Meet the Mom Behind One of Philly’s Most Popular Food Trucks
This former stay-at-home mom found a new sense of purpose when she started logging 16-hour days making crepes. Here’s how she turned her passion into a career, plus her tips for other moms wanting to launch a small business.
With offerings like honey banana, NSB (Nutella, banana, strawberry), and savory picks including General Tso's, complete with chicken, veggies, cheese, and sauce, Virginia Apostolopoulos's food truck—The Crepe Truck Philly—is a foodie's paradise. But, back in 1997 after moving to New Jersey with her family from Greece, she couldn't imagine being a small business owner—she was a busy stay-at-home mom of two.
"I was at home raising our kids, Marialena and Penelope," she says. "My husband was working full-time—two different jobs—and the kids were growing up. Once one of the kids started school, I got a part-time job in the food industry."
Her love affair with eats didn't stop there. The role afforded her much-appreciated flexibility to be home in the afternoons to meet her girls at the school bus drop-off. Once her daughters got a little older, Apostolopoulos's schedule freed up a bit. When it came time for both of them to go to college, she was ready to take on a new challenge, and also wanted to help lighten the girls' financial load. That's when, in March 2013, her husband approached her with an idea.
"He had come home from work one day and and he goes, 'Guess what? There's a food truck that's going up for sale,'" she recalls. "He added, "And you know, I think it would be a great opportunity for us to buy it."
Apostolopoulos was frightened. Despite having experience working at a local pizza restaurant, she was well aware of the challenges that would come with this new opportunity.
"I went to go see it three times," she explains, adding that the truck was a pre-established business for sale. "It's very hard to walk into someone else's business. I knew it would be a lot of hours and a totally different ballgame than working in a restaurant kitchen where you've got big space, a big kitchen—big everything."
By the end of August 2013, Apostolopoulos had taken out a loan against their house and she was all-in on the truck, despite the hefty 45-minute commute—each direction. Within six long weeks of flipping crepes and getting into the groove with her new staff, everything started to click.
"Since my parents are Greek, we made—and still make—crepes all the time," she says. "I made them here in the U.S. for my kids growing up, but that's not the same as making hundreds for college students on any given day."
Soon, the phone calls were coming in asking for The Crepe Truck Philly to pop up at other local events: weddings, graduations, birthdays. The demand was real, and the up-front risks began to pay off. As time went on, Apostolopoulos contributed half the funds for each daughter's college tuition.
"My family was really happy, firstly, that I was enjoying what I was doing," she says. "And second of all, they were so grateful that I could help them out with the college costs."
It's this family-focused sentiment that buoys the business during the most difficult times. Recently, the business was hit due to current state social-distancing directives. Stationed close to Temple University in Philadelphia, the food truck lost its normal foot traffic of students who are currently studying from home. Other spring events have been postponed due to the restrictions on large gatherings.
But through it all, Apostolopoulos maintains a realistic, optimistic perspective. "We are all in this together and basically everyone more or less is struggling with what's happening," she says. "Hopefully it will only push [the business] back a couple of years and we can pick up where we left off, as long as we have our health."
In business—and in life—Apostolopoulos recommends to expect the unexpected. "I believe nothing in life goes as planned and not everything can be perfect. If you really want to achieve something or make it happen, you have to stick together and make it work," she says.
Outside of the current circumstances, The Crepe Truck Philly functions as a family business—daughter, Penelope, has worked full-time by her side for the past two years. Marialena chips in sometimes too.
"We work together, and I'd say my mom does more than the average mom," Penelope says. "She's always been that mom that goes above and beyond. She's a boss, and I don't think I could do this without her."
"I spent a lot of time being there for my kids when they were young," reflects Apostolopoulos. "The school sports, after-school activities. Now I'm working 16 hours a day. My secret to operating a successful business, making time for it all, and not failing? I skip out on watching TV," she jokes.
Hoping to start a small business of your own? Here, Apostolopoulos offers up some of the biggest lessons she's learned building hers from the ground up:
1. You have to make sacrifices to succeed: Outside of the time away from her husband, Apostolopoulos had to make some hard decisions for the betterment of her business. That included taking out a secondary loan. "I wasn't scared necessarily," she says. "I knew we shouldn't be afraid to reinvest in our business. So I decided that we needed a secondary loan to buy our new truck. I wanted to take it a step up. I wanted to take it to the next level."
2. Think long-term: For Apostolopoulos, she's running a business that, like many others, has a busy season. This means that she needs to think of her revenue holistically and prepare for the lower traffic months. "You have to be careful to budget for the year as a whole," she says.
3. Remember your priorities: It's important to give yourself to your business. But at the end of the day, remember your "why." Often times, the business is a means to an end, says Apostolopoulos. "I'm doing this job to help my kids, and I'm loving my job," she adds. "But at the end of the day, my first priority is my girls."
4. Reward yourself for your hard work: Reflecting on the past seven years, Apostolopoulos is grateful for her time in the truck. She also knows that it's important to step away once in a while. Her family of four did just that on a well-deserved trip to Europe two years ago, stopping in Belgium and Amsterdam. "It was the best feeling, contributing to that trip," she says. "I hope that I'm a role model for my girls, so they can see what hard work can bring."