This month, we’re amplifying the voice of one of our incredible (and hugely popular on IG) immigrant-owned food trucks. We had the honor of sitting down with Grace Mrema, the owner/chef of Pittsburgh-based Tanzanian food truck, Kilimanjaro Flavour. She shared with us her necessary tips for running a food truck filled with cultural dishes, as well as the difficulties that come along with trying to push people out of their culinary comfort zones.
Check out the interview below to learn more about this one-of-a-kind Tanzanian food maven (Answers have been edited for length and clarity).
Roaming Hunger: Hi Grace, it’s great to be able to chat face-to-face. Please tell us a bit about you and your business Kilimanjaro Flavour—16,000 Instagram followers, wow!
Grace Mrema: Hello! Well, I started on those social media platforms before I even got started with the food truck. I did not even have the idea that I was gonna start a food truck then. I was just home, cooking whatever I wanted to cook, and taking pictures of it because it was my hobby…I started small, cooking East African food like flatbread, rice, donuts…
RH: So when did the idea to open a Tanzanian food truck come to you?
GM: I started serving across the state to other East African people and they brought up doing a restaurant, but it appeared to be too expensive for me. So I did research on renting, but then, I was able to secure a small loan for a food truck.
I’ve had to work a lot harder than other trucks that are serving familiar foods to American customers. It’s just me focusing on keeping my truck up and doing social media advertising.
RH: Can you unpack for other food truck owners how important your socials have been for your business?
GM: People try the food and spread the word on Facebook and Instagram. On Instagram I share my experience, on Facebook, customers leave reviews and comments. I have over 16,000 on Instagram, and over 3,000 on Facebook. When companies or hospitals want to book me, but aren’t sure about African food, they look online thinking “okay, let’s go to Facebook and see what people are saying who have eaten the food…”
My customers who follow me on Facebook follow me around town. I post my schedule on Instagram, and they come. I was even voted Best African Food in Pittsburgh last year in the city paper. But I need that because of my food type…other food trucks don’t need all the media. But, I’ve created a great clientele. They reach out to me, I just have to post my location and time and I sell-out no problem.
RH: Has it been difficult serving authentic African dishes in Pittsburgh?
GM: Well, this is my fifth year in business and yes, it’s been a struggle at times. I feel like I made a little bit of a mistake on branding…because if you put African animals or animal print on your business, and it’s related to food, people are afraid that the food is from Africa. You wouldn’t believe it, I have people asking me if I’m shipping in elephant and giraffe meat from Africa, just because there are African animal pictures on my truck.
RH: That’s intense!
GM: I have a great and loyal clientele, but from others, it’s true. There are people here who think that’s what I’m doing. It’s coming from people with the type of mindset that are afraid of what they don’t know, so they ask some weird questions. But also, I’m introducing something new that a lot of people, especially people who haven’t traveled much, have never tried.
There are parts of America where people prefer to stay in one place, or they haven’t got the opportunity to travel to different places. Another part is that the news, if you see it’s about Africa, it’s always something bad…they never show the good. All people here see are poor people, kids starving, people with no skills—then people don’t want to invest in Africa.
But there are a lot of people in Pittsburgh who have gotten to explore the world and try different stuff, and social media helps me so much with spreading the word to them.
RH: Wow! You’ve got such loyal fans.
GM: Yeah! People drive from 40 minutes away to come. It’s crazy, I had a loan for the food truck I had to pay…I paid it off in 2 years! So now, I can slow down. The biggest challenge now is just finding employees.
RH: How do you manage all of this? Is there a team behind you?
GM: Everything you see I make from scratch by myself. People don’t want to work, or they just want to take the window, but they won’t help me in the kitchen because of how much food preparation there is. Employment is the biggest challenge.
It takes so much preparation—chopping every cabbage, doing everything. When they find out how much work it is, no matter how much I pay them, they want to come in, take the window, get paid, and leave. And for cooking, I can only give 3-4 hours a day 3-4 days a week, so restaurant workers won’t take it, they’ll only work after restaurant shifts.
So, I ended up by myself most of the time, but I try to give myself time to rest now. Last year and this year, I’m off for the winter. From April to November I open, then I go to Africa for two months.
RH: Will you take winters off for good now?
GM: I am afraid of the cold. I’ve been to Florida and Houston, and talked to other food trucks there. The cost of living is almost the same and when I look up how they’re doing, I’m doing much better, so I will just take off the cold months here…it’s not gonna hurt me.
RH: So what kinds of events are you doing during the spring, summer, and fall when you’re open?
GM: I’ve ended up doing better than trucks who make familiar food because of the breweries in Pittsburgh. Because my customers follow me, breweries bring me in to be their kitchen and I end up bringing lots of people with me. I’m already booked for them fully in 2024.
RH: What about food festival events?
GM: People come to those with $40 or $50 to try a little bit of everything and I end up left out. They line up for what they’re familiar with.
Some events, if they want to bring in 10 or 20 trucks, I will not do good. If there’s a big luncheon for a hospital or corporation or a wedding, I never get the job. I try to stay away from events that have more than 2 trucks because I have no time to just sit there and wait until every other truck is sold out.
Even when I’m recommended for events and they give my email to someone, they wonder “how will my guests feel about African food?”—they’ve never had it before. I don’t know if it’s personal or not, but I don’t let it wear me down, I keep moving.
RH: That’s definitely frustrating. Since you do have so many regular customers though, do you notice that events, or attendance at your truck, changes seasonally?
GM: Spring and summer everybody comes out looking for something to engage in, so we get lots of customers from April to August. June is a little slow ‘cause everyone’s on vacation, so I know how much to prep. But it’s not like during the lockdown, I did very good during the lockdown.
RH: Really? Tell us more!
GM: I went to over 100 different communities, mostly upper and middle class. They know I have great tasting food and that it has value. People spend $80-120 on my food, so if 20 people buy, I’m sold out and head home. Customers know I give fair portions for the amount you pay…for quality. Those who understand the quality of food are willing to pay more for it.
RH: What does the future of the food truck look like for you?
GM: I wonder about the restaurant biz, but everything then goes to rent, and you have to have a family of 2 or 3 people who have a passion for it. My kids live out of state. If I’m gonna do an upgrade, I will just upgrade my truck…get a bigger one, remove the animal prints, that’s the only change I want to do soon.
I also want to do packaging and sell my samosas by a larger margin. Work with a local market and supply them in the wintertime instead of just doing nothing on vacation. I need a partnership of some kind to know if this is possible—getting into markets.
The only type I do right now is ground turkey, so if I can add chicken and vegetables, advertise, get them in Walmart so people can taste the product, that would be booming. People know the Indian potato samosa with spicy curry, this is a different type most have never seen. I can compete with my samosas!
RH: We can’t wait to taste them! What’s your advice to other immigrant-owned food trucks serving foods that are unique for the American palette?
GM: It’s different for Africans. Other nations, like the Carribean, Jamaican…people in this country have been familiar with them for a long time. But for different food types from usual, take pictures of what you’re making and put it on social media before the truck is even built. Focus on social media advertising and don’t ever pay for it—just post.
Then, study your environment, do your research, go into different restaurants and try the food people in America like. They love sauces here. If food is too spicy or dry, people here aren’t used to that. Cook two or three things together and lose the too spicy…keep it more mild than family recipes and put anything spicier on the side.
Modify, modify, modify! Add moisture. Trying to force people to eat what you grew up with is not gonna work. At home we cook vegetables and kill all the nutrients…but can’t do that here, people would think it’s a soup. I cook everything with coconut and coconut milk—chicken, rice, coconut shrimp, and only fresh herbs. People go to my country and eat, then come here and tell me they couldn’t find anything as good as mine. This is my grandma’s recipe, but a little different.
RH: That’s brilliant and so helpful to our community of minority-owned small food businesses. We’re so grateful to you for sharing your story, your authenticity, your high times, and your low times with us and your fellow food truck owners!
Author: This interview was conducted by Yvonne Cone