Flanco Pizza is a business born from the pandemic.
After losing their jobs, Eliot Prince and his business partner and girlfriend Courtney Flanagan used their skills and creativity to set up a successful Sussex-based mobile catering business serving tasty Neapolitan pizza.
Eliot tells us the Flanco Pizza story and gives us a sneak peek into what it takes to build your mobile catering enterprise.
Here’s what he covers:
From ski careers to pandemic pain
It all started at the beginning of coronavirus in March 2020.
Both myself and Courtney were working in the French Alps.
Courtney was working in a ski shop and doing freelance graphic design, which she studied at university, on the side. I had been in and out of the Alps for around seven years, doing freelance digital marketing for ski companies.
We watched coronavirus unfold from the Alps, and essentially France closed a few weeks before the UK.
Courtney’s boss rang her up and told her she didn’t have a job anymore, while all of my freelance clients turned around and said they were closed as well.
We came back to the UK to try and work out what to do.
A new start
It was my dad who started us off.
He said: “If I had to go out and earn money tomorrow or within a week, what would I do? I’d start a pizza van and park it at the end of the road.”
It was his dream, as he had more of a catering background. He booked us to look at this van—I saw a great opportunity as Courtney and I didn’t have any other jobs going.
We decided to go for it.
We didn’t have a car, a licence to tow, or the know-how to make pizza. But we said let us jump in and see how it goes.
We got the van, rebranded it, fixed a few bits ourselves to bring it up to how we wanted.
In 48 hours, we went from not having any catering experience to buying a pizza van and starting a business.
With food trucks, you can go in two ways.
You can have an easy-to-manage transit van that you can drive around quickly or go down the route of having a trailer.
We made the first decision to go with a horse trailer because it’s more appealing for private events and is more of a talking point—something extraordinary, something different.
It’s less manoeuvrable, but people like it.
Being a graphic designer, Courtney was responsible for the initial branding and the UFO spaceship design on the side of the van—we thought it was creative, different, and stood out.
The idea was that people would get their pizza, stand under the spaceship and look like they’re being beamed up.
It’s something silly, a talking point that grabs your attention and which you can’t help give a second look.
It gives you a great hook to start a conversation with customers and passers-by.
Creating an excellent pizza product
We perfected the pizza by making it every day.
There was a lot of trial and error, learning from what was good and what wasn’t, and made many mistakes.
One of the big things we learned when we set up our van was that Brighton’s got to be one of the most saturated markets for high-quality Neapolitan pizza.
Looking back, it was probably a dumb idea to start a pizza business there because it’s such a saturated market, but it made us work harder at the product because we’re looking around at all the fantastic competition.
We had to bring our product up to that standard. I don’t think we would have pushed so far with sleepless nights, tweaks to our recipes, and a desire to make it better every day if the competition wasn’t there.
If you’re the only pizza guy in town, you’re going to sell pizza no matter the quality.
But the competition has made us a hundred times better than I think we would’ve thought at the start of it all.
It’s all about the pizza dough.
One of the significant challenges of having a mobile pizza business is that you’re not working in a controlled environment for your pizza dough.
We don’t have a proofing box or aircon to keep our air temperature at the same humidity and temperature.
This means that the pizza dough changes throughout the year, for example, where we park with the van or whether the sun is out. That’s one of the significant stresses that still gets us.
Handling the finances
We got a small business loan to start up, to pay for the initial costs of the van, a car, and everything else to get us going. I think it was about £11,000.
However, it’s very much a cash business, so you could start earning and generating revenue quickly to get up and running, investing in the business to buy things like dough mixers.
You grow as you expand—the busier you get, the more bits and bobs you have, which means you have more output.
I do all the finances myself. I had been self-employed, so I had a good grasp of managing my money and personal income.
I’ve made a mistake before with freelance or self-employed income in spending what comes in the door straight away, rather than giving myself a set wage.
If you set a wage that you pay yourself on the same day every month, you can set a budget for your personal life and the business.
I also quickly set up direct pension payments, money for tax, and other saving amounts.
When you’re self-employed, you don’t get all the benefits of working for a company, such as pension payments and holiday pay, so you have to set it up yourself.
That’s a very challenging step, especially when your income is up and down.
How much you work dictates how much you earn.
It’s about taking care of your current and future selves with your finances, as well as your business, which is another ball game.
We don’t use an accountant because it’s relatively straightforward once you know the ins and outs of the money.
We are a partnership rather than a limited company because it’s the easiest and cheapest way to get going.
The good thing about a food truck business is there’s limited exposure to things. I don’t feel you need a limited company because there are not many liabilities.
Using technology to save time and money
Technology is important.
It makes life so much easier when you can automate tasks and eliminate things that you don’t need to be doing to focus on the business at hand.
In terms of my accounting, I do all of it from my phone.
Snap receipts, balancing the books, making payments—you can do everything through phone apps.
We run our payment systems on a small handheld terminal and phone app.
Wherever I am in the world with our van, I can take a payment, send a payment to pay a wholesaler, balance the books, and pay my taxes.
Incredibly, I can run my whole business off my phone.
I don’t do any business from my office except to put a paper invoice from a wholesaler into a filing cabinet, which is a redundant thing to do as I file all my receipts online through my phone and accounting software that sits on the cloud.
The technology cuts out so much time from my day because I can do everything on the go in real time and not have to sit and go through everything from a week’s trading.
It’s all automated by the tech on my phone, which is incredible.
The beauty of it is how efficient and cheap the technology is. I don’t need to spend a day of my week balancing and checking all the payments that have gone through everything. It’s all automated and sends me a little notification.
It saves me so much time.
It gives me more time to focus on the fun stuff like the marketing and the pizza product—not sitting in the office going through paperwork.
I don’t even need to pay an accountant because the technology like Sage builds does everything for you.
When I’m about to do my tax return at the end of the year, I have to click a couple of buttons, and it’s all pretty much done.
In times of uncertainty, come up with new income streams
We’ve split our income streams because of the pandemic.
You can’t rely solely on weddings, events or festivals anymore, which I didn’t want to do anyway, because it’s a lot of legwork and expense to manage individual events.
So, what we do during the week, between Tuesday and Friday, is have weekly pizza night slots in small towns and villages.
You have regular, almost guaranteed trading income from street trading spots or work with local parish councils. You can pitch up in places every week without thinking about it too much.
Because we have business for four days a week, we have plenty of money to pay the rent, pay ourselves, and invest in the business.
We can use weekends or bank holidays for private events like weddings and birthday parties, or even have time to kick back and relax a bit if it’s a bit quieter.
Our regular nights help us get private events.
We get a lot of referral business now, which means we don’t have to push too hard on marketing for private events.
Instagrammable food products are easier to market
I’m from a digital marketing background, and Courtney is a graphic designer, so we talk to our customers and get our business online.
We very rarely do any offline marketing stuff now.
Marketing is probably the bit of the business we enjoy the most. Courtney can use her graphic design skills to hand-paint the van and create social media designs for Instagram.
It pays off if you work hard at it.
We have a great product because we’ve worked so hard on it—the pizza, dough and everything—to get it where it is. We can shout about it online, and that’s quite powerful.
Other businesses might struggle to have content because their product isn’t so Instagram-friendly.
Eliot’s three mobile pizza takeaways to get you started
1. Keep experimenting
If you want to make a great food product, you need to keep making it, experimenting, and making mistakes, perfecting your product by making it a little bit better every single day.
2. Put cash aside for taxes
With a food truck, you can start earning and generating revenue quickly.
Unlike regular full-time employment, you’re controlling the finances. So make sure you set aside cash for where it’s needed, whether for taxes, investment, pensions, or personal use.
3. Get good with social media
With a mobile food business, much of your marketing will be online.
This means you need to understand the social media channels that would work for you, what type of content you need to post, and how to engage well with customers, both old and new.