. Yes, take the risk and jump in and go for it, because you’ll never know unless you try, but just do it in a smart way.
But if we’re talking about people just making a change, I say go for it! If you’re unhappy, change it. If you don’t like your current job, change it. If I’m not having a good time with my food truck, then that’s when we’ll think about doing something else.
My life could not be more opposite that it was two years ago but I wouldn’t change it for the world.