Side.Life founder, Dave Fraser catches up with old friend, Raph Rashid (Blank, Beatbox Kitchen, Taco Truck, All Day Donuts and Behind the Beat) in his hometown of Melbourne.
You’ve done a fair bit of stuff since we met in your Blank days, so I really want to hear the story of how you’ve evolved and re-invented yourself from one area of business to another.
I always hark back to the days when me and Danny were printing t-shirts ourselves. They were probably the most enjoyable because we were involved the craft of printing. When a shop would call us, Friday nights and they’d be like, “We’ve sold them all, come up Saturday morning,” we’d be like ‘That was an incredible feeling’, and then that’s something that continues to pop up as long as I’m creating things. We could be at an event and everyone’s digging on the burger, and it’s just smashing, and that’s the same feeling as when we’re on stage making music, you know? Danny, my original partner, he musically went on to do amazing things with Eddy Current.
Yeah, you both did a lot of cool stuff … was that the late 90s?
Yeah, that was ‘95. Then that went until pretty much 2005, me and him. Then we did a few more t-shirts up until about 2009, then he went on to, get right into tattooing. Our paths have been pretty similar in a lot of ways.
Would you say one of the things you enjoy most about business is having that freedom to do what you want and be creative? You’ve worked for yourself for almost 20 years now…
RR: I think it has to be, definitely, but there’s so many influences that you really need to take time to remember what you stand for. You can get caught up in business – you’ve got to know what your values are. I always try to write a good mission statement, and go back to it every year. They do change, you know.
Do you find it’s hard sometimes to stay focused?
Yeah, it’s really easy to get distracted, but I think just going back and checking the reasons why you got into it. Those things can change as well with new resources that become available. I’ve always just tried to be for the customer, do whatever it takes to take them on a new journey.
Your first publishing project, was that Behind the Beat?
RR: Yeah, Behind the Beat was 2005. By that stage Danny was already exploring tattooing and I’d already been photographing, so we were already doing different things. I’d wanted to shoot people’s home studios. That was super good, and I got that book published through a company in San Francisco. It’s about to go into its seventh print, which is pretty cool. It was the first book that really opened up interiors on a different level, on a more natural level, un-styled. There were no blogs or anything about that stuff –
Yeah, pre- all that stuff. It was cool to put that out there, and I’ve done another one. They’re really just a time capsule, so it doesn’t matter when they’re released.
When’s the next one coming out?
It’s just in the last quarter. It’s taken a while, because I shoot all on film. Then just writing the stories. One of the images from the first book just got acquired by the new Smithsonian Black History Museum …
… in Washington. Yeah, that’s amazing.
What year did Beatbox kick-off?
Was that just like travelling the world and seeing food trucks really kicking off?
No, I was just always obsessed by burgers. Mainly because when I was travelling the States from 1999… going there every year, checking out new burger joints and taco joints. Then it was like, “I really want to do this.” Because there wasn’t actually an American-style hamburger in Australia. It was only like fish and chip shop ones.
I was just looking for a shop and I bumped into the guy from Meredith Music Festival and I was like, “I want to do this hamburger stand”, and he’s like, “Yeah cool, do it up here, we’ll give you a spot.” I had a few months and I thought “Maybe I should just put it all in a truck and we’ll do a truck.”
2009 was when the trucks started getting going in the States as well, and I’d seen it and then I was like, ‘Okay cool, I know that format can work.’ I had no idea that we would go on to inspire 120 trucks in Melbourne.
I guess there’d always been kebab vans or there’d been the pie carts in Adelaide, but there’d never been a dedicated kind of neighbourhood food truck since the ice-cream vans that killed it in the ‘80s.
Yeah, Mr. Whippys.
Yeah, this is what changed legislation in the ‘80s: there was like 300 and something in Melbourne and one Sunday there were seventy lined up at the Arts Centre and the council just went, “What are you doing? This is ridiculous. Go away.” They got rid of them and then it took twenty years for them to come back.
When you first started that, did you have a lot of problems?
We were just cruising around wherever we could find a loophole. Now each council has different legislation. It’s really tricky, but we’re cool. We’ve got our events that we work with and it’s provided a lot of jobs for us.
Now you’ve got four trucks, something like that?
Yeah, four trucks, and a little shop here, the doughnut shop.
And your cookbook came out as well – Beatbox kitchen?
Yeah, that was 2014, with Hardie Grant. That was the first time I’d published with someone and I didn’t control it from start to finish, budgeting and everything, so it wasn’t exactly how I would have done it. My publishing editor was amazing, really liked him. He just saw me on the street and he’s like, “Do you want to do a book?”
The design I really loved, the recipes I really loved. More just the way that we would kind of … I don’t like the way that traditional publishing spends money.
You’ve got something else up your sleeve? You think you’ll have another cookbook in you?
I would really like to make it less of a hard-format cookbook. As much as I do love cookbooks, and I buy them all the time, I think that I would really like to make more of a little ‘cook-zine’, that you could just be like, “Oh cool, I just want to …” Honestly, cookbooks, 300 pages whatever it is, the average is that a person will cook one recipe. One. It’s crazy!
Cool. What projects have you got coming up?
We’re looking at another truck. Then we’re doing another shop, a Beatbox shop. The idea, like I just said, was always to have that in a shop and to get started from our little neighbourhood-
That’s going to have maybe some event space as well?
Yeah, we’ll have ping-pong. I like the idea of, like if you live in an apartment block or somewhere where you might have limited access to just some social sort of space, yeah. Where if you don’t want to go to the pub and drink six beers and play pool, which is awesome, but you don’t want to do that, you just want to go and maybe have a burger, play ping-pong. I see that there’s something there that we could build, just something that could just get you moving. I’m not talking about an aerobic workout, just thinking something where it’s not pub-based. As comfortable as they are I just think there’s room for a new sort of space.
You obviously haven’t had a shortage of inspiration. What’s it been like when you’ve had things that just haven’t worked out quite what you think? Is it just a matter of going, “Hey, this didn’t work”, working out why it didn’t and then going, “We can do it better next time.” Is that the attitude?
Yeah, I think so. There’s a constant sort of tuning all the time, whether it’s with a dish – ‘Ah, those customers didn’t really like it. Okay cool, well let’s tune it this way so it’s still a little bit challenging but they’re going to dig it.’ I think that that’s the attitude.
There’s different degrees of it. You’re always telling yourself, okay, not too emotional, but emotions are what drives you so where do you find the balance? I guess it’s trying to be in tune with yourself, and your bank balance. What can you afford and are you doing that inside your means? I see a lot of food trucks and business in general walking in and thinking that the first time they go there they’re going to make a million dollars and they’ll go to an event and it won’t be as successful as they’d hoped, and that’s happened to me. I’d go back the next year just to see if I can tune it better, whereas a lot of people would just say, “Ah, that event sucked.”
I think that’s an important lesson, starting off with what you can manage risk-wise and building it: don’t expect to come in all guns blazing and kill it. Sometimes that happens but it’s rare.
Yeah, it’s very rare. Even if we look at what happened with Blank, we started it with twenty t-shirts, that’s what we could afford. We started it, we sold them and we built upon that.
How long did it really take for Beatbox to be consistent?
I reckon it took a year of only pulling out one day a week. So we just pulled out on a Friday night and I went down to the park, and then slowly, slowly. By 2011 it was just smashed. Now the landscape’s different again and we’ve had to re-shift where we do business.
Facebook helped, so it’s hard to measure these things. I still believe word-of-mouth was the strongest for that little neighbourhood, but Facebook was something that people could have access to. I mean I did know about it, but I would just email people on Friday saying I’m going to be out here, and then Becky’s like, “Let’s just do a Facebook page.” This is when the algorithm was very broad and everyone could get it. Now it’s a very, very different.
Now you’ve got to pay.
Yeah, you’ve got to pay. Which I don’t actually have an issue with at all. It’s been a testament to our business that we’re still able to survive without it. We still update it but I think the last count the taco truck has 45,000 people but only 100 people see the post, it’s minuscule.
People think they’ve got a huge following on Instagram or Facebook – you’ve got to remember you don’t own that, you’re just renting that off them.
Yeah, you’re just renting it and it could crash and be gone. I never put too much emphasis on any of that stuff. As much as I love engaging with people and letting them know what we’re doing.
There’s no substitute for connecting with people in a real way.
This is what I love about food trucks, the cooks are the customer service, they’re also making you your meal and it’s as transparent as you can get.