For University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Kenan-Flagler Business School graduate Sophia Woo, accounting has been an essential ingredient for entrepreneurial success.
After working in more traditional jobs, Woo and her friend and business partner Sunny Lin, a biomedical engineer, launched a Raleigh-based food truck in 2014. Their Pho Nomenal Dumpling Truck serves up traditional Asian recipes from family and friends, along with their own original creations.
The truck has built a loyal fan base in the Triangle and became a national television phenomenon on season six of Food Network’s Great Food Truck Race, taking home first place and a $50,000 grand prize.
Turning passion into profit
After earning her master’s in accounting (MAC) degree, Woo went to work in auditing at Big Four accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC).
“PwC was a fantastic firm — the best firm I could have been in,” she says. But although she liked her job at the firm, on nights and weekends another passion was simmering: cooking.
At the time, she was living with two Asian-American roommates. Together, the three would prepare food – such as dumplings and pho – from family recipes.
“Every day I would come home and they would teach me a new thing that their parents had taught them,” Woo says.
Woo’s move from public accountant to entrepreneur took a couple of years – but ultimately, she realized her love of cooking was calling to her. With the food truck trend heating up across the U.S., she and Lin decided to see if they could turn their passion into profits.
The pair raised $17,000 on Kickstarter and pooled their savings to build their business. They bought a $7,000 truck off of Craiglist and outfitted it with the necessary equipment. In 2014, they hit the streets with their bright purple Pho Nomenal Dumpling truck. Their family’s pho and dumpling recipes have become mainstays of the truck’s menu.
In 2015, they got their big break: a chance to compete on the sixth season of Food Network’s Great Food Truck Road Race. The show pits seven food trucks against each other to complete a series of challenges as they travel to cities across the U.S.
It didn’t take long for the other teams to realize that Woo and her team meant business. From finances to taxes to the cooking itself, Woo’s business education and experience made her a tough competitor. The Pho Nomenal truck broke down during the first week of the competition and had to be towed – but that didn’t stop them. As teams raced from Los Angeles to Chicago along Route 66, Woo negotiated with hotels to park the truck overnight in their parking lots.
“It was little deals like that – all over the place – that kept us in the competition,” she says.
In the season finale, the Pho Nomenal team faced off with a seasoned team that has five food trucks and two restaurants back home, plus a large following on social media – 40,000 on Instagram versus Pho Nomenal’s 800. But they didn’t have a UNC MAC graduate.
“We never expected to win,” Woo says. But they did. Pho Nomenal became the first East Coast team – and the first all-female team – to be crowned Great Food Truck Race champions.
“My time at UNC and PwC were both vital,” she says. And as it turns out, her days of doing audits at client sites with PwC weren’t that different from keeping Pho Nomenal customers happy, hob-knobbing with food truck rodeo promoters and networking with other food truck operators.
“Being able to balance all of those relations and keep people happy was one of the biggest things I was able to learn,” she says.
Accounting experience driving success
Although Woo takes continuing education courses to keep her Certified Public Accountant credential current, she and Lin have their sights set on a new goal: opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant. “The show was a huge eye opener and sort of re-inspired Sunny and I, because we saw all the things we could be doing,” Woo says.
They know that restaurant entrepreneurship is especially tough. Statistics show that 70 percent of all non-franchise restaurants fail in the first three years. But Pho Nomenal is up to the challenge.
“Making dumplings, it’s a high-touch process,” Woo says. “That’s something that we’ve constantly made better and better and better. My tweaking of the process – that has come a little bit from the business world.”
Her business expertise has become part of the secret recipe fueling Pho Nomenal’s continued growth – from refining the cooking process to reviewing lease terms while scouting locations for a restaurant.
“While I might not understand a legal document, I can sit down and work my way through it,” she says. “That’s my training from UNC Kenan-Flagler.”
By Mark Tosczak, UNC Kenan-Flagler Business school