I’m a chef who started my own food cart with my husband just before the pandemic – here’s how we’ve stayed open successfully

Lissette Morales Willis Tim and Lissette both worked as professional chefs before starting the Poppyseed food cart.
Tim and Lissette both worked as professional chefs before starting the Poppyseed food cart. Lissette Morales Willis
  • Lissette Morales Willis, 33, is a chef and food-cart owner based in Portland, Oregon.
  • She and her husband opened their food cart Poppyseed in January 2020 to make fine-dining foods more accessible.
  • This is what her job is like, as told to freelance writer Molly O’Brien.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

This as-told-to essay is based on a transcribed conversation with Lissette Morales Willis, a food cart owner based in Portland, Oregon. It has been edited for length and clarity.

I grew up in Rubidoux, California, where there weren’t a lot of fine dining options. My parents worked a lot, so in high school I started taking on the responsibility of cooking our dinners.

At 23, I began a cooking apprenticeship at The 10th Restaurant, a seasonal restaurant at a mountaintop resort in Vail, Colorado. There, I met my husband, Tim, and we both experienced “fancy” food for the first time. It became our dream to share that feeling and make fine dining more accessible, instead of intimidating and expensive.

As an apprentice, I got assigned to pastry. Tim and I decided to move to Chicago so I could do culinary training at a pastry school there. There, we worked as “stagiaires,” gigging for a week or a month at a time at various Michelin Star restaurants.

In September 2017, we moved to Portland and continued working in restaurants. We always had the idea of starting a food cart, with me on pastry and Tim doing savory foods.

We got our cart in September 2019 and kept it in storage for a few months while prepping and outfitting it to cook.

Lissette Morales Willis
. Lissette Morales Willis

The cart itself cost $US30,000 ($AU41,255), so we did our best to be thrifty and buy equipment from Craigslist, Goodwill, and used kitchen equipment warehouses. As a food vendor, getting operating permits was also a lengthy process. In January 2020 we moved it to the Killingsworth Station Food Cart pod for inspection, and officially opened on January 16.

We both love the outdoors, so it’s great to run an open-air dining experience. The food pod scene is also a fun place to hang out and get to know our community. Since Killingworth will be developed into an apartment complex over the next few years, we’re preparing to move to Hinterland Bar and Carts this December.

Owning and running food cart comes with unique challenges.

Lissette Morales Willis
Poppyseed’s Coconut Peach Ring Panna Cotta dessert and Honey Cake dessert. Lissette Morales Willis

Tim and I have a 3-year-old son, and finding reliable childcare can be tough. We don’t have any family or super close friends here in Portland, and the closest daycare is about 45 minutes from the food truck. Depending on business, we pay for childcare one or two days a week so we can work together. Otherwise, Tim works on the truck 60+ hours while I take care of our son, and I work doing prep during non-service hours.

Being a woman cook, the most difficult part for me sometimes is getting the same respect from customers as Tim does. When a customer is unhappy, I try to remind myself that everyone has different culinary tastes. But as a chef, you’re doing this to make people happy, so it’s hard not to take feedback personally.

Our day-to-day tasks on the cart include doing a lot of dishes.

Lissette Morales Willis
. Lissette Morales Willis

Each day begins with making a list of items we need to pick up before going to the cart, which often includes stops at farmers markets, purveyors, supply stores, and bakeries.

At the cart, we unload, unpack, put away the supplies, and assess what needs to be made. Before we start cooking, we fill the three compartment sinks, put away dishes that dried overnight, turn on the gas, light the pilots, and get to work.

There isn’t much room to do more than one task at a time without cleaning up, so we spend a lot of time doing dishes. At the end of the day, Tim brings our son Eliah and I go back to being “Mom” while he takes over.

Our first week of business was rough – we didn’t make enough to even pay the gas bill.

Poppyseed's Breaded Tenderloin Sandwich. Lissette Morales Willis
Poppyseed’s Breaded Tenderloin Sandwich. Lissette Morales Willis

It takes time to start making money, and the pandemic didn’t help. In the first three months of 2020, we brought in a little over $US2,000 ($AU2,750). A big part of that was because about $US1,200 ($AU1,650) a month was going to daycare. Since then, there’s been a slow but progressive increase in business.

As a small business owner, I’ve learned the importance of being flexible and understanding. A schedule is really just a “guideline” for your day or week – and if something doesn’t get done, you can get it done the next day. Every day we can learn something new. We’ve definitely made mistakes, but we don’t hold them over ourselves or against one another.

In the future we want to still be cooking with as little between us and the outdoors as possible. We don’t know what that will look like but we want to establish close relationships with farms and local resources to be part of a strong community network.