Accounting, and a passion for cuisine, drive entrepreneurial venture
For one UNC Kenan-Flagler graduate, accounting know-how has been an essential ingredient for entrepreneurial success.
Sophia Woo, BSBA ’10/MAC ‘11, along with her business partner and high school friend Sunny Lin, a biomedical engineer, started a food truck in Raleigh in 2014 after working in more traditional jobs. Their Pho Nomenal Dumpling Truck combines traditional recipes from family and friends with original creations. It’s become a phenomenon in the Triangle.
It also became a national television phenomena, winning first place and a $50,000 grand prize on the sixth season of the Food Network’s Great Food Truck Race.
Woo’s accounting expertise have been a big part of Pho Nomenal’s winning recipe.
“My time at UNC and my time at PwC were both vital,” she says. “I might not understand this legal document, but I can sit down and work my way through it. That’s from my training from Kenan-Flagler."
From finances to taxes to the cooking itself, Woo’s business expertise has been critical to the truck’s success.
“Making dumplings, it’s a high touch process,” she 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.”
After earning her MAC degree, Woo went to work at Big Four accounting firm PwC in auditing. Her education and that job prepared her for food-truck entrepreneurship.
“You’re there at the client site doing an audit,” she says. “They’re not happy you’re there, but they’re paying you. Being able to balance all those relationships and keep people happy was one of the biggest things I was able to learn."
It’s not that different from keeping customers happy, hob-knobbing with food truck rodeo promoters and networking with other truck operators.
The move from public accountant to entrepreneur took a couple years. She liked PwC and her job, she says, but it wasn’t a good long-term match. On nights and weekends, another passion was simmering.
She was living with two Asian-American roommates, and the three would prepare food from family recipes. “Every day I would come home and they would teach me a new thing that their parents had taught them,” she says. Dumplings and pho were staples, and have become mainstays of the truck’s menu.
“PwC was a fantastic firm — the best firm I could have been in," she says. But her love of cooking was calling to her, and with the food truck trend heating up, she and Lin decided to find out if they could turn their passion into profits.
With $17,000 from a Kickstarter campaign and some savings, the pair bought a $7,000 truck off Craigslist and outfitted it. It hit the streets in 2014.
In 2015 they got a big break: a chance to compete on the Food Network’s sixth season of the Great Food Truck Race. The show pits seven food trucks against each other as they travel from Los Angeles to Chicago along Route 66, completing various challenges along the way.
Their truck broke down the first week and they had to have it towed. 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. “We never expected to win.”
In the season finale, Woo and Lin faced off with the other finalist, a company with five food trucks and two restaurants. Their opponent had 40,000 followers on Instagram vs. Pho Nomenal’s 800. But they didn’t have a UNC MAC graduate.
Pho Nomenal became the first East Coast team and the first all-female team to win first place on the show.
“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.
Now the two are planning a brick-and-mortar restaurant. Woo knows entrepreneurship is tough.
Seventy percent of all nonfranchise restaurants fail in the first three years, she notes. Though it seems unlikely, if Pho Nomenal falls victim to that, she’ll still have options. “I keep up with my CPA,” she says. “I keep up with my continuing education."
>> Learn what it takes to follow Sophia’s path