Thursday, April 18, 2024

MOFU, mo food, mo fun

From starting their own food truck to starring on a national television show, MOFU Shoppe owners Sophia Woo and Sunny Lin have quite the origin story. The childhood friends opened Pho Nomenal Dumpling Truck in Raleigh in 2014. Within a year of kicking off the business, they were invited to compete on season 6 of Food Network’s The Great Food Truck Race.  After becoming the first all-female team to win the nationally-televised competition, Woo and Lin used their $50,000 prize to help them open up the brick-and-mortar restaurant MOFU Shoppe last August in Raleigh’s City Market. MOFU offers a variety of Asian-inspired dishes including a smoked pork belly bowl, curry chicken pasta, honey sriracha brussel sprouts and pork and chive dumplings. I had a chance to sit down with Sophia recently to talk about their new restaurant and the experiences that led up to its opening.

What made you want to open a food truck in the first place?

[/media-credit] Woo and Lin recruited their high school friend, Becca Plumle, to join them on The Great American Food Truck race since each team is required to have three people.

It was a full-on quarter-life crisis. I wasn’t exactly where I wanted to be before. I didn’t love accounting enough to want to stay in it long term. I convinced Sunny to do it with me. It was something we could do ourselves, create a brand, go in our own direction, do whatever we wanted with it. It was exciting. It was right at the beginning of the food truck craze. In terms of capital, it was a lot less than opening a restaurant. We wanted to take a risk and went for it.

Did you and Sunny do any sort of training before starting the truck?

I grew up watching my mom and grandmother cook. My mom had dinner on the table at 6 p.m. every day, despite the fact that she worked five days a week and got off at 5:30. I don’t know how she did it; she’s just incredible. My grandmother cooked for my whole family for years and years in Taiwan. When I first moved to Raleigh, I lived with two Korean girls and a Vietnamese girl and we were cooking all the time. We are really lucky in this area that there’s a ton of regional food places around. … The food truck community in this area is awesome. It’s very inclusive. Everyone is really helpful when you’re first starting out. A ton of trucks helped us get our feet on the ground.

How much money does it take to start a food truck?

[/media-credit] Woo and Lin hand-built a large portion of their food truck, Pho Nomenal Dumpling, relying heavily on YouTube tutorials.

On Kickstarter, we raised a little over $17,000. In terms of putting the whole food truck together, it was closer to just under $40,000. And that’s a conservative estimate. We found this truck in this guy’s backyard on Craigslist, and his wife was like, “Please get this thing out of my yard.” A lot of the truck we built ourselves, with a lot of [help from] YouTube and a very dear friend of ours. Every weekend, we were out there building the truck.

How did you get cast on The Great American Food Truck Race?

It was a cold call from Food Network. The show’s premise is that it’s the best food truck in America. They find food trucks from all over the country. … I thought it was a prank call, so at first, I hung up on them. … When they called, we had just finished up our first year of business. It was a tough year, Sunny and I almost quit several times. Every other truck on the show had been around far longer than us. We were a little bit intimidated at first. No all-girl team had ever won the show before. And we had only been in business for so long.

What was the experience like?

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Strangely enough, you get used to it really fast. You’re mic’d up, there’s a camera on you all the time. It’s so weird, reality TV. You’re in the real world, but all of the sudden you’re in a condensed version of the real world with all these arbitrary rules of what you can and can’t do, and very specific rules to the game and a very specific goal. When you’re in that, everything seems to get blown out of proportion. I had to keep reminding myself that it was just a TV show, it’s not the end of the world. Your stress level does rise. If you want no control over your life for a couple of weeks, reality TV is an excellent way to go. … But the show really opened our eyes to how much bigger we could dream. The other trucks on the show and the people we met were super inspiring.

Did you always plan to open up a brick-and-mortar restaurant?

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That was not the plan from the beginning. The plan was to have our own food truck and have our own business and run it, and connect with our community and have some fun at the same time. I think that deep down inside, maybe every food truck dreams it would be really nice to be brick and mortar someday, and not dealing with the elements like AC and heat everyday. There’s a lot of things you can do in a restaurant that you can’t do in a food truck. If you think about how a food truck runs, people are waiting for their food, so a lot of things you are just finishing. A lot of food is prepared beforehand. … There’s so many more things we can do with the standalone kitchen than with the food truck. It was a far off dream until the show, then we started dreaming bigger.

What has it been like running your own restaurant after being on the show and originally having a food truck?

When the restaurant first opened, the first people that came in were the ones that followed us on the show. It’s slowly transitioning to people who have no idea who we are, no idea about the truck, no idea about the show, which is awesome too because they end up finding out and saying, “Oh I have to go watch that!” We are now building a reputation as a restaurant instead of just relying on our story from before. Although it’s pretty cool to have an origin story. … And in Raleigh and North Carolina in general, people have a strong sense of loyalty. There’s a lot of buy-local mentality. I don’t know if that’s something that happens everywhere, but it feels especially strong here.

Why the name MOFU Shoppe?

[/media-credit] MOFU Shoppe displays a different local artist’s work every month on the walls of the restaurant.

Fu means fortune in Chinese. The “shoppe” part comes from the fact that this building actually used to be a car shop. The name MOFU… it just sounds like more fortune, more food, more fun, all the things that we really care about here. It just sort of fell in place.

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