The Great New Orleans (Vegan, Gluten-Free) Crepe Cart Adventure
The week before Mardi Gras in New Orleans means throngs of tourists with a big appetite for beads, hurricanes and legendary foods, like beignets and muffulettas.
Samantha Saliter’s dream was to add Parisian-style crepes to that list. Three years ago when she and Tracy Kish launched their business, The Crepe Cart, Saliter wanted it to be among the culinary must-see stops. Today, after working almost every day during those three years, the 27-year-old laughs that her modified dream is to count the money after a long day’s work and then soak in a bubble bath.
Saliter’s entrepreneurial spirit may get her through some of those hard days—the kind when their cart in the storied French Market sells only 25 crepes instead of 300. But what sustains her in the long term is something completely different. In the duo’s mobile creperie, she finds the kinds of rewards that money can’t buy.
One is the calming rhythm of pouring the batter onto the hot griddle and spreading it out just exactly right. “I get this really intense sense of meditation from it,” Saliter says. The second thing she loves is the sense of community she and her 25-year-old business partner have discovered among their fellow vendors. “The French Market is full of people who’ve been selling for years and years. You get that feeling of the opening of “Beauty and the Beast,” where everyone says ‘Hello!’ I love that. It never gets old.”
Third is the gratification that comes from making customers happy—especially those who seek out The Crepe Cart specifically for its gluten-free, vegan crepes. Saliter and Kish perfected the recipe just before their eatery debuted at the French Market in January 2015. She says around a quarter of their customers are vegan, and another quarter are gluten-free. Both groups rely on social media to get the word out, and Saliter believes the appreciation they spread online is one of the secrets to the success of the business. But there were others, too—little things that fell into place at just the right moment.
Case in point: the gluten-free vegan crepe batter. Kish and Saliter started developing the batter recipe after receiving countless requests from customers. But neither of them are chefs by trade, so although they both have more than six years of experience making crepes, their experiments with the batter left them frustrated. The commissary kitchen they had rented for testing didn’t seem worth the cost. Then, someone in a neighboring kitchen came by, saw all the varieties of milk substitutes, and asked if they’d tried soy. They had not. “Soy milk made it work,” Saliter said. “But really, every single ingredient is the secret. For example, I’m dyslexic and not very good at math, so I put three times too much vanilla extract in by accident. And that actually worked, too.”
In November, the fledgling restaurateurs opened The Crepe Place in Bywater, where they have more kitchen space and can start to establish the operation as a true community gathering place. It has also elevated them as professionals. They got a loan from a bank rather than funding the business from their own pockets and Kickstarter, like they did with the cart—but, Saliter laughs, it doesn’t seem real yet. “We’re hoping our learning curve is faster than our rate of growth,” she quips.
Saliter’s advice to other young entrepreneurs is to envision everything ahead of time. Write it down. Go over it. She used a favorite example to illustrate: “I hope someday someone starts a cart called Tongue in Cheek that serves lumps of unidentifiable meat. You would walk through the steps. What meats? What braise? How to serve it?” In her case, she drew a picture of a cart and pasted it onto a picture of the French Market. She looked at it daily for motivation.
She and Kish still use this technique before catering gigs. They imagine everything they need to make a crepe and go over their mental checklist to make sure all the gear and supplies are prepared. “It helps you break it down,” she explains. “In business, too, because then you’re prepared to take advantage of opportunities as they arise.”
And this, in the end, may be the biggest secret to their success: thinking ahead so that they were ready to seize the moment. “There were a lot of twists and turns that seemed like fate,” Saliter says. To catch those proverbial beads, you have to make eye contact with opportunity—and have your hands ready when the beads come your way.