When he was in fifth grade in Gütersloh, Germany, Samuel Caklo dreamed of someday selling bratwurst in America. While his classmates and teachers poked fun at the idea, the entrepreneur this year turned his childhood dream into reality.
Since August, Caklo (pronounced CHUCK-lo) has been selling brats and other favorite German fast foods from a Louisville food truck called Germany’s #1 Food.
The white truck features a German flag (black, red and gold), the names of some cities, outlines of famous structures, such as the Brandenburg Gate and nods to other things German, such as the Kaiser (a reference to Germany’s famed soccer player and éminence grise Franz Beckenbauer).
Caklo, 29, cooked up the idea for a food truck business last year when he visited his brother, Sargon, who has worked in Louisville for about two years as a software engineer. During the visit, he asked his brother whether he could get some German food, especially a Döner kebab, a fast food made of meat cooked on a vertical rotisserie. The dish has Turkish origins. (Turks are Germany’s largest minority, at about 5 percent.)
Given that no Louisville eateries offered such food, Caklo figured he had found his niche.
“I’m going to open a food truck,” he remembers thinking.
He came back to Louisville in January, bought a food truck, founded his business, obtained a health department permit — and then had to fly back home to start the immigration process. He hired an immigration lawyer in Frankfurt to make sure his paperwork was in order. A faulty application could have delayed him by six months, he said.
In June, he had an interview to get his visa, in early July he flew to the U.S. to get documents including a Social Security card, driver’s license and vendor ID.
That period was filled with uncertainty, Caklo said, because he had already spent lots of money, but still it seemed that every week he needed a new document or permit and he had yet to get his immigration papers.
“That was a little bit of an adventure,” he said.
Caklo invested a total of $80,000 that he had saved, in part because he lived with his parents.
Thankfully, he said, he encountered no major problems in the immigration process. Caklo is in the United States on an E-2, an investor visa. It’s good for two years, but can be extended. Caklo said that if he produces a certain number of jobs he will be allowed to apply for citizenship.
While Caklo had no experience in the food truck business, he has a gastronomic background. An uncle in Gütersloh had a small restaurant and Caklo worked there occasionally. His uncle also shared some of his recipes for the food truck business.
Now a typical day for Caklo starts at 7 a.m., when he loads the truck and prepares the food, such as cutting vegetables. A part-time employee helps in the morning. He usually arrives at his locations around 8 a.m. and sells food from 10:45 a.m. to 1:15 p.m. That’s followed by cleanup and making some supply runs. He usually gets bread in the morning and rolls in the evening. The brats come from a German butcher in Chicago. The spices for the “secret recipes” come from Germany. His work day usually ends around 5 or 6 p.m.
Big events at Waterfront Park or a German fest have proved to successful, and he seeing lots of returning customers, based on credit card information. He’s already above break-even, he said, though it’s difficult to gauge long-term prospects. Caklo said he should have a better idea by the end of the year.
Feedback from customers has been good, he said. The most popular item is the Döner Classic, a chicken Döner that comes with various sauces and fresh vegetables. People who are unfamiliar with the dish can get a sample, and Caklo said that everyone who has samples it ends up buying some.
Of course, many people know Döner, especially those who’ve traveled to Europe and Germany in particular, he said.
Caklo also offers three bratwurst entrees, including the Currywurst, a ubiquitous fast food in Germany. For $3 more you can add a drink and fries or potato salad to any of the bratwurst entrees. And try the fries red-white, with ketchup and mayo.
Customers also can order their dish online and get a notification once it’s ready to be picked up. Caklo said that will help keep up his orders once the weather turns colder.
He usually takes off Sundays, unless he caters a private event.
Hurdles and surprises
Beyond logistical obstacles to immigration and starting a business in a foreign country, Caklo said it’s tough to be far away from family. He is keeping up a long-distance relationship with his girlfriend, Maria, who he hopes will eventually move to the U.S. She has visited him, and he plans to spend Christmas in Germany.
In some sense, Caklo also is following his parents’ example: His mother and father, Aramean Christians, are first-generation immigrants, having fled from Mesopotamia to Germany in 1980 for religious reasons.
Some linguistic challenges remain. He had English in school, but is still learning, he said. He watches a lot of American shows on Netflix — with subtitles. When he comes across words he doesn’t know, he consults a dictionary. Some people struggle with his accent, but it’s prompted some conversation and humorous exchanges, he said.
Caklo said he has been surprised by Americans’ openness and their willingness to engage with and help him. Other food truck owners have answered his questions. Even if they don’t view him as competition, he said he’s not sure that he would have received the same kind of welcome as a small business owner in Germany.
Caklo said he would have started the process sooner if he had know how long it would take to get everything set up. That would have allowed him to offer his food at the beginning of the food truck season, rather than in the middle of it, he said.
Nonetheless, he said, business is still improving, and he’s living his American dream.
“I’m pretty happy that everything has worked out,” he said.