When Petaluma’s Wine or Lose Board Game Café succumbed nearly two years ago to the pandemic, owners Craig and Amanda Karas were grieving but also planning their next venture.
Today, they own two food truck businesses – one they didn’t anticipate.
In August 2021, the Karas purchased and began operating Trader Jim’s, a small food truck that travels around Sonoma County and serves Dole pineapple whips and floats at farmers’ markets and private events.
“We’ve been Trader Jim’s fans for years,” said Amanda Karas. “For our wedding (in 2018), I wanted to treat Craig to a surprise dessert and hired Trader Jim’s to make pineapple whips for our reception. We made a joke that if they decided to sell, we should buy it, and the rest is history.
The Karas, who live in Napa County, bought Trader Jim’s from Lauren and Travis Huhn, who decided to leave the area last year.
Lauren Huhn said the Karas’ love of the Trader Jim business and product that she witnessed at the couple’s wedding left her feeling the business would be in good hands.
“We had built a pretty foolproof company, so almost anyone could run it, but we knew Amanda and Craig would keep it at the level that people expect with Trader Jim’s,” Lauren Huhn told The Business Journal in a press release by e-mail. . “Our whole family enjoyed Wine or Lose and the creative concept, so we knew they could continue to bring fun and fresh ideas to Trader Jim’s.”
The Karas declined to disclose the outright purchase price of Trader Jim’s, but said that between their two food trucks, they spent about $150,000. The couple had paid $250,000 into their former restaurant, which opened in August 2019 and closed permanently at the end of July 2020.
The Karases’ second food truck business was already beginning to take shape as the couple closed their restaurant, as they told the Business Journal in March 2021.
The Happy Frenchie – named after their French bulldog, Meeko – will be the couple’s bread and butter once it becomes operational later this year. The truck will travel to Sonoma, Napa and Solano counties, selling comfort food with a French twist at wineries, breweries and events.
Meeko will serve as the mascot, though she now also has a sibling. The couple recently adopted another French bulldog, named Scout, Amanda Karas said.
The Happy Frenchie truck is currently undergoing health inspections but is also caught up in supply chain issues as the couple’s mechanic waits for a needed part, Craig Karas said.
It would be easy to think that operating a food truck is simpler than running a restaurant, but Craig Karas said there are notable differences, with flexibility being a key benefit of having a food truck.
For example, the couple take Trader Jim’s mostly to farmers’ markets, but they choose which ones and which days, based on their individual schedules.
This flexibility also allows them to be nimble while continuing to hold steady jobs – for now.
“Eventually we want to be self-reliant and work for ourselves,” Amanda Karas said, adding that was the goal when they opened Wine or Lose.
Craig Karas, who has worked in the restaurant industry for over 25 years, including as a gourmet chef, is currently a consulting chef at Brasswood in St. Helena. Amanda Karas is Visit Fairfield’s Marketing Director.
One of the main commonalities between restaurants and food trucks is that both need a place to prepare food, said Craig Karas.
“We still need a commissary kitchen. That’s one of the requirements for a food truck, so you always have to rent space somewhere or have your own restaurant,” he said. “It’s definitely not a brick-and-mortar overload, but you don’t completely escape it.”
This police station kitchen will be needed for both food truck operations, said Amanda Karas.
Meanwhile, staffing issues are a hurdle food trucks can’t get past any easier than a restaurant. In fact, Amanda Karas said they were going to have to meet or exceed the compensation for the Happy Frenchie that a worker could expect at a restaurant.
The Karas, however, may have a head start on hiring. In a food truck, all staff members interact with customers, so everyone shares the tip pool, unlike in a restaurant, Karas said.
The couple currently run Trader Jim’s on their own, but will likely eventually hire both food trucks.