With blistering temperatures and suffocating humidity, the best way to cool off this summer might be to grab a decadent smoothie bowl from Buoy Bowls, the Triangle’s first acai bowl food truck.
The food truck’s most popular item is its Brotella Bowl, an acai bowl topped with fruit, Nutella, granola and coconut flakes. The food truck also sells pitaya bowls and a wide range of smoothies.
After trying an acai bowl for the first time in San Diego, owner Derek Sharpe decided to open an acai bowl food truck when he realized there was no place to get them in the Triangle and began to brainstorm aspects of the food truck while working at his corporate job.
“What you often hear is that people change out of inspiration or desperation, and for me, it was a little bit of both,” Sharpe said. “So I kept my corporate job, but at night, I would kind of game plan, like how to get this food truck going and what to do, and that went on for several months.”
Sharpe quickly realized that his tentative planning wasn’t going to lead to success, and he quit his job to pursue his dream full time.
“If you're going to be successful in anything, I believe that you have to go all in,” Sharpe said. “You don't have to have all the answers right away, but you figure them out as you go.”
After building for six months, the food truck opened to the public for the first time in October 2016 with Sharpe manning the truck by himself. With a beach theme in mind, Sharpe named the food truck Buoy Bowls after his dog, Buoy. Before the food truck even opened, Sharpe began to spread Buoy Bowls’ name using social media.
“It started super slow,” Sharpe said. “It was just me for the first two months. I would take orders, I would blend, I would add toppings and hand the bowl out, and then just repeat that. The first day, we maybe did a hundred bucks, but I was stoked. I just kept using social media.”
After the first couple of months, with the weather getting colder, Sharpe thought business would slow down and he would have the chance to better acquaint himself with running Buoy Bowls, especially due to his lack of experience. Instead, the opposite happened. Over the course of the year, Buoy Bowls gained so much popularity that customers would be standing in line waiting for the food truck to arrive.
“It just began to grab traction, and I continued to leverage social media and connect with our community,” Sharpe said. “I don't even think it took a year to get the second truck and we've added a new truck every year since then. So Oct. 1 this year will be five years, and we're in the process of building our fifth truck right now, and that one will be going to Wilmington.”
Most businesses these days have somewhat of a social media presence, and Buoy Bowls is no different. The food truck has regular posts and interactions with its customers on Facebook and Instagram.
After listening to entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk speak in Vegas and reading his book, “The Thank You Economy,” Sharpe realized the importance of putting customers first and emphasizing customer service and connection beyond anything else. Sharpe also stated the importance of self-promotion and communicating to customers.
“We just continued to post pictures,” Sharpe said. “I mean, one: we've got acai bowls that are photogenic, right? So people love to take pictures and tag themselves. We also leverage Instagram stories; we try to take 10 to 15 pictures per truck of our customers and then put them onto our stories, and our customers love to be on our stories and on our main Instagram page. It's just that community connection and understanding that we're in a digital age and that you can self-promote.”
Sharpe attributes Buoy Bowls’ popularity to the culture he’s built among his food trucks.
“If you don't have cohesion among your team members, they're not excited to come to work, they're dragging and they're complaining and they don't want to be there,” Sharpe said. “It's going to be hard to get that legendary customer service to our employees. We have never hired anybody just to fill a position. It has to be a fit. You have to have that spunk and be comfortable in front of a crowd and able to engage and have a conversation with each customer and that legendary customer service.”
Part of that customer service involves going the extra mile by letting customers make their own unique bowls.
“We've got eight bowls and there has now become a thousand ways to make those eight bowls because customers come up with ways that they want them,” Sharpe said. “Not everybody will accommodate those and whatever you want done, we'll pretty much do it. It's legendary customer service, making sure that every customer leaves with a smile happier than when they showed up.”
When it comes to future goals, Sharpe has considered franchising since 2019 with plans to launch and offer franchises in motion. Over 50 people in and outside North Carolina are already interested.
Sharpe’s biggest priority is growing Buoy Bowls and scaling the business down.
“When you grow a business, you can no longer work in the business,” Sharpe said. “You have to work on the business. What that means is I have to get off those trucks. I have to get out of the day to day and add managers, assistant managers and shift leads. I’d like to just get out of the day to day of operating the trucks and focus on franchising and opening our own trucks in other cities.”
Ultimately, Sharpe dedicates Buoy Bowls’ success to his team.
“I just set the wheel in motion and created a foundation and a culture of what I believe that a team should do,” Sharpe said. “Our team is absolutely amazing and they’re the reason that we continue to win awards. It's all the team, and I definitely think they need recognition as well.”