Small-Business Soap: License to Launch

Witness an innovative food industry start-up -- with all its highs and lows -- in real time.
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Welcome to the Small-Business Soap series, in which we follow a start-up in real time. Getting a small business off the ground can have as many twists and turns as a daytime drama. But unlike television plots, these stories can inspire and educate entrepreneurs -- be sure to tune in every Wednesday to find out how.

"The idea was the best way I could imagine spending my days," says Kim Ima of a vision that suddenly came to her two and a half years ago. Working in theater and film production, Ima had always been a home-baker, but one day she took her passion further by imagining a truck that delivers baked goods, much like an ice-cream truck.

Ima currently sells her treats out of a commercial bakery in Brooklyn, N.Y., but soon she will begin peddling a mix of delectable desserts and daily specials to her neighborhood and the surrounding boroughs from

The Treats Truck. "I love really delicious, not-too-sweet goodies of all kinds," says Ima, whose company's tagline is, "Not too fancy, always delicious."

"Even fancy people sometimes want a homey treat," she adds. "It appeals to something in most of us."

In addition to homemade treats, Ima will sell coffee, bottled drinks and T-shirts from the truck (named Sugar), which runs on compressed natural gas.

"The truck itself is a great advertisement," Ima explains, because it sports the logo, tag line, Web site and phone number of her business (companies like

U-Haul

(UHAL) - Get Report

are notorious for this strategy). On the Treats Truck Web site, customers can sign up for the mailing list, and Ima sends out regular email newsletters to friends and family, the same effective strategy she used when promoting the independent feature films she produced.

The Licensing Labyrinth

Yet despite all the planning, the Treats Truck still doesn't have a clear launch date; the site only assures customers that it's "almost here." The reason is something most entrepreneurs, no matter how resourceful, have no control over: an endless list of permits and licenses.

As Ima nears the cap of her initial $80,000 investment -- largely from expenditures on a lawyer, contractors and truck purchases -- she will begin dipping into her reserve fund as she obtains the last of the necessary permits.

While she can speed up a large treats order by pulling an all-nighter, nothing will push legal papers through faster, Ima says. There is no easy to-do list available, and permits take much longer to process than she had ever anticipated.

Ima recounts visiting the same permit office and getting different answers to the same question depending on the employee and the day.

"They tell you, 'Oh, anyone can get a food license,'" she says. "What they don't tell you is the process can take two months."

For example, to get a food vendor permit, Ima needed financial clearance from the city, a social security card and driver license, among other documents. Without any of these, the process can take an additional 10 days.

Ima's lawyer can't help her with city permits, and even food vendors who have gone through the process can't always give her the full story. "I was born in this country and have a master's degree, and

the licensing process has reduced me to tears," says Ima.

The key is to have patience and do as much research as you can. "I asked a lot of questions and waited on a lot of lines," she says.

This week, Ima is anticipating finally getting the Treats Truck on the road, but yet again, she's waiting for one last permit allowing her to operate as a mobile food vendor.

So far, she has failed inspection twice due to a coffee pot that wasn't nailed down to the counter and a generator that quit the night before inspection.

Then there was the issue of the fridge thermometers that, according to Ima, the first inspector approved but the second one didn't.

Another inspection appointment can take days to secure and "things can change according to the inspector you get," Ima points out.

Generating a Buzz

When I spoke with Ima, she had just returned from a fruitless generator run to New Jersey.

"They had the wrong kind," she laments with a laugh. "If I could bake a generator, that would be great."

She did, as luck would have it, locate a model in the Bronx that should pass inspection. The catch? She can't run everything in the truck at the same time.

But it will have to do for the first few days on the road, she says.

Despite her permit headaches, Ima sounds surprisingly upbeat and tells me she won't give up her vision for anything.

"People cheer me on and that means a lot to me too," she says. "The other day, someone bit into a cookie and loved it so much, he sat down and started describing what it tasted like to him. I thought to myself, 'I will never get tired of this.'"

Check back next week for news of the Treats Truck hitting the streets.