Tuesday, April 4, 2017
Get that Life! Follow your dreams to success!!
(The Creative Classroom says, “I am happy to say Ericka is a friend of mine who has found success and her heart’s dream!”)
Get That Life: How I Turned a Failed Restaurant Into a Successful Food Truck
Ericka Lassair left a job that made her unhappy to create Creole-inspired hot dogs for a living.
By Heather Wood Rudulph – Cosmopolitan magazine
Mar 27, 2017
When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, Ericka Lassair left a successful job in finance to start a business that would help rebuild her hometown. She opened Diva Dawg, a Creole-inspired hot dog restaurant, in 2012 to local fanfare. A year later, competition drove her out of business, and Lassair took some time to figure out what to do next. Diva Dawg was reborn as a food truck in the fall of 2014. The business, which now includes the truck and a stall at a food market, has become a local hit, but Lassair has her sights set on national success.
Once I graduated [college] in 2001, I took a job with a finance company called Chrysler Capital to become a collections agent. The job was in Dallas and I was desperate to get out of Louisiana to see different parts of the country. After four years of cold-calling people about their late car payments, I started applying for different positions within the company. When an auditor position opened up that included frequent travel, I went after it. I spent the next two years flying all over the country.
At our main office, we used to do a lot of potlucks. It was the first time I discovered people outside of my family loved my food. I was creative with my dishes, which always had the New Orleans Creole flavor. I would get requests from coworkers to cook for their dinner parties; one of my coworkers would constantly buy my pies. I never considered cooking as a career before then. I thought, Who wants to be stuck in the kitchen all day sweating? Once people started requesting my food for their events, it got me thinking.
When Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, my parents and little brother came to live with me in Dallas. They thought it would be just until the storm blew over, but they couldn’t go home for eight months. They desperately wanted to get back to their life but I loved having them there. When they left, I felt so empty. I realized I wanted to be home in New Orleans. I started asking for assignments that took me to the city, and I would use my miles to fly home on the weekends.
I was moved up to become a retail credit analyst, the person who checks your credit when you buy a car at a dealership. I was stuck at my desk every day making calls or going through piles of paperwork. I was good at my job, but I was miserable. After a year, I knew I had to quit. My bosses offered me another promotion, [but] I turned in my company car, sold my house, and moved back to New Orleans.
Being home felt good. I got a retail job at Saks Fifth Avenue and tried to map out my plan. I was thinking of going into the food industry but I wasn’t sure how. I applied to a [two-year] culinary program at a community college and the prerequisite was to get a job at a restaurant. I interviewed at Commander’s Palace, which is a historic restaurant in New Orleans. I was intimidated but the chef gave me a chance. I worked in the dessert department making bread pudding soufflés earning $7 an hour.
I graduated from the culinary program in 2010. One day, I was craving hot dogs, and I bought some regular wieners and buns, and a can of chili. I added my Creole flavors to them and ended up eating them all week. The idea hit me to open a Creole-inspired hot dog restaurant. I started writing down recipes — like a chili dog with fried chicken, and a crawfish chili dog — and asked a friend of mine who owned a nursery for business advice. She recommended Good Work Network, which offers free small-business consulting. I started taking all the classes they offered. I discovered a small credit union that has a reputation for helping new business owners.
I knew I wanted to be on Magazine Street. It was always my favorite place to shop with my mom, and I love the architecture and boutiques there. When a spot opened up at the end of the street, I jumped at it.
That year at Jazz Fest, I was introduced to a vendor who had a sausage booth. I told him about my idea and he offered to make my hot dogs for me. I wanted something special, and when I tasted what he created for the first time, it was so good I cried.
Back then, I wasn’t really big on social media. I just spread the word by posting “Diva Dawg Coming Soon” on the door. I also took out an ad in a local paper. A lot of people heard about the restaurant from news coverage; I was getting a lot of write-ups from local journalists because another hot dog restaurant had opened across town, so now it was a trend.
I was so upset because I had been working on this idea for so long. I wanted to be the first. I went to eat there to see what they had to offer and it was nothing like what I wanted to do for Diva Dawg. They had basic hot dogs, sausages, and toppings. So I continued to move forward.
We opened in September 2012 and got a great turnout. The restaurant was packed. I could barely keep up. I hired one dishwasher, a cashier, and a cook. I trained my little cousin to help me with everything, and my boyfriend at the time and his two sons helped, and so did my mom. I was cooking, running the cash register, doing all the accounting, and talking to the customers. It was overwhelming, but I was so excited. I thought, We’re going to make it.
In March 2013, the other hot dog place opened up a new location on Magazine Street. The moment I knew I was in trouble was when a lady came in saying she left her credit card behind. Then she said, “Oh, it’s the other hot dog place.” My heart sank. It was a downward spiral from then on.
I KEPT A SMILE ON MY FACE, BUT INSIDE I WAS STRUGGLING.
I started borrowing money to pay the rent. I didn’t want to ask my family for money, so I took out those quick, high-interest payday loans. I couldn’t pay my employees on time. I’d have one good day but then a week of hardly any business. I kept a smile on my face but inside, I was struggling. I would go home at the end of the night and cry.
In September 2013, I applied and got into a program with the Urban League called the Women-in-Business Challenge. It’s an incubator that helps small-business owners sharpen their skills with classes and networking, and at the end, there is a pitch competition and a $10,000 prize. We talked about our struggles and these other entrepreneurs gave me a lot of new ideas. I was starting to feel hopeful, but I was three months behind on rent and my landlord was threatening eviction. In November, I made the decision to close.
I thought I would have to leave the Urban League program because I lost my business but they encouraged me to stay. The classes helped me release the stress and encouraged me to try again.
I went back to working in retail, which allowed me to make a little money, but I was broke. I was relying on my parents and taking the bus every day. I was hiding my car at the dealership where my little brother worked because I didn’t want it to get repossessed. How ironic that I started in collections and here I was, hiding my car.
I have always been an upbeat, positive person but the stress of entrepreneurship is intense. It’s a risk you are taking with not just your life, but your employees' and your family's.
Even though I was in a funk, I followed through on the Urban League program. The pitch [competition] was in March and I put everything into it. My revamped business plan was to do a hot dog food truck. Even before I opened the restaurant, I thought a food truck was perfect for my concept but New Orleans didn’t have clear guidelines for running a truck in the city. I didn’t want to take the risk of getting a food truck and then not being able to be in business. But after the restaurant closed, I decided to go for it, [and] I won the $10,000.
I reached out to a local bank owner I knew to see if he’d help me, and he said I’d need a business partner [because of my bad credit]. I reached out to my cousin-in-law Andre who always supported me. When he said yes, I started to worry, What if this doesn’t work out? I don’t want to ruin his life too.
We got approved for the loan, and my meat guy told me about someone who was selling their food truck and moving back to L.A. The timing was perfect. We cleaned the truck, painted it, and rebranded it. I wanted to open in October, which is national chili month. We booked every [local] festival we could find with that truck. That first month, I probably slept 20 hours total. I was determined. I was not going to fail again.
It was just me and Andre for the first month. He was a police officer at the time too, so he would be working 24 hours some days. I would hire people now and then to help me when he was busy.
After two months [in business], we had money saved, and that’s when I knew everything was probably going to be fine. With the restaurant, there was never any money left over. With the truck, I don’t have to pay rent and electricity and employees for eight-hour shifts that only see two customers. I needed a fire permit and a health permit. It was much more manageable. We mostly worked lunches, parking the truck near the hospital and some office buildings.
Our first Mardi Gras [in 2015] was the true test for me. You can’t drive in this city during the festival. I had to park the truck in our location four hours before they started to close the streets off. I had to do triple the amount of prep work. My ankles were swollen and I was sleep-deprived. I cried in the corner on the truck like a baby because I was so overwhelmed and stressed out. But it was a huge success. The experience taught me the importance of delegating. I needed to learn to let go, to allow myself time to work on the business while not running every aspect of it. I think 2016 was the first year I was able to start doing that.
In November 2016, we opened a [stall] in Roux Carré, which is a food accelerator [market] that helps small businesses. Now we reserve the truck for festivals, catered events, and parties. Our schedule is always random and unpredictable, and we can get a call to do a job the same day.
What I’ve learned is not to do things too fast. I write down all my ideas, but focus on one thing first and do it well. I want to make Diva Dawg a national brand, develop my own line of sauces and cookware, and even host a TV show. But I will first focus on getting into the airport, then malls. It’s just a feeling I have. With everything that I pursue in life I have a vision first, then I have to bring it to life.
Get That Life is a weekly series that reveals how successful, talented, creative women got to where they are now. Check back each Monday for the latest interview.