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The Frying Scotsman; creating your own job in a poor economy by tapping into what’s hot in your region

Frying Scotsman Fish and ChipsI am a native of Portland, OR who returned to my hometown 5 years ago and started a marketing business. Within a few months of starting this business I traveled to Scotland on a whim and ended up meeting my husband. While my business is still going strong, through bumps and the birth of our daughter (now 3), my husband’s business in Portland is going gangbusters. He started his business one year ago out of desperation in a depressed job market that led the nation at 12.4% unemployment, and is now making more income than he thought possible in his 25-year career as a chef. It is also an infinitely more satisfying business to be working for himself.

So what is this job that has ramped up to a career high in one short year? He’s a food cart operator selling fish and chips in downtown Portland.

My husband James grew up near Glasgow, Scotland. While attending chef’s college in Ayr, Scotland, he discovered that handmade sauces were his specialty, and that he had a knack for enhancing meats with a simple reduction or by heating mixtures of flour, butter, water and spices. By his mid- twenties, the lure of good money landed him a job as a chef manager on an oilrig where he managed a team of chefs who cooked four meals a day for hundreds of oil workers. He worked in the chilly waters of the North Sea, off the shore of Aberdeen and even closer to Norway.

In 2006 James and I met in the UK, and his interest was piqued by my description of a place with a climate identical to his hometown. When he visited Portland, he found Oregon’s coastline to be very similar to that of western Scotland, but Portland boasted one thing hard to find in the UK; a 10,000-foot mountain winter wonderland just one hour away.

James and I married in Scotland, had a daughter, and he kept his UK-based job on an offshore oilrig. This kept him away for 4 weeks and then home for 4, but when the pressure of maintaining a career overseas and a home and family in Portland became too great, he decided to look for a job in Portland in June of 2009. We thought he’d be a shoo-in at Portland ‘s foodie establishments, but proving this on paper, and conducting interviews with his thick Scottish brogue against hundreds of other applicants, is a totally different story. We were wrong. By mid August 2009, no job offers were coming in, and it was time to explore other options.

Spurred on by frequent Portland food cart dining as well as a NY Times article proclaiming that food carts are changing Portland’s culinary landscape, James’s entrepreneurial wheels started spinning. A visit to a British fish and chip shop in Portland had him missing tastes of home, and two ideas melded together. Why not start a food cart, he thought, when he’d always really wanted to own his own chippy some day?

Frying Scotsman TrailerA $3,000 trailer showed up on Craig’s List a few days later, and James put down a deposit on a Friday in late August. A quick web search over the weekend found that the seller’s criminal history was dicey, and King made multiple trips to the DMV. By Monday everything checked out, and by Tuesday, the trailer was his.

On opening day on September 14, 2009, James had three customers. He wanted to wait to make sure all the equipment would work before implementing our marketing strategy. That night, I asked him if I could start the marketing machine and I got the go-ahead. I decided the best and quickest viral marketing tools would be to get his website live, and send an email out to 60 friends and family members. I bought the domain Frying Scotsman PDX and developed a Constant Contact email with highlights from his menu with a link to the site. On day two he had 23 customers for lunch, and he quickly found out where his breakeven point was. Within two months we were in the red.

Named The Frying Scotsman, ( the trailer has been up and running for 1 year, sometimes with lines of 15 people patiently waiting on Portland’s sidewalks. He has a large British following of ex-patriots who miss their cuisine from across the pond.

James King - Order to Go - Frying ScotsmanJames keeps the choices simple: he offers cod, haddock or halibut with hand cut fries. He mixes his own tartar sauce and coleslaw daily and sources his fish from Pacific Seafood. Cod and chips starts at $6.50, and his was recently voted “best things to put in your mouth for under 7 bucks” by Portland’s Willamette Week. He also serves British specialty Mushy Peas, as well as deep-fried Mars bars.

Today James serves about 100 people a day for lunch from his food cart. In one year he has gone from living off savings to making more than he thought possible as a chef. Many people remark that it is amazing it takes a poor economy to bring great food to the forefront, and in this case, a trained chef of 2 decades who was unable to find a job but could create his own for around $3,000.

James has no designs on stepping away from the business for someone else to run it. Many cart operators have three or more carts in order to spread their appeal to different parts of the city. The lure of starting a restaurant or a “chip shop” is a big one to James, but the overhead and hours needed in operating a restaurant are not attractive. James leaves the house at 8:15 and is back by 5 pm, and does not open on the weekends. Though Saturday used to be his busiest day, he now uses that for building or buying food cart odds and ends.

One of his best moves was to start small at a location owned by our family here in Portland so he could establish his company name. Another good move has been to have someone else take care of the marketing, something that business owners rarely have time to do. We take full advantage of social media and Facebook and Twitter have been instrumental in building a fan base and getting the word out quickly on things like menu changes and last minute closures or openings.

In owning a small business like this, it’s also important to support those that support you. We buy small ads on local websites and magazines to support local media. We provide gift certificates or vouchers for local charities and auctions. As busy as the days get, we make time to interview with press, including a recent filming by the Food Network (which took 8 solid hours of camera time on a busy Thursday) for their Eat Street program, and recently he was on an NPR morning show, interviewing live.

As well travelled as James is, when I met him, he had only known three Americans in his entire life. To communicate effectively between the Pacific NW dialect and his has been a challenge he needed to overcome, and his food cart has enabled him to assimilate to our slower syncopation, a feat that would have proved disastrous if attempted as a radio interview one year ago!

As far as staff help, James’ friend Damian, also from the UK, helps him on Fridays, the busiest day at the chippy. He has my help with marketing and we hire contractors for things like electrical wiring and signage. James sticks to what he knows best; cooking food and catering, which is a piece of advice he would offer to business start-ups.

As well as sticking to what you know best, another piece of advice James offers to start-ups is to continually set aside money for financial reserves. Unforeseen capital expenses like fryers, canopies, electrical supplies and the like can take a huge chunk out of his daily take, and saving reserves along the way can help balance that.

The Frying Scotsman fish and chips
Located at: SW 9th and Alder, Portland, OR
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One Response to “The Frying Scotsman; creating your own job in a poor economy by tapping into what’s hot in your region”

  1. oops, i meant “in the black” instead of “in the red.” Sorry, I mixed my colors up!


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