Sunny Lin is used to life on the road. As a child, it seemed she was always on the move, from Taiwan to Los Angeles and then Mississippi as her family kept moving east. Then it was on to North Carolina, where she lived in a handful of different towns before ending up at the N.C. School of Science and Math in Durham and then on to NC State to study biomedical engineering.
Lin majored in biomedical engineering, in part, because she thought it would an interesting avenue for her to help people. But after graduating in 2012 and working for some small engineering firms, Lin realized that the corporate setting didn’t satisfy her desire to feel a connection with the people she was helping. She explored the world of global health, and even did some bartending on a part-time basis to try to find a fit that felt right. She wanted to find a community that felt like home.
“I was in a period of self-exploration,” Lin says. “Whatever adventure I was going to go on, I would be trying to connect with my community.”
Then came an unlikely opportunity — one that would put her back on the road while helping her feel more rooted in a community.
Sophia Woo, a friend from Lin’s days at the N.C. School of Science and Math, wanted Lin to join her in launching a food truck. Lin was intrigued. “At that point in my life, I would say yes to trying anything,” she says.
So Lin invested some money she had been setting aside to travel abroad, and a new food truck was launched in the spring of 2014. The truck was initially known as Dump Pho King Truck, with food that was a fusion of American and Asian culture. The menu included dumplings, Vietnamese beef noodle soup and something called a “Cheerwine Bulgogi Sloppy Joe,” with thin sliced marinated beef, kimchi and homemade sriracha mayo on a Hawaiian bun.
“Even though I’ve lived everywhere, the majority of my time has been in the South,” Lin says. “I’m also Asian, so English isn’t my first language. It was really cool to translate that into food.”
The food was well received from the beginning, and Lin started to find the connection to her community that she had been seeking. “The food truck community is growing,” she says. “It’s just a bunch of creative people who love to eat. We’re really good at supporting each other.”
But operating a food truck is not without its perils. When you’re operating a restaurant on wheels, it means lots of time on the road, long days, and hours spent inside a tight, hot space preparing and serving food.
“The first year was rough,” Lin says. “Like with any first-year business, you learn that everything you don’t think will go wrong will go wrong. We are on our third engine in our truck now. Nothing is easy on a food truck. It’s a great community to be a part of, but it’s not glamorous.”
Or is it? A casting agency from Los Angeles called one day to ask if Lin and Woo would be interested in being part of a Food Network reality show featuring food trucks. It would require them to take their truck on the road — the show was set up as a race among six food trucks along Route 66, from the Santa Monica Pier in Los Angeles to Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri and, finally, Chicago, Ill. The name of the show, now in its sixth season, is The Great Food Truck Race.
Woo and Lin were initially overwhelmed by the idea, but then decided it was too good an opportunity to pass up. And so they agreed to enter The Great Food Truck Race, with the winner to be decided over six episodes that were filmed this spring. At each stop, host Tyler Florence presented the trucks with a food challenge, and the top trucks advanced to the next stage in the race until all but one were eliminated. The first episode will air at 9 p.m. (EST) on Sunday, Aug. 23.
“It was one of the best experiences of my life,” Lin says. “It forced us to push ourselves. It was a very high stress situation. But it forced us to learn to work together, to push our pride aside. Whatever they threw at us, we had to have one goal — to win.”
Lin and Woo were joined on their adventure by their friend, Becca Ruffin, a 2009 NC State graduate, who often helps the pair when their food truck works at big events. They also renamed their truck — it is now called the Pho Nomenal Dumpling Truck. Woo takes the lead on the culinary side of the business while Lin, taking advantage of her engineering background, keeps the truck and other equipment in working order.
“They definitely give you challenges to test your culinary skills, and to test how you run your business, how fast you can get something out, or how well you can prep something,” Lin says. “At the end of the day, it’s about how hard you hustle and how hard you sold.”
While Lin knows the outcome of the show, she isn’t at liberty to divulge how her truck did. But she said the exposure that the truck is about to get — there were long lines of customers outside the truck at a recent food truck rodeo in downtown Raleigh — is priceless. She also says the experience helped her and Woo reach a new level in their business, even raising the possibility of them opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant some day.
“Before the competition, we always grew our company very organically,” she says. “That will still be the case, to see what the community needs and what it wants. But we get to dream a little bigger now.”