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Napa County couple shifts to food trucks after pandemic restaurant closure

When Petaluma’s Wine or Lose Board Game Cafe succumbed almost 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 hadn’t planned on.

In August 2021, the Karases purchased and began operating Trader Jim’s, a small food truck that travels around Sonoma County serving up pineapple Dole whips and floats at farmers markets and private events.

“We have been fans of Trader Jim's for years,” Amanda Karas said. “For our wedding (in 2018), I wanted to get Craig a surprise dessert and hired Trader Jim's to cater pineapple whips for our reception. We made a joke about how if they ever decided to sell, that we should buy it, and the rest is history.”

The Karases, who live in Napa County, bought Trader Jim’s from Lauren and Travis Huhn, who had decided to move out of the area last year.

Lauren Huhn said the Karases’ love of the Trader Jim’s business and product she witnessed at the couple’s wedding left her feeling like the company would be in good hands.

“We had built up a fairly foolproof business, so almost anybody could run it, but we knew Amanda and Craig would keep it up to the standard people have grown to expect with Trader Jim’s,” Lauren Huhn told the Business Journal in an email statement. “Our entire 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 Karases declined to disclose the outright purchase price of Trader Jim’s, but said that between both of their food trucks, they spent roughly $150,000. The couple had poured $250,000 into their former restaurant, which opened in August 2019 and permanently closed at the end of July 2020.

The Karases’ second food truck business was already starting to take shape as the couple was shuttering their restaurant.

The Happy Frenchie food truck will be debuting later this year, rolling into Napa, Sonoma and Solano counties. (courtesy of Amanda Karas)
The Happy Frenchie food truck will be debuting later this year, rolling into Napa, Sonoma and Solano counties. (courtesy of Amanda Karas)

The Happy Frenchie — named after their French bulldog, Meeko — will be the couple’s bread and butter once it’s up and running 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 mascot, though she now also has a sibling. The couple recently adopted another French bulldog, named Scout, said Amanda Karas.

The Happy Frenchie truck is currently going through health inspections but also is caught in the supply chain woes, as the couple’s mechanic awaits a needed part, Craig Karas said.

It would be easy to think operating a food truck is simpler than running a restaurant, but Craig Karas said there are notable differences, with flexibility being a key advantage to having a food truck.

For example, the couple takes Trader Jim’s mostly to farmers markets, but they choose which ones and on what days, depending on their individual schedules.

That flexibility also allows them to be nimble as they continue to work their steady jobs — for now.

“Eventually, we want to be self-sufficient and work for ourselves,” Amanda Karas said, adding that was the goal when they opened Wine or Lose.

Craig Karas, who has been in the restaurant business for more than 25 years, including working as a fine-dining chef, is currently a consulting chef at Brasswood in St. Helena. Amanda Karas is the director of marketing for Visit Fairfield.

One main commonality between restaurants and food trucks is that both need a place to prepare the food, Craig Karas said.

“We still need a commissary kitchen. That is one of the requirements for a food truck, so you do still need to rent some space somewhere or have your own restaurant,” he said. “It’s definitely not the overhead a brick and mortar is, but you don’t completely escape it.”

That commissary kitchen will be needed for both food truck operations, Amanda Karas said.

Meanwhile, staffing is a hurdle that food trucks can’t cross any easier than a restaurant. In fact, Amanda Karas said they are going to have to meet or exceed compensation for the Happy Frenchie that a worker might expect at a restaurant.

The Karases, however, may have a leg up on hiring. On a food truck, all staffers interact with guests, so everyone shares in the tip pool, unlike in a restaurant, Craig Karas said.

The couple is currently running Trader Jim’s on their own but will likely end up staffing both food trucks.

One of the biggest downsides of operating a food truck — at least these days, anyway — is the rising cost of gas. In the Bay Area, the average price of gas as of June 22 is more than $6.50 a gallon, according to AAA.

“We have slightly adjusted our expectations on what we can assume to make from going out because of the gas prices, so it definitely hits our bottom line directly,” Amanda Karas said. “We've had requests as far south as San Jose for Trader Jim’s, but it's just so far that monetarily with the gas prices, it doesn't make sense for us to travel that far.”

Speaking of inflationary costs, whether operating a restaurant or a food truck, there is no getting around supply chain headaches.

“I've already been reaching out to people (for the Happy Frenchie) and there's definitely suppliers who just aren’t taking on any more clients because they can't produce enough to satisfy the people they are currently vending to,” Craig Karas said. “Getting simple things like celery or to-go boxes … the suppliers are having trouble being consistent with that.”

Having to work with different suppliers also means variances in prices, “but at this point, you kind of have to take what you can get,” he added.

“For Trader Jim’s, we're definitely buying in larger quantities than we normally would,” Craig Karas said, “because when you can get the product, you just buy as much as you can afford.”

The couple also hasn’t ruled out opening another restaurant someday, if they can find the right opportunity, Amanda Karas said.

“We just love interacting with people and making them happy. That was the main thing we loved about Wine or Lose,” she said, adding their focus right now is to make sure their food truck operations are successful. “We still have all of our board games and are trying to figure out what the next iteration of that (type of restaurant) might look like.”

Cheryl Sarfaty covers tourism, hospitality, health care and education. She previously worked for a Gannett daily newspaper in New Jersey and NJBIZ, the state’s business journal. Cheryl has freelanced for business journals in Sacramento, Silicon Valley, San Francisco and Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from California State University, Northridge. Reach her at cheryl.sarfaty@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4259.


Update, June 27, 2022: Craig and Amanda Karas live in Napa County.

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