Meet Blake Ross — a current D3 at the Dental College of Georgia, a former student athlete and the owner of two food trucks, Rita’s Italian Ice and Luna Pizza Co. Ross was born and raised in Augusta, Georgia, and he played on the baseball team for four years at the College of Charleston, graduating with a degree in business administration in 2014. Here, he talks about how he got into the business of food trucks while in dental school.
How did you become interested in dentistry?
I’ve always wanted to be in the medical field, but I also wanted to own a business. My father owns a family entertainment center in Augusta called Putt-Putt Fun Center, and being around his business all my life inspired me to want to become an entrepreneur. It wasn’t until my senior year of undergrad when I was going through multiple injuries during my final season of playing baseball that I started focusing more on my education and career choices. One day while I was eating with my dad, I noticed that he was self-conscious about his smile and removing his partial dentures to eat certain foods. From that day forward, I was determined to learn more about dentistry and how I could impact people’s smiles and create more confidence in their daily lives.
How did you get into the food truck business?
My parents worked the local fair for many years, selling boiled peanuts and other concession items for my education. After graduating in 2014, I came home to begin the prerequisite courses for dental school. I was working for my dad and a local pediatric dentist in town, but I wanted to earn more money on the weekends. The opportunity presented itself a few months later to purchase a concession trailer and start attending festivals and other events as a food vendor. However, with my entrepreneurial mindset, I was always looking for more growth and began looking for new opportunities.
How did the first truck, Rita’s Italian Ice, come about?
When I moved home and came to work for my dad, I noticed that the business needed a facelift. I realized that my father was getting older — his vision, energy and motivation were not the same as they were before I left for college. I spent the first year and a half renovating the outside of Putt-Putt — pressure washing, laying new carpet for the miniature golf courses and painting.
In 2016 we were looking for new avenues of revenue amongst the concession area and came across Rita’s Italian Ice. We began the interior renovation of Putt-Putt, adding Rita’s to the forefront of our front counter, along with new cabinets, new video games and fresh paint. At the time, we did not realize how familiar people would be with Rita’s Italian Ice since it originated in Philadelphia. That following year, we decided to take Rita’s mobile to serve more customers.
When did Luna’s food truck open?
Even after taking Rita’s mobile, we were still cooking behind the truck to generate more revenue at events and festivals. We were doing events almost every weekend, and I began to notice how the barrier of entry in our area was a low cost. Anyone could just pay the festival fee, set up a tent, bring a grill to cook, and they were off to selling their food. Because of this low cost of entry, the competition increased drastically, and we began to search for more opportunities.
What made our Rita’s truck so unique was whatever we did not sell on the truck, we were able to minimize our waste of product by selling the rest at our storefront inside Putt-Putt. With this in mind, I started paying more attention to the type of food that was being sold at each event and comparing it to food items we were already selling at Putt-Putt. I noticed that no one was selling pizza. We spent nearly four months trying to perfect our own pizza recipe, inviting all of our friends and family to try, as our taste buds were getting exhausted from the amount of pizza we ate.
Finally, in October 2019, we felt we had perfected a recipe that everyone would be excited about and had our second mobile food truck made for pizza. I wanted to use my mother’s maiden name, Constantino, in our brand but felt like it was too long or difficult for people to remember. I searched for Italian surnames and Luna popped up, which is the name of my German Shorthaired Pointer and I thought the name was perfect.
What is your favorite part about having the food trucks?
I love to watch people and how our food trucks bring people together at all of the events and festivals we attend. Watching the smiles and reactions as people indulge into their Rita’s treat is the best feeling!
What is the hardest part?
The hardest part is knowing exactly how much product to bring to an event. Event planners do their best to give an estimate of how many attendees they expect, but you never truly know out of that population how many will visit your food trucks.
Do you have a lot of dental students who work on the food trucks?
One of the hardest things to do when running any business is finding staff. Luckily, some of my classmates expressed interest in working with me to earn and save money on the side. When we got the Luna’s truck completed in 2019, I was lucky to have the help of my good friend Sean Jeppesen in getting these two trucks rolling together. His eagerness to learn and his energy and knowledge made it so easy to train on the trucks, and honestly, I do not think I could have rolled out two trucks together without him. I am also forever grateful for my classmates Ali MacDonald, Hannah Borgerding and Steve Will who have also played a huge role in the daily operation of our trucks.
Do your food trucks go to the dental school?
Just a few weeks ago, Georgia ASDA brought us to the Dental College to host an advocacy event with Luna’s pizza and a Rita’s treat for the first years. That day, it was determined to bring the trucks to the campus once a week to provide students, faculty and staff with more food options during lunch.
Do you plan on having food trucks after dental school?
Truthfully, I have not thought that far in advance, but I would say there is a good chance these trucks will still be running and operating after dental school.
What is your vision for the food trucks?
I am always looking for ways to grow as a person and as a business. I have been looking at the idea of operating Luna’s Pizza Co. as a food truck franchise. However, Rita’s Italian Ice is already a franchise, so the growth here would mean adding more mobile trucks to the fleet.
With these businesses evolving out of your family’s business, how would you say your parents have impacted you over the years?
Over the past few years, they have joined me and stood by my side during the daily grind of being a food truck operator. Throughout my life, they have instilled in me the importance of having values and a strong work ethic. They have paved a path of opportunities for me to succeed, and I will forever be indebted to them for that.
~Stephanie Jaipaul, Georgia ’22, ASDA Electronic Editor