Ones to Watch | By Ann Loftin
Kim Ima, a former off-off-Broadway theater performer, has stalkers. Now she’s on 38th Street and 5th Avenue. Now she’s on the Upper West Side. Wherever she goes, the stalkers close in for the kill, salivating. They just have to get one more caramel crème cookie before sundown.
Ima, an adoptive New Yorker from San Diego, baits her stalkers: She Twitters her whereabouts as she tools around the city in her Treats Truck. One of the many advantages of having a mobile cookie business is that she gets not only stalkers, but also fresh mouths to feed wherever she goes. Every day Ima hears the excited cry, “What’s this? Oh, look! A treats truck!” She says, “I don’t think I’ll ever stop appreciating that moment when someone new comes up to the truck.”
New York City has always been a vendors’ battlefield—strewn with chestnuts, hot dogs, pretzels, souvlaki, and snow cones—but only recently has a baked-dessert war been fiercely waged on the streets of Manhattan. Ima’s chief competitor is the Dessert Truck, started in 2007 by Jerome Chang, a former pastry sous-chef from Le Cirque, and his roommate, Chris Chen, a graduate business student at Columbia University.
But where the Dessert Truck offers such culinary exotica as rosemary-caramel goat cheese cheesecakes or chocolate bread pudding topped with bacon crème anglaise, the Treats Truck sticks to the basics: brownies, chocolate chip cookies, peanut butter sandwich cookies, and the like.
And where the Dessert Truck signage, brown and gold with hand-lettering, looks vaguely Parisian, the Treats Truck is unmistakably All-American: a red, white, and blue ’50s retro design, emblazoned with the slogan, “Not Too Fancy, Always Delicious.”
Ima explains how she got started: “I was an actor, but I always did a lot of baking for friends, and one day I just got a vision of a treats truck.” She sought guidance from a friend who had a food distribution business and jumped into the rat’s maze of paperwork and permits and bureaucracy that is New York City’s vending world.
“It took a long time to get that together,” she says, “and then to actually do it—there’s no way you can prepare. It’s not quite the same as having a baby, but on the other hand it’s the least amount of sleep and the most amount of work I’ve ever experienced.”
Ima raised $80,000 in start-up capital and bought a used delivery truck and took it to a place in Brooklyn to retrofit it with a small kitchen, cut a big service window, and make a display case and awning. Another place did the signage, and a graphic designer helped her create the logo and printed materials. Then came the all-important bakery boxes. “I think a lot of cake boxes aren’t sturdy enough,” she says. “So I went to a box company in Queens and we designed thicker boxes that look like a little house with a gabled roof.”
She rented space in a commercial kitchen, retooled the truck to run on compressed natural gas, and hit the streets in June 2007.
The truck was an immediate success, and had it not been for the recession, Ima figures she would have made back her investment by now. Still, she has a shrewd recession-proof strategy. While her competitors charge $5 for a fancy dessert, she sticks to a fundamental transaction: $1, one cookie, no tax. “I like a dollar cookie,” she says. “I know as a customer that’s important. Everybody hates having to root around for change. So I’m going to stick to that.”
She also understands the tacit contract of life in New York City and by extension any urban setting: Where so many aspects of daily life are out of their control (transportation, utilities, etc.), people want their food the way they like it. So, when serving up brownies, she offers a choice: corner, center, or side. New people, surprised and delighted, say “Thank you for asking!” while “the regulars come up, very savvy, saying, “I’ll take a corner pecan.’”
The Treats Truck serves on average 250 people a day. The recession definitely affected business, but not entirely in a bad way, she says. “I started going down to Wall Street last fall because I figured people there needed cookies. I had one person say, ‘We just had a ton of layoffs, can you come and park in front of our building?’”
President: Kim Ima
HQ: New York, New York
Year Started: 2007
Annual Sales: Undisclosed
Total Units: 2
Franchise Units: 0
“Here’s a bad thing, though,” she says. “Sometimes it’s just hard to park. Some neighborhoods aren’t truck-friendly.” Another problem: No bathroom on board. Luckily Ima has vendor friends who will keep an eye on the truck while she darts out.
With a staff of four full-time bakers and two trucks, Ima is poised to expand the business. Already she does a lot of shipping to L.A.—gift boxes from the Treats Truck are especially popular with the bi-coastal theatrical folk with whom she once worked. She gets requests for franchises, but says she would prefer to become a chain. “With a chain you have more control. I would rather have partners.” She points to In-N-Out on the West Coast as a perfect model for her business future. But whatever the future holds, Ima is firm on one point: The truck, with its rear panel slogan, “How’s My Baking?” stays.
“People say, ‘You should have a store,’ but there’s something about a truck that’s very fun,” Ima says. “The truck is at the heart of my business.”