Let’s Chow helps veterans transition to owning their own culinary business

Written by Mission Next Consulting

Transitioning from military to civilian life presents service members – and their spouses – with a unique opportunity to follow their dreams. Based on the veteran's personal vision, he or she may want to go into the corporate world or work for a non-profit. Some have an entrepreneurial spirit that can lead to a veteran launching his or her own business. The Mission Next consultants had the opportunity to meet with Jordan Foley, who founded Let's Chow, a non-profit organization that exists to help military veterans and spouses start culinary businesses.

Let's start by having you tell us a little about yourself and what you want to see happen with your organization.

"My name is Jordan Foley and I'm a Navy Lieutenant. I was a submarine officer for six years and then I transitioned to being a JAG corps officer for the last four years. I will be leaving active service in March. While I was in law school, I started a nonprofit called Let's Chow.

Let's Chow helps military veterans and spouses start culinary businesses. And we do that through food truck training. It's a long roundabout story to share how I went from submariner to lawyer to food truck entrepreneur, but it shows that you don't necessarily have to work through transitions in a linear sense in today's world. For me, it made sense because I connected the service to my country with the service to my community.

My goal is to be running Let's Chow as a full-time role after I leave service. I'm eager to expand the organization – we have three veteran-run food trucks right now and that will grow. Plus, we plan on developing a brick-and-mortar hub that will be used to help veterans not only train for their own business, but launch them. Our objective is to have at least ten veteran-owned culinary businesses started every year."

Visit the website, www.letschow.org, to learn more about the organization and find a contact form if you want to reach Jordan. Let’s Chow is eager to connect with anyone who wants to help.

What inspired you to start Let's Chow before you even left service?

"There's always more than one event that triggers a journey, but the discussions for Let's Chow started in 2019. One of my naval academy classmates and football teammate left service after his five-year commitment, and tried to start a couple businesses – and they kept failing. He tried to find different gigs to make ends meet, but he ended up falling pretty deep in debt. And then the depression really set in. In February 2019, my friend died by suicide.

A group of his friends started talking about what organizations are out there to really help veterans start businesses. Our friend was a naval academy grad so we assumed that he'd have some of those connections, but clearly his network failed to help him. We spent a lot of time researching to determine what kind of support was out there for veterans who want to start businesses. On paper, there's a lot of organizations that say they can help, but if you dig deep, you'll find that their statistics aren't really reflecting the level of support. For example, a non-profit will say that they helped 30,000 veterans start businesses every year, but all they really did was send them to a week-long course or give them a PDF packet of information. That non-profit gets significant funding to keep doing this, but we felt this wasn't the right way to really support veterans.

The other inspiration came from a few of my personal passions. I grew up cooking in a big Italian family and in my opinion, the culinary specialists in the Navy were the best sailors I had. So I thought – why not hyper focus on the culinary industry. There's a predisposition and some training coming from the military, but also, there's this idea of being your own boss, building the American Dream through food, and serving the community through food. It just makes sense.

In January 2020, I filed the paperwork and became a certified nonprofit. That was right as the COVID lockdowns started, but in three years, we've grown to ½ million dollars in revenue with three food trucks: we have one in San Diego, Atlantic City, and Annapolis. We are currently serving the food of five veteran-owned businesses out of those three trucks. Plus, our trucks source through veteran-owned businesses for supplies, food ingredients, and everything we need so we continue to inject money into the veteran-owned economy. Broadly, we want to continue to serve veterans and help their businesses grow."

Our focus at Mission Next is to help veterans transition and help businesses increase their ability to recruit and retain veterans. What have you learned as you prepare to transition from active duty to the civilian world?

"My decision to transition felt pretty abrupt. I think a lot of us who've been in for over 10 years have sometimes thought about resigning or leaving service a couple of times during our contract expirations. But for me, I woke up one day and just thought, I think I can better serve my country and my community through being a full time CEO for a non-profit.

As you know, my story is a bit unique because I'm stepping out into a company that I was able to start while on active duty. And that'll be my job. Now, I can't go around recommending this path to anyone because I don't want veterans to think that their first job out of service will automatically be for a non-profit that they can start right up. It's taken us three years to secure enough revenue that would pay reasonable salaries to our leadership team.

I took a planned, deliberate approach to this path. I could have elected to be an attorney in the civilian sector. I could do national security work. I'm choosing this because I believe that veterans just need a chance, especially in the culinary industry where there's a 60% fail rate in the first year – and that's likely higher for veterans. The studies show that two out of every three veterans will leave their initial post-service job within two or three years. They cite job satisfaction and the lack of teamwork at these civilian jobs.

As I prepared to transition, I knew that I would need to continue to serve and I would feel hollow and empty without that service. Being in my own company that's serving veterans – and the entire community – is making things much easier. I may be out of uniform, and I may have facial hair, but it's still service to my country. I might not get 10% off at Home Depot or get the jump to the front of the line at American Airlines anymore, but that was never the reason I put on the uniform. My reason was to serve soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines – and that's what I'm still doing."

Your approach to serving helps service members who want to be entrepreneurs. Tell our readers a little more about your unique approach to meeting this need in the community.

"We purposely designed Let's Chow to have a lot of on ramps and off ramps. We wanted to be flexible. We don't believe in a traditional semester or timeline because you can transition out of the military at any time. It doesn't make sense for us to only assess candidates or offer programs on a particular cycle or season. Instead, we have many different ways that you can enter and exit the program depending on when you need it. There's also flexibility based on the level of culinary experience a veteran has. We're not going to treat a 20-year Navy culinary specialist the same as a service member who may have never cooked for themselves – but Let's Chow is definitely accessible to both those people. They just have different tracks.

If you picture a service member who enlists at age 18, you'll understand that they eat in mess halls for the next four years. Yet, something about having a food truck interests them when they are thinking about life after the military. The problem is that they don't know that you can't lay down raw chicken on a cutting board and then cut vegetables on that same board. For this category, we have online digital training that is self-paced. It walks you through all the sanitation steps along with knife cuts and other basic food preparation. It's the equivalent of an initial semester in basic culinary school. It's clear, however, that a 20-year culinary specialist wouldn't need that – but they might need some business training. For them, we offer help with developing a market strategy and resource planning.

There's also another category that we work with. Some former service members come to us with an already established LLC, with a logo, and even a menu. They've stepped out but they really need to get more customers, to serve more people. This is where we help them run the food truck as a full-scale business. We've seen local businesses in Annapolis and in San Diego grow almost 800%. And keep in mind that while the food truck owners are expanding their business, the people who work in those trucks are completing our basic culinary training and refining their skills into sous chefs in this setting. These veterans will be ready to jump into the restaurant industry as line cooks or maybe even run their own food truck someday.

We also serve specialized groups sometimes. We're trying to train homeless veterans in some culinary skills to get them to a place where they can be gainfully employed. A line cook might be a great first step for them. Sometimes our clients don't even end up in the culinary business at all, but they use the skills they've learned in some other food-related industry role like consumer-packaged goods. For example, in Annapolis, we worked with a military spouse who goes back to her home country to source her own coffee beans and then roasts them back here in the U.S. She sells that coffee from the food truck along with her pastries.

Not everyone in our programs will end up owning a food truck but the knowledge and training they get from our organization is still incredibly useful for them. And we can help anybody, anywhere. Our services are completely free for veterans and military spouses."

What is it about veterans in particular that makes them successful in the food truck business or in the restaurant business?

I think a lot of people would say there's hard work, tenacity, and dedication that veterans bring to their work. Veterans have been trained in how to overcome barriers and hardships. They have this ability to be flexible. In typical entrepreneurial fields, those things can be the difference between success and failure. However, in the culinary industry, there's still an incredibly high fail rate – even if you bring those things to the table. You can be a classically trained chef who is incredibly dedicated to your trade, and still end up as part of that 60% fail rate.

There's so much that goes into being successful in the culinary industry. The margins are thin. Location matters. You have to consider start-up costs and who might back or support you. One of our main speaking points is to talk about how we really want to level the playing field for veterans who want to be in this culinary space. Look at it this way – let's say you have two similar people in New York City on September 11, 2001. One pursues their plan of opening a pizza shop while the other joins the Marines to go and fight this enemy that attacked our country. The Marine serves for 20 years and upon his retirement, wants to open a pizza shop. But the other guy who opened his place back in 2001 has a huge head-start in an industry that relies almost completely on knowledge of culinary business practices. How is this retired Marine ever going to catch up unless there was a program that could help? And our vision is to make sure the service member has almost no risk because it's not costing them anything to obtain the knowledge. All the resources are provided so the veterans can start making profits immediately if their business model is well-developed.

This is the only way I believe we can level the playing field. We are lucky enough to live in a country that has all-volunteer armed forces, so people choose to serve their country. I'm not saying that the New Yorker who opened the pizza shop couldn't be doing great things for our country, but I do want to make sure that when our veterans are done serving, they have a way to follow their dreams and break into the culinary industry. Without an organization like ours, the barriers to entry into the culinary industry might be too insurmountable no matter how tenacious, tough, or smart a veteran might be. We want to make sure they have those same opportunities and that's why we started Let's Chow. That's what we do."

Share some of your success stories with our readers. Everyone likes to hear those.

"Between 2020 and 2021, we hosted our inaugural class for veterans and military spouses. That class included four women of color – including the spouse of an Iraqi translator who was granted citizenship after her husband's service. We chose that group to help them grow their businesses. They all started in Annapolis, but they've branched out around the area.

One is starting a cafe in Northern Virginia. She came to us with a history of food service, but she really wanted to refine her skills in business management and leadership. Another member of the inaugural class will be rejoining the program now that she's got her business plan a little more developed. We actually have a really strong business relationship with the third member of that class because we source her baked goods in one of our current Annapolis trucks. The spouse of the Iraqi translator decided that the culinary industry wasn't for her – and that's okay too. We want people to learn and make their own decisions about their next path in life.

I'm really proud of that first cohort. We focused on some particular demographics and included immigrants and military spouses. We can see how people of color have been systemically deprived of a chance at "living the American dream" but we can make sure that, thanks to their service to our country, they can have access to some of the same chances."

How does the fundraising model for Let's Chow work?

"Let me start off by saying that we have a truly unique opportunity for most of our fundraising – and it's not one that most non-profits could duplicate. It turns out that we are really good at winning food competitions. We won a national competition through Sam Adams Brewing the American Dream, and we finished as the runner-up in Georgetown's famous Bark Tank. It's amazing how we've grown the revenue of this organization by winning those competitions. Many of those competitions were available to us as a start-up non-profit so we are not necessarily eligible for all that revenue now, but it was a great way to get started. We bought our first food truck directly from competition winnings.

We also have the more typical sources of revenue – corporate donations, individual contributions, and grants. The wonderful people at Annapolis Rotary designated us as the charity for their Black Tie and Diamonds gala this past year. Some people donate through Amazon Smile or there are programs, for example, with Fidelity, where people can donate their stock dividends to our organization.

One of our biggest selling points for raising money is that we just don't create businesses, we actually make money. We sell food and we continue to fund ourselves through this revenue stream. We've had great success with our Pay-it-Forward campaign where we ask our food truck customers if they'd like to contribute $4 to pay for somebody else's hot meal. We've got an 85% success rate where customers will pay for one or more meals that we can use to fulfill our mission to veterans.

People are starting to see evidence that we are a responsible non-profit that makes money to continue to run our programs and facilities. The money they donate is truly going directly to the veteran students or directly to the community with free meals. People can see that we are a good steward of their donations."

As we wrap up, I'm going to hand the microphone over to you. What else do you want to share about Let's Chow or the work you are doing to serve veterans?

"I'd just encourage everyone to check out our website to see all the great things that we've done and are doing. The website is www.letschow.org and you'll see all sorts of things about our scholarship funds, our contest victories, and other press releases. Also, be sure to check out the food trucks and all five of our current veteran-owned businesses that are operating because of Let's Chow. The schedules are on our website, and you can count on the fact that they'll always be serving something delicious.

Of course, as your readers are thinking about donations to charity – especially in that November/December timeframe – keep our organization in mind. Donor dollars really go a long way. We are always looking for volunteers. It's our volunteers that really make this organization work. Just reach out using the contact form on our website.

Thanks for the opportunity to share what we've grown over the last three years. We're so excited about the things we're going to continue to do."

Published: October 10, 2022

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