The Exploding Popularity of a Vegan Food Truck with The Cinnamon Snail’s Adam Sobel

May 7, 2014

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good and we’re so honored to have with us today Adam Sobel. He’s the Founder and the Chef of Cinnamon Snail and you can check him out at cinnamonsnail.com. Welcome to Green is Good, Adam Sobel. ADAM SOBEL: Yeah, thanks a lot for having me. Really excited to be here with you. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Hey Adam, I’m so excited to have you on because, as my listeners know, I’m 100% vegan. I’m a huge fan of yours. I eat your food whenever I’m in town and whenever I can and your food just rocks. It isn’t just good. It’s the truth. Adam, before we get to talking about your amazing food truck and your brand that you’ve created, and the following that you’ve created, can you please share the Adam Sobel story? You’re so young. You’ve accomplished so much already. How did you even get here? What’s the journey and your back story leading up to this? ADAM SOBEL: I had a family really super young and when I met my wife, I was still in high school and she was vegan and I wasn’t and more and more, I found myself really agreeing with her reasons for eating that way and beyond that, she was really eating a horrible diet. She was one of these French fries and canned soup kind of vegans and I was really determined. I learned how to cook so that she could eat great food and I found myself spending my time in Barnes and Nobles trying to copy down recipes that I tried to make vegan and doing a lot of experimentation and so to take it a step further, I started working in restaurants and kind of worked in lots of different restaurants, everything from doing prep work to management and line cooking and chef and stuff so then eventually I had been working at this restaurant in New Jersey that kind of closed abruptly after it changed hands and we were closing on a house that very week and because I had been paid off the books, I wasn’t going to be seeing any unemployment or anything and I knew I had to do something really fast to have income and I started doing some private cheffing and me and my wife did a stand at the Red Bank, New Jersey farmers market, which was where we were living, and that kind of became so popular that eventually, we were able to scrape together what we needed to fulfill my lifelong dream of having my own vegan food truck and we really wanted to do it, at that point for about eight years. There’s always a lot of hoops that you have to jump through and there’s a lot of expense in starting it and it was finally the time that I was ready to take that on and it went from there. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And what year did you start the food truck? ADAM SOBEL: The truck launched on Valentine’s Day 2010, so just over four years ago. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So your story on becoming one of the top vegan chefs in the United States is really a love story? ADAM SOBEL: Totally. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Unbelievable! ADAM SOBEL: It still remains that way. I’m still trying to learn to cook better just so I can make better food for my family and also for the world. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is so amazing. That’s a great story. Let’s talk about 2010 to now so you started the food truck so now you have four years of history. Talk a little bit about running and before we even get into that, I’ve just got to do a little bit of shameless plugs for you, Adam, because this is the God’s honest truth. It’s just not my opinion that you run one of the greatest food trucks in America and that your food is the yummiest in the planet. On Yelp, you’re the number one place to eat in New York City. On Yelp, you’re the number four place in the United States. Adam, this is just incredible, what you’ve done and that’s just one ratings agency. You’ve done amazing things here in four short years. ADAM SOBEL: Yeah, it’s really come a long way and it’s certainly not like I had a lot of help that’s it’s blossomed into what it is. It also started out super super humbly, mostly just myself on the truck for the first three quarters of a year because it was pretty slow in the beginning and it took a lot of work. I would get up at maybe two in the morning and bake all our pastries and then drive the truck up to Hoboken and cook on the truck all day and come back and clean the truck myself and it was like that for a long time and by the end of the first year, we had a whole army of employees and now it’s like a whole army of people. We have this huge kitchen that we can prepare everything and it’s fantastic. It makes everything a lot easier. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You deserve it and the army is on my side of the street so when I wait in line, I feel like I’m in an army mess camp because the lines are down the block waiting to eat your food and, by the way, the lines are so worth it. I don’t care, I just bring my iPad or my cell phone and I’ll do a little work while I’m waiting on line because your food is that worth while. ADAM SOBEL: What I hear is the demeanor online is pretty happy. People are not really pissed to be waiting in a line that long and that’s such a blessing. I know so many of our customers aren’t yet vegans and we get talking with one another about what’s their favorite thing to have and that’s kind of part of the purpose, bringing this food out into the community and getting it to people who aren’t yet vegans to check it out and they can fill in the blanks as to why we eat vegan food. It’s great. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So you started on the truck so this is four years ago so now you have a lot of history and you just shared some of the real humble beginnings, which is so nice for other entrepreneurs who are our listeners to listen to because the bottom line is any beginning as an entrepreneurs, for the great ones, it’s always so humbling. It’s so humbling in so many ways and it continues to be humbling because there’s always peril, there’s always mistakes, there’s always hurdles, and the journey is a humbling one but talk a little bit about food trucks because it’s so fascinating when I’m waiting on line and I finally make it to the grand window and you get to look in a little bit. You see little glimmers of what’s going on and sort of the magic behind the scenes. What are some of the misconceptions about running a successful food trucks? ADAM SOBEL: Right so it’s actually a business that a lot of people don’t understand. There’s actually this idea that food trucks are a super low overhead business and we can just park anywhere and things are really really easy for us and it’s absolutely every nightmare a restaurant has to deal with plus every nightmare a trucking company has to deal with. It’s complicated but certainly there is a lot of overhead in it. It may be a lower startup than a restaurant but we still have a huge expensive kitchen we have to rent to do all of our prep work in, which is about 7,000 dollars a month. We have to obtain a permit for the truck, which isn’t available through the city and you have to pay basically through a black market. You rent it for upwards of 20,000 dollars every two years and then when everything’s said and done and you’ve got your truck up and running, in New York City, there’s really technically nowhere that we’re allowed to vend from. Neighborhoods that didn’t like food trucks going there got together and resurrected this kind of turn-of-the-century law that read something like, ‘no pedaling of merchandise from a metered location,’ and they went up to the New York Superior Court and had the New York definition of the word merchandise changed to include food so now, wherever we’re parked, it’s kind of a gamble as to whether or not police will come that day and make us move and we really have no recourse about it. Unfortunately, as of a few years ago, all food trucks in New York City are kind of technically breaking the law by operating whatsoever so it’s real tough. We have all this high overhead and a very perishable product. We make fresh donuts every day and all these things that we’re not going to sell the next day if they don’t sell and we’re kicked out of our spot by the police or what have you or our engine breaks down on the way into Midtown or all these fun things that restaurants don’t have to worry about. We have a lot of product that can go to waste and so it’s super tough. It’s a lot tougher than people realize. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Just as a social statement, I love the New York City Police Department. I recognize how hard their job is and I think they do an amazing job protecting us and serving us in the greater New York City area but here’s just my little social statement for the day. Catch the bad guys. Leave the good guys, like Adam Sobel, who are feeding our tummies, alone. ADAM SOBEL: It’s not the police’s fault. It’s really part of New York’s kind of convoluted system of laws that are kind of selectively enforced when they need to be and it’s really kind of frustrating trying to figure out as we go along how that works. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I gotcha. For our listeners who just joined us, Adam Sobel, who’s on with us today, he’s the founder, the chef, he’s the prince of vegan food in the United States. It’s www.cinnamonsnail.com. Adam, why a truck, not a restaurant, now that you’re four years into it? Think about that. ADAM SOBEL: Yeah, we could make our lives so much easier and have so many fewer headaches by opening a restaurant and people beg us to all the time and maybe one day we will also have a brick and mortar location but really the whole point for me is to bringing vegan food into the street, where it’s right in front of somebody’s office and they see this huge line and they can see all of our exciting pastries. People who might not go into a vegan restaurant because of this stigma that they have about it are willing to check it out and really, it really brings vegan food to people who would never otherwise check it out and so that’s why I think it’s so important to keep on with it. It’s really kind of a form of activism. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s a great point. How can a vegan or a non vegan resist a food truck that has a line that’s down the block? Your mind and your heart and your stomach are telling you you’ve got to try and it and I’ve made so many vegan and non vegan friends on your lines and once they bite into the food, it’s so much fun to see the look on their face and their eyes and their smile and that’s the great thing. You’re converting those that would never have had the opportunity to be converted so it’s really good. ADAM SOBEL: It’s super gratifying work to do and I’ve worked in so many vegan restaurants and serving primarily vegan and vegetarian people is nice and I love serving vegan people, of course, but I love doing something that could potentially change the way our civilization treats animals. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Talk a little bit about the truck. Is there another truck in the offing? That’s the rumor that I’ve read on your social media. Is that going to happen in the near future? ADAM SOBEL: That’s been kind of in the works for a little while and the new truck was 95 percent done before the winter hit and then it’s really been too cold for them to finish up the last five percent of it and they’re finishing it now and probably by the early summer, it will be ready to go. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That will be so exciting to have two trucks on the streets at all times. Wow, good for you. Good for all of us, actually. We’ll have double the chances of catching a Cinnamon Snail meal, all your fans and your soon-to-be fans. Since this is a love story, Adam, and in many ways the start of this business and the continuing of this business with your wife, what is her favorite food that you cook right now? ADAM SOBEL: Wow. My wife and my older daughter, Ittels, who’s now 12, they’re both really into the Korean Barbecue Seitan I make. We make our own kimchi forest, that’s made with heirloom radishes and cabbage and lots of Korean ground chili and it’s kind of one of our signature dishes on the truck and they love that. JOHN SHEGERIAN: What’s your favorite? ADAM SOBEL: I also really love that one. We do a Thai Barbecue Tempeh but we do it on a really nice gluten free bread that’s available and I try to not each so much gluten myself and it’s excellent. The marinade for it has Thai basil and lemongrass and ginger and chilies and there’s these smoked chili roasted peanuts on it and kind of like a sriracha mayo and arugula and pickled Thai basil and onions on it and it’s a nice medley of spicy Thai-inspired flavors. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You mentioned earlier about bringing the food to people who would not necessarily go into a vegan or a vegetarian restaurant. Talk a little bit about your personal spiritual mission and purposes behind Cinnamon Snail, more than just the food. ADAM SOBEL: I think in the condition this world is in right now, it’s really the responsibility of our generation to start influencing the mainstream culture to be kinder to one another and be kinder to animals and the planet so that’s super essential. Beyond what we do in trying to get people who are not vegetarian or vegan to eat this way more, we’re also a huge corporate sponsor of the Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, New York, which takes animals from abusive factory/farm-type situations and gives them a really pleasant place to live out the rest of their life in peace and does a lot of education and legal work surrounding animal rights. Last year, we donated 18,000 dollars to them, which was awesome. What we do is we have a tip jar on our truck that just goes to the Farm Sanctuary and that money was kind of all handed over primarily from our customers, which was amazing and it’s really beautiful to see people care that way so we do stuff like that. We do as much outreachey stuff as we can feasibly do. An example was, when Hurricane Sandy hit, we took our truck to Queens and to Staten Island to some pretty bad areas where they had had really bad damage there and people didn’t have power and it was freezing and we gave out free meals for weeks and stuff, again, showing off the kindness of our customer base. So many people donated to allow us to keep doing that. We only thought we were going to be able to do it a couple of times and then so many of our customers stepped up and kind of put together a PayPal account for us and thousands of dollars were donated so that we could continue doing it for weeks and it was so nice. Aside from fulfilling the immediate need people needed for warm food, those were neighborhoods that really felt forgotten about at that time. They weren’t really getting FIMA there or a lot of aid and it meant so much to them that people hadn’t forgotten about them and it was super sweet. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is really nice. Farm Sanctuary, for our listeners out there, Adam’s so correct and it’s nice to hear your mission and spiritual purpose behind Cinnamon Snail. The Farm Sanctuary is a great organization. For our listeners that are so inclined, they’re a great organization to support. They do great work and if you can, please support them if it fits into your budget and in your heart. Adam, is there any food cookbook in the making one day? ADAM SOBEL: Yeah, so I’ve been working on a book for a while and I’m actually just now in kind of the final editing stage and we’re starting on photography for it next week. Kay Lewis is doing the photography. She does stuff for VegNews and lots of other veg books and it’s going to be a really exciting book. It’s going to be published by Carson Potter and it has a ton of recipes for things that are on the truck and all kinds of interesting creative things that we really can’t execute on the truck because of space and whatnot and it’s got a whopping wonderful donut chapter in it that teaches you how to make vegan donuts and lots of kind of fun, behind-the-scenesy stories of all of the silliness and craziness we’ve dealt with in the last four years. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You know, I’m just going to have to share one of my most embarrassing secrets. One day, I said, ‘I’m not going to eat any food at all except I’m going to go to the Cinnamon Snail truck, buy every one of your donuts, and throughout the day, have noshes on each type of donut as the day went on,’ and that’s how I spent my whole day, working and having slices of each of your different types of amazing donuts and sweets all day and I’ll tell you what; each one was better than the next. Your regular food is just yummier than heck but your delicious sweet treats that you make on your truck are also. Talk a little bit about that. ADAM SOBEL: I think they kind of serve as the gateway drug for a lot of people to be influenced because for weeks, we’ll have people who just come and get a donut and coffee in the morning and then after weeks, they start getting curious about the other food and I’ve been told by certain people that they became totally vegan that way, just first checking and stopping for dessert. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s okay. Whatever way you can get them is good, right? I said at the top of the show, Yelp number one place to eat in New York City, number four in the America, Mobile Cuisine favorite vegetarian food truck by BuzzFeed, New York Post, Vendy Awards, Huffington Post, just amazing awards here and there. I just don’t want to focus on New York for a second. You also just won an award in New Jersey. ADAM SOBEL: Yeah, that’s right because we also serve New Jersey and we just moved our kitchen kind of base to Brooklyn and we’ll still continue serving New Jersey this year but yeah, we got voted the number one food truck in New Jersey and it’s been great. It’s so exciting to see the general public who eats at food trucks are so, a lot of them are really into street meat itself and to get to accolades like that against other food trucks that aren’t even vegetarian is a really big deal and really brings a lot of attention to vegetarianism and veganism. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Well, Adam, you bring a lot of attention to vegetarianism and veganism. We’re going to have you back again. For our listeners out there, www.cinnamonsnail.com and also support the Farm Sanctuary. Adam Sobel, thank you for serving some of the best food ever in the United States, New York, and New Jersey. You are the prince chef of vegan food and truly living proof that green is good.