They’re a concert and festival staple with lines seemingly stretching for miles.
But when the music stopped playing and events abruptly halted last year, business looked far different for food truck operators. That economic impact was also felt by Chef Units, a Houston-based manufacturer of food trucks, trailers and carts.
“For us, January and February are always slower months,” said Marco Novo, Chef Units’ owner. “In March, things usually pick up. But things extended for us for the worse from January to May last year. We had just one month’s worth of sales in five months.”
Add the expense of a food truck theft from their shop, and 2020 was a year Novo hopes to never repeat. But this isn’t the first challenge Chef Units has overcome, thanks to support from a trusted partner: PeopleFund, a community development financial institution (CDFI) that’s supported by Regions as it advances small businesses across Texas.
“Last year, PeopleFund deployed more than $16 million in loans and almost $8 million in grants helping 1,500 small businesses across Texas,” said Gustavo Lasala, PeopleFund’s president and CEO. “We also provided 28,000 hours of free technical assistance and distributed 100,000 free masks to help small- business owners protect their clients and employees. Activity has ramped up even more so far in 2021, with the first quarter being our most impactful to date in disbursing $13.3 million in loans to help 560 small businesses.”
PeopleFund itself has community partners that help make it all happen. A $100,000 grant from the Regions Foundation, a nonprofit initiative of Regions Bank, was issued during the height of the pandemic to support relief for entrepreneurs like Novo.
“The work PeopleFund has been doing to support Texas small businesses is absolutely vital,” said Marta Self, executive director of the Regions Foundation. “Beyond financial assistance, the training and resources they continue to provide are helping their clients emerge stronger. This is what the Regions Foundation is about – removing barriers to success and helping move communities and businesses forward.”
Novo first turned to PeopleFund for support following another disaster: Hurricane Harvey.
“We reached out for an emergency loan in 2018,” he recalled.
The experience exceeded his expectations – so much so, he immediately began referring other entrepreneurs.
“They were great,” Novo said. “They understand small business better than anyone.”
So, when COVID-19 changed everything, Novo knew PeopleFund would be a source of strength. Lasala stressed the importance of assuring entrepreneurs they can turn to the organization for support in good times and in bad.
“Unexpected things happen all the time, and many businesses fail because of this kind of misfortune,” said Lasala. “A key part of our value proposition is working with clients to ensure they are successful even in these circumstances. If a business owner has the will and the business is viable, we help them so their situation is just a bump and not the end of the road.”
The road for Novo began in 2001 when he traveled from Mexico to Texas to pursue a college degree. He was a civil engineering major. But he was interested in something different.
“I always knew I wanted to own my own business,” he said.
Creative inspiration struck from a friend in Austin who owned a food trailer and a friend in Mexico who owned a metal shop. The food truck idea was born.
Novo began designing and building trucks in 2011, launching Chef Units in 2017. Today, he and his team of five tackle customized designs and builds for clients, which include celebrity chef Curtis Stone. Novo encourages clients to be part of the design process with Chef Units’ 3D virtual software, the only kind in the industry, he said.
While this has been a challenging time for restaurants, Novo noted the food industry is resilient and resourceful. That’s benefitted Chef Units.
“We’ve seen some restaurants going to the food truck model to reduce their rent costs,” said Novo. “Bars are also using food trucks or trailers to create safe, outside social areas.”
During last year’s slower time, Novo and team cross-trained to learn new skills, something they never previously had time to do. The result? A more efficient business and stronger bonds.
“We asked ourselves, ‘How can we improve the business during this crisis?’” said Novo. “It’s about trying to find value, even in a crisis. That’s the key.”
Novo has also spent time developing online sessions for restaurant owners that he’s co-presented with PeopleFund.
“Marco’s presentation was created to offer a place where business owners can ask questions, become informed and ask for help,” said PeopleFund loan officer Cindy Urrutia. “It’s valuable to have him as a referrer and a client. It shows his passion to truly help.”
Novo knows that with support from PeopleFund, he can overcome future challenges, too.
“We had the resources to be able to come through this because of the help,” he said. “It’s made us who we are now.”
Ready for the music to resume and for customers to return – as, once again, people (safely) start lining back up.