Derek Coughlin – Brunch Box

owner_derekMeet Derek Coughlin, owner of the deliciously amazing Brunch Box! Derek hails from Maryland, but moved to PDX to make his way in the big, bad world. He currently makes burgers for Portlanders, and harbors dreams of global burger hegemony. Read about how Derek took over Brunch Box, and how he manages the company’s food carts/restaurant today.

What is your company?

Brunch Box

How did you come up with the idea?

My business partner, Ryan, started the company in 2009. I came along 6 months later as an employee. Eighteen months after that, I bought the majority of the company. So to be fair, I didn’t come up with the idea of Brunch Box.

The original focus was breakfast sammies on homemade english muffins.
It didn’t take long for the burger options to dwarf breakfast sales.

Where did you find your first customer?

Wandering the streets of Downtown Portland.

How did you determine your target market?

Once burgers became the focus, determining our target market was easy. Everyone loves a good burger. We aren’t limited like some fancier places or ethnic restaurants. Most of our advertising is directed at 20-30 somethings that are internet savvy, which describes a substantial portion of Portland.

What are you currently doing to reach them?

We advertise in the Portland Mercury when we can afford it. Beyond that, we work with companies like Tixie, Google Offers, Scoutmob and the obvious Twitter and Facebook.

How much did you start up with?

I bought the box when it was 2 years old for $8,000 with the remainder of my college fund.

I put another $12K in during the first winter of my ownership, but earned $40,000 in my first year.

Did you bring on investors, get loans, or grow naturally?

When we stepped up to the restaurant last year, we attempted to self-finance the entire operation. When it became apparent that we were going to come up short, we started looking for a bank loan. No one would give us the time of day, even with 2 years of running the cart under my belt.

We ended up getting a small line of credit from Rivermark Credit Union. The rest of our shortfall was covered mostly by my parents, with a little help from Ryan’s mom.

What’s the best advice someone has given you?

We hired a consultant during the restaurant build out. He was crucial to helping us get through the process and getting us open. I can’t think of advice that he offered me directly, but his presence illustrates an important piece of advice. It’s extremely important to know your weaknesses. For instance, we had never been general contractors before, so we hired someone to walk us through it. Another example would be that I am terrible at dealing with customers, so I hired a few people that are excellent at it.

Some people think that they can do ALL things well. They’re wrong.

Find what you do best and do it, hire other people to cover your shortcomings.

What are your keys to staying productive?

Being disciplined goes a long way. At this point, I don’t have a boss. So there’s no one looking over my shoulder or yelling at me to get out of bed. I have to do all the motivating for myself. Sometimes I come up short, but it all falls to me. It’s safe to say that if I wasn’t the self starter type, we wouldn’t have gotten this far as a company.

When you started, what was one thing you wish you knew?

Running the cart was a real learning experience. There isn’t one thing in particular that has stuck with me. The entire experience was invaluable. That’s the beauty of carts; small financial investment and lots of room for error.

Although, when opening the restaurant, I learned something that I will put to use repeatedly in the future: when figuring a build out budget, take your final number and double it.

What resources or books do you refer to regularly?

About running a business or cooking food? I don’t, but “The Wire” has been crucial in my outlook on the game of life. I consult it periodically.

Has your company experienced any close calls or lucky moments?

We were lucky to be on the front end of the cart explosion, and have been lucky to be featured on television a few times. Opening the restaurant was a bit of a close call financially, but I imagine that’s par for the course.

What does success mean to you?

For the first little while, just keeping 2 locations open felt like a major success! Now that we’ve settled into our new home, the definition has changed. I’d like to someday sell the company for a lot of money and get out the food business all together.

Failing that, success equals early retirement.

Where would you like to see your business 5 years from now?

In 5 years, I’d like to have an eastside location, and possibly spread to the suburbs or other markets all together (Seattle, Vancouver BC, Pittsburgh).

How can people get a hold of you?


Twitter: @BrunchBox



Phone: (503) BURGERS