“Very few places can take a comfort food and reinvent it to taste 11 times better than it did before. This is that place. Legit the best grilled cheese sandwiches of my life.” – Marlene M. of Houston, Texas, in her Yelp review of food truck Emojis Grilled Cheese
A gourmet sandwich maker on wheels, Emojis was started nearly a decade ago by Hope Green, an entrepreneur and grilled cheese expert with a knack for satisfying the taste buds of Texas. Her business was primarily built on bringing the food truck to office parks for lunch. But with the pandemic shutting down large workplaces, she pivoted her business to serving apartment complexes where her former guests are now at their homes and still in need of a melty, cheesy load of deliciousness for lunch.
We last caught up with Hope in early March for our Black History Month recap, and as she explains below, a lot has changed since then. Down to a team of just two—herself and her 19-year-old daughter—Hope explains how her entrepreneurial spirit has carried Emojis through the last few months and what business looks like in the face of a pandemic and a historical social movement.
The word “pivot” is being used a lot these days. What does it mean to you?
Pivot. That’s the big word of 2020. We probably circled figure eights in the ground, we’ve pivoted so many times. It’s really just being flexible, period—that’s always been a theme of mine. That’s been my personal advice to any entrepreneur that I’ve met along my journey—and I’ve been an entrepreneur for almost 22 years. I had a real estate company for 16 years. I did a photography business for about four years. And now our food truck business is in its ninth year.
Throughout my life, my businesses took on whatever need I saw—whether it was in my community or just people around me, hearing what they’re talking about and what they’re doing. When I saw an opportunity, I went for it. I was one of the first businesses to start a mobile notary company when that got big in the real estate industry, and I did that for 16 years. And then even working in photography, I did a lot of work with families that had kids who were autistic and needed a different type of photographer. I became that person.
So wherever there is a need, that’s what I base my business decisions on. What is the problem that’s not getting solved? There are people out there looking for somebody to solve it. So once you become the person that solves that problem, then you’ve already got a built-in audience. And sometimes that changes too, so then it’s being flexible about what the world around me needs right now.
How did you decide to be an entrepreneur?
One of the first jobs I ever got was for this black woman that owned her own business, and she had a type of firm where she did medical billing for doctors. I ended up being her secretary, working the front desk. And I just thought it was amazing, watching her do what she does. She was calling all the shots. That was my first entry into having a job, being employed, being a worker, was watching this woman who looks like me, going through the struggles, seeing the conversations she’s having with people and the things that she has to do in order to keep her business running. I think that’s kind of where my whole idea of even being an entrepreneur started.
I went to college, went through the career path, trying to find the right job and be a good employee. But I never really fit into that role as “employee.” Once I figured that out and I started moving into other realms of being an entrepreneur, that’s when my eyes opened up. Everything got brighter, and it’s like, “This is where I’m supposed to be. This is what I’m supposed to be doing.”
And eventually came Emojis—what’s behind the name, and how does your business style fit in with that?
When I first came up with the name Emojis, it was because grilled cheese for us was an emotional thing. People would come, and you hear all the conversations that they have while they’re waiting for their order—just talking about what grilled cheese meant to them growing up, the ways that their moms would make it, or that they had grilled cheese on these special occasions. There’s always this emotion that’s attached to their memory of grilled cheese as a child. So I really wanted to keep that concept as part of our brand, the emotional aspect of it. And even just having an emotional connection with our company, that’s really a big part of who we are.
And then when times of need come up, like now, people want to do business with other people, rather than a company. They just want to be part of your world, and they want you to be part of theirs. We’re all still in this with each other, and you need that. Sometimes I get to the point where I need something more than money to get me out of bed every day. So things like working with homeless teens and working with kids transitioning out of foster care… all of that is the reason and motivation, as opposed to just growing my bank account. Some days, I just want to stay in bed. I’m not doing it for the money. Money is not the thing that makes me want to go and be in this 120-degree truck while it’s 90 degrees outside. There’s got to be a bigger “get” for me.
Community involvement has always been a part of your business plan. How has it continued through these times?
We feed the healthcare workers on the frontlines and we also feed the homeless. We try to do at least 100 lunches a week, and then we attach a little vial of hand sanitizer to each bag. That’s a project that is really important to me. We have some items on our menu if people want to give a donation to help with those meals—some of our customers will even buy extra meals to be donated to essential workers.
How have you been handling customer communications with all of your new and existing operations?
Oh my gosh. That’s the million dollar question. I just try to have 100% transparency. Before the protests started, a lot of our fan base was like, “What do we need to do to help you guys stay alive? How do we keep you guys in this? Because we want you to stay in business.” So we were already receiving support from the community and the people we’ve been serving for the last eight, nine years. That was welcoming and comforting. We were already top of mind for a lot of people like, “Hey, I know this small business, and we want to continue to support them. I know they’re probably struggling right now.”
And then when the protest situation came through and blackout Tuesday, and everybody’s hashtagging, “Support black businesses”—I didn’t see that coming, so that blindsided us. We had no idea that this was going to become a thing.
We had already decided: If we can do at least 10 sales a day, then we can pay all our bills, and we’ll be good to go. So at the end of every week, we were checking to see if we did the number of sales we needed to. Then the black restaurant movement came through, and we went from 10 sales a day up to like 90 sales a day.
It really only lasted for those three or four days, but it was really heavy. People were waiting two hours to get orders filled. Then I put up a video on Instagram, asking people if they could buy gift cards or do future purchases. If they still want to support black businesses, then maybe they could get on our calendar so that we can spread those finances out over a longer period of time, as opposed to just having one shot in the arm all of a sudden.
What types of business adaptations have you made to help spread that support out?
We have a new menu item called Future Meal Delivery, where they can purchase now, and then we contact them at a later date to schedule a specific delivery time for their meal. We have people that are actually ordering meals for other people like, “I know this person. She’s a nurse,” or “She’s a teacher,” or “It’s my sister’s birthday.” And they want us to deliver a special meal. Sometimes we ask if they’d like to put a special message, and then we’ll put a note on the top of the box.
I would really love to create some sort of a campaign with that once everything gets back to normal. I want that to be a part of our regular life now, a part of our company—to have a product where people want us to deliver grilled cheeses to somebody on a special day and put a cute little note or even a birthday card or something to commemorate somebody’s event.
What other types of opportunities have come out of the last few months?
I don’t know if this is primarily just because of just my willingness to speak up, but we have created some really good relationships that I think that are going to be more long-term. I feel bad for companies that are struggling right now or that have had to permanently close—I’m very mindful of those things. But at the same time, we have really seen some positive stuff come out of the climate that we’re in. It’s like the stock market. You hear of these stories about how you can come out positive in any type of market situation. You just have to know which side of the fence to be on and what time to do it. So when you’re paying attention to certain things, sometimes you can take something that seems like a huge negative and actually turn it into a positive. And that’s where being flexible comes into play.
We have come up to some opportunities that we never would’ve had if we weren’t in this current situation. There are conversations that I’m having with people that I’ve been trying to reach out to for years. And then all of a sudden, they’re calling me. So things like that are really starting to float to the top… these once-in-a-lifetime opportunities that I probably never would’ve gotten if we weren’t in this moment. I don’t know if it’s because people want more diversity or if they’re reaching out to those that they normally wouldn’t reach out—wherever that’s coming from, I’ll receive it. I’ll move in the moment and be the catalyst for the change that a lot of people want to see. We can make that happen.
What’s next for you?
Well our main truck has been mobile, but we actually have two. So with the second truck, we just put down roots at a place that I’ve been looking at for the last two years. I’ve been talking to them, but we couldn’t get the right details with the way that we wanted to present our brand in a static place. But with recent events, they’re more open, so again, here’s another opportunity that we wouldn’t have had otherwise. With this new spot we can start taking advantage of delivery options—being mobile where your address changes every day is not conducive to taking orders from all these delivery services. You have to have a place for the drivers to come pick up food from, which we haven’t had. So we’re going to sign up for that this week, and now that’s a new service that we’ll be able to provide to our folks. We got the right deal at the right location, so everything that I’ve always wanted to have on that front is finally starting to fall in place.
I also really just come from such a place of risk-taking. I make mistakes like everybody else, and I hear about them. I’m like, “Okay, let’s just try it. Let’s just do it and see what happens.” Because if we don’t, we already know what’s going to happen. We can always go back to doing what we were doing. But if we do it, we might actually get what we want.
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