Jason Noto didn’t grow up with the dream that one day he would operate a mobile food truck in order to provide for his family, yet that is exactly where he finds himself today, as owner and operator of Mia Nonni, a Lexington mobile food truck that offers a variety of Italian-American foods. Despite the hardships and uncertainty that often accompanies self-employment, Noto finds that Plan B is shaping up to be a worthy dream.
Noto grew up in Marlboro, N.Y. The son of a pilot, and the next generation of a long line of entrepreneurs, he found himself at a crossroads in 1994. One path led to a culinary institute because of his love of all things food and a desire to be a chef. The other path led to a potential aviation career with the Marine Corps. Jason Noto decided to fly.
From 1994 to 2003, Noto enlisted with the Marines, completed boot camp in South Carolina and ended up as an instructor in Pensacola, Fla., with the rank of E-5, a sergeant. He briefly chased another dream for a year, building motorcycles, but found he missed his aviation career and began to look for a job in Kentucky, a state that was similar to his hometown of Marlboro.
He took a position with L3 Communications, which owned the primary contract working on CH 47 Chinook helicopters at Bluegrass Station. Over his eight-year career at Bluegrass Station, Noto saw the contract transferred to Boeing. And the changes didn’t stop there. By 2012, Noto was working as a manager, and Boeing began talk about hourly workforce reductions.
“I knew it was coming,” Noto said. “I knew there would eventually be cuts on those who were on salary. It’s all proportional.”
With the possibility of having to place his feet on solid ground, Noto turned again to his dream of being a chef.
“There is a really nice place in Sadieville called The Mill that has a basement, a ground level and an upstairs for living space,” Noto said. “I thought we could finance it as residential, get a business loan to operate the mill part and call it a bistro. It would have to be a C-store [convenience store] at first.”
With help from the Small Business Association, Noto compiled a business plan including everything from possible menus, labor and raw materials costs, to a budget and financials. But the plan did not materialize due to price negotiation failure.
In the meantime, Noto’s father, Joe, had found a different kind of solution, in the form of a 2008 food truck sitting in a New York warehouse.
“It was bought by the union for some guys that worked in a remote site. He mentioned it to me, and I was not a fan. I wanted a brick-and-mortar business,” Noto said. “The Mill wasn’t available. The food truck was. And then I said yes.”
After a few phone calls, the food truck was on its way to Kentucky. Noto purchased a new truck to haul the trailer part of the food truck and within two weeks, he was ready to serve his first customers. But, as Noto discovered, owning a food truck is more complicated than it seems.
Before he knew of the Bluegrass Food Truck Association, Noto did a lot of legwork on his own, securing inspections and permits from the Lexington-Fayette County Health Department.
“The plumbing was wrong, so I had to spend right off the bat, as soon as I got it down here, $600 for a master plumber, changing inch-and-a-half pipe to two-inch,” Noto said. “And then we had the vent going out the side, and they wanted penetration through the roof.”
After the initial inspection in Fayette County and completion of the necessary changes, Noto took the food truck to the Scott County Health Department for inspection and paid for his statewide mobile food truck permit, which cost roughly $150 and is good for one year.
“When I started in the fall, there was a 17-step process in place: An itinerant merchant permit, a trip downtown to planning and zoning;,the building inspection unit, and then the IRS, and get a certificate of occupancy and bring all that back to the health department before I could set up,” Noto said. “Even then, there is a 14/30 rule. I can only be in one spot for 14 days and then have to be gone from there for at least 30 days before I can go back. And there is a permit required for each establishment that costs $25.”
His true test was setting up in front of Tempur-Pedic in December 2012. He secured permission from the company to offer breakfast and lunch to the employees, acquired the proper permits and went full out.
“I worked until 11 at night at Bluegrass Station. My family would do all the prepping. I’d get home, get a couple hours of sleep, do breakfast and lunch at Tempur-Pedic. They’d take the trailer home, and I would go to work at Boeing,” Noto said. “But that week, I knew we could make it work.”
In February, Noto received his warn notice from Boeing, and he completed the last day of his aviation career on March 22.
“It is bittersweet. I am leaving a career and I know I could have just been out on the street if I had not prepared for it,” Noto said. “I had bookings. I had everything in place. It’s Plan B. It was designed this way.”
Noto said that running a food truck is tough, but he and his family are finding that it suits them just fine. After almost two months of self-employment, Noto said his future looks brighter now than it did a few months ago. He runs his farm, grows his garden, takes care of livestock and is a member of Kentucky Proud and Homegrown by Heroes.
He has fallen into a rhythm of a few days here and a few days there, securing permits and lining up licensed food handlers, including his wife, Jessica, and his 14-year-old daughter. He has bookings in advance and works on a rotation with other food trucks, going to such places as Country Boy’s Brewery, West Sixth Street Brewery, Grimes Mill and places in between. And he finds he is not nervous about not having a booking every night.
“That’s the beauty of it right now and that was kind of the point — to free me up to work on the farm, to be a better father and husband and a better man in general,” Noto said.
As far as a brick-and-mortar restaurant, Noto said he still has that dream for one day in the future. But for now, he’s content flying with Plan B.