The Seven Pillars of Success: Eric Silverstein

I marvel at really successful people. Those who take their dreams and their happiness into their own hands and make a mark on the world.

Last month, after spending quite a bit of time determining the common traits of truly successful people in some area of their lives, I featured John Donovan’s story about health.

This month I’d like to feature another friend of mine, someone who I greatly admire for taking a huge risk and finding a way to make it pay off: Eric Silverstein of The Peached Tortilla in Austin, Texas.

I’m going to talk about how Eric embodies the following 7 traits when it comes to entrepreneurship:

  1. Courageous
  2. Action-Oriented
  3. Focused
  4. Devoted
  5. Patient
  6. Passionate
  7. Absorbent

Just a little back story: I met Eric around 2004, maybe 2005, through another friend. We got to know each other through our passion for sports, women, and entrepreneurship. And over the years, I realized how much Eric loved food. He’s an excellent cook. So when he started sharing his concept for taking his love of food to the next level, it made perfect sense that he would actually do something about it. Here’s his story, encapsulated by the 7 Pillars. I’m using Eric’s words because his personality comes across really well in the interview, and I’ll follow with commentary in italics.

The Story of The Peached Tortilla 

In early 2009 I had an idea for a modern taco concept that nobody had yet created. At that time, Korean tacos were exploding in LA at the Kogi food truck. This was before Kogi had become a national brand. Also, when I had visited Atlanta, I noticed a a couple of popular restaurants incorporating Southern flavors into tacos. My idea was to incorporate both Asian and Southern flavors into a gourmet taco, fast casual concept. I wanted to put my own unique twist into it, using a lot of flavors that I had grown up eating. I drafted a business plan over the course of 5-6 months, and then in November 2010 started trying to raise money. After spending over 6-8 months raising capital, I decided to start with a food truck with the long term goal of opening a restaurant.

There’s not a whole lot I don’t do when running The Peached Tortilla. When I first started, I did literally everything. I did all the purchasing, payroll, social media, scheduling, day to day operations, bookings, etc. Now, I have taken myself out of the truck and have two managers running my day-to-day operation. I spend the majority of my time focusing on clients, ways to grow the concept, and marketing.

The Peached Tortilla currently has a 4-star rating on Yelp from 117 reviews.

Courageous

I gave up everything to start TPT.  I gave up a six figure job as a lawyer.  I gave up a salary for a year, health insurance, 401K benefits, all my favorite sports teams.  Not to mention all the money I invested into TPT.  You name it.  The only thing I didn’t give up was my girlfriend, my family, and my close friends.

I stood to lose a lot, the largest of which was my reputation.  I didn’t want to be known as the entrepreneur that failed (even though plenty fail).  I felt like people would have looked at me differently if I was the guy who took the leap and fell on his face.

You have to understand something about this when you read that Eric gave up sports. I mean, the job is obvious–he gave up a very secure, high-paying job. But he didn’t do so irresponsibly. He had a plan, he had investors, and he had saved up a lot of money. But sports…Eric used to watch every Atlanta Hawks game, every Atlanta Falcons game, and he spent quite a bit of time on fantasy baseball. If you’re a guy or a sports fan, think how big of a sacrifice it would be to simply give it all up for a bigger dream.

Action-Oriented

I asked Eric for the 3 things that took the most time and effort to learn. His response:

  1. Staffing: it’s very hard to find loyal, competent employees and it has taken me a year to find a strong team.
  2. Branding: Your brand is not built in a day, a week or a month.  It takes thousands of people to taste your food and hundreds of small and large events to get your name out there. You have to chisel away.
  3. Finding Locations: In Austin, you can’t park your food truck on the street – it has to be on private property.  I have learned that it takes a great network for an operator to tap into the best locations for lunch and dinner service. 

Focused

When starting a new business, you’re going to hit an innumerable number of roadblocks. If you’re able to stay focused on the goal and keep going, you have a fighting chances. As Eric puts it:

The entire first year was a roadblock.  In April I was ready to throw in the towel.  I felt like people who I trusted took a dump on me.  I had staff steal from me.  I really felt like I had been kicked to the curb and was depressed at where I was in the process.  I went to sleep one night telling my girlfriend that I was done with the business; and I meant it.  I was ready to put in my 30-day notice to terminate my truck lease.

I never imagined it would be this hard; and I hated talking about it because I put myself in this position.  I was the one who wanted to open the business.

Things have gotten better incrementally since that month.  We won Eater Austin’s Food Truck of the Year for 2011.  We were Austin’s representative at the San Francisco Street Food Festival, cooking next to other out-of-city vendors like Seattle’s Skillet.  Long term, I want walls.  I want a restaurant.  I want to realize my dream from 3 years ago.

Devoted

Staffing is problematic.  I have learned that most people in this industry don’t have much respect for their potential employer.  The modern day hourly employee will quit on a dime without any notice.  Sometimes they won’t even show up for a scheduled interview (this has happened at least 6 times).  There is a severe lack of work ethic.  The more effort I have to spend on staffing, the more it takes my time away from doing things that will make the business more profitable.

Although staffing isn’t a problem in every industry, if you’re starting a new business, you’re going to run into at least one consistent, extremely annoying inconvenience that gets in the way of optimization. But you have to stick with it. The Peached Tortilla doesn’t work without a staff, so although Eric has to commit extra energy to finding good people, he knows it’s worth it.

Patient

It takes time to grow your brand.  Some restaurants explode on the scene, others grow steadily.  David Chang’s original noodle bar was a disaster at first but then he blew up on the scene.  For TPT, it has been a slow and steady ascent.  I never felt like we exploded suddenly.  I feel like all restaurant brands need to give themselves at least a year, if not more, for them to steadily establish themselves.

You can’t go into a startup thinking you’re going to be an overnight success. In fact, with that attitude you’re just setting yourself up for disappointment.

Passionate

TPT is a brand that I have worked on developing for over 3 years.  It’s my baby, and I have poured blood, sweat and tears into it.  Without incredible passion in what you do, you will never, ever be the best at it.  I believe in TPT because I believe we provide a tremendous, unique product that people will want to eat again.

My love of food was shaped by my childhood in Asia and my family.  In other parts of the world, it is less about how big your house is or how many cars you have, and more about great food and great company.  I really do embrace that.

Absorbent

My theory is that you have to constantly be absorbing and applying new knowledge to be a success. No food truck is an island.

I have learned a ton about mobile food over the past year and a half.  But I would stress that each market is different.  LA is different than New York which is different from Austin.  I overestimated the volume you could do in Austin for lunch.  Austin, even with a fairly large downtown workforce, does not boast a very dense population, which hurts food trucks.  Not to mention, there are over 2,000 permitted mobile food vendors.  Also, the parking laws really limit you in Austin.  Austin does not have the population of LA and New York.  I have learned to focus on other revenue streams to help us maintain profitability.

***

Everybody has a dream job. It might change over time, or maybe you have several. Whenever you think of a new dream job, read through these pillars and ask yourself honestly if you have what it takes to be a success in that position or that startup. It’s okay if you don’t–you can always have new dreams. But if you truly embody these traits when it comes to that dream, plan it and execute it. It might be the most satisfying–and successful–thing you’ll ever do.

Thanks, Eric, for sharing your story. I’m in awe of what you do, and I’m jealous of everyone in Austin who gets to eat at The Peached Tortilla.


7 Responses to “The Seven Pillars of Success: Eric Silverstein”

  1. T-Mac says:

    Having watched Eric from pre-TPT through present day, I can say that Eric truly does set the standard for the pillars Jamey lists above. Even though we all knew his venture would face significant challenges along the path to success, I never doubted that he would eventually thrive.

    Congrats, Eric, and I wish you continued success in the future.

  2. Katie says:

    Jamey’s readers: do NOT read The Peached Tortilla’s menu when you still have over two hours until lunch. I can’t even think now, because my stomach wants fish tacos, chinese bbq burritos, crabcake sliders and banana nutella wontons. Yum!

    Eric: Assuming you’ll be taking a look at the blog today, I have some questions about your amazing story. Why Austin? Did you have any kind of culinary background or training before starting this endeavor, or were you just a foodie in your spare time? Was this something you’d always wanted to do, or did it just hit you one day? Are you planning the same type of menu for your restaurant one day, or are you going to stick with what works? Sorry for all of the questions, but I’m really curious, and I really admire your ambition and courage to do this! I think it’s great!

  3. Adam says:

    I need to get my ass down to Austin at some point and try Eric’s tacos!

  4. Red says:

    Eric, seeing that the Food truck scene in STL has really developed since you left for Austin, are you still happy with your decision to bring an innovative cuisine to an existing market rather than risk being one of the first in STL?Are there any benefits to being the first on the scene that outweigh the risks of being one of the only to develop a new network?

  5. Eric says:

    @Katie: I picked Austin because I wanted to run this business in a warm weather city (more days to operate) which boasted a strong economy. Austin fit the bill. I considered Seattle (mild climate) and Denver (most sunny days in the U.S.) as well. I also knew that it would be easy to get permitted in Austin. I have no culinary training; I am just a self-taught foodie. I consider myself an entrepreneur in the food business. I knew I wanted to do something entrepreneurial for a long time, but not necessarily in the food business. I felt like I had come up with a good idea so I went for it. If I didn’t do this I would have done something else entrepreneurial. As far as the menu goes, we will have to expand once moving into a restaurant. We have limitations in terms of what we can do with food when operating out of the truck. I would like to open the menu up significantly in a restaurant.

    @Red: Great questions. I think we would have been fine if we operated in St. Louis – in fact, I think we would have been really successful. I had a network in St. Louis when I left; I had no network at all when I arrived in Austin. In Austin, unless you’re a bigger name, it’s very difficult to garner much attention. In St. Louis, I think we would have garnered a ton of attention right from the start.. I look at trucks like Seoul Taco and they have really benefited from being first on the scene. I made the right decision to move to Austin though. There’s a personal element to this as well – I spent ten years in St. Louis and I was looking for change.

    • Jamey Stegmaier says:

      Eric, one thing that I find impressive about your story is the sheer amount of research you did in advance. I think that measured into your success in a big way. Sometime in the next month or so, I’ll talk about different type of startup without as much overhead that actually benefited from jumping into the fray without too much forethought, planning, and research. It’s interesting to me how different methods can be ideal for different types of businesses.

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