What you’re about to read is a story of money, scandal, and fried rice.
I’m talking locker room deals, tested loyalties, and plenty of schmoozing. This was serious business.
It all started during my first full week of high school.
I was in gym class with a few of my new friends, when it occurred to me that lunch time was approaching. To be fair, I was always aware of how much time was left until my next meal. However, on this day, I wanted something other than school lunch.
For reference, I had been in this high school building for three years already—my middle school shared the building. So, while my new friends were only now becoming acquainted with school lunch here, I had already decided I was in the mood for something else.
“I could really go for some chicken with broccoli. Extra spicy. Pork fried rice. Like right now,” I said to my new crew.
That was it.
They discussed what I’d just said and collectively decided that they wanted to be a part of whatever move I was about to make. Since I was already familiar with the building, and had already had deliveries there once or twice during some of my rehearsals during middle school, they trusted that I could pull this off. I never actually asked them to buy anything. All I did was tell them what I wanted. But that was all it took.
That was the beginning of my business. And I had no idea.
Several days a week for the next few months, I ordered Chinese food for a growing number of people. I was the plug. People I didn’t even know would come talk to me in phys-ed and place their orders. Then people started approaching me long before phys-ed because they weren’t in my class, but had heard about me. Sometimes they’d slide me a tip to make sure that their order came exactly as their specific instructions demanded (once someone asked me to order them fried rice with no oil. I worked for high schoolers, what can I say?). And, because only I kept track of the menu prices, I could pretty much set my own prices, within reason.
Does it sound like some shady gangster film set in New Jersey? It was a lot like that.
But replace alleyways with gym bleachers and emergency sirens with administrative announcements on the loudspeakers. And replace New Jersey with…well no. It was in New Jersey.
Anyway, I continued to place orders. But there were a few things I had to get right for this to continue to work. I didn’t have a cell phone, but I had to place the orders by phone and be near a phone to get the call from the delivery man. I had to stop using office phones of teachers that I got along with and start borrowing a friend’s cell phone on a daily basis. Also, we had delivery minimums that I had to meet before placing an order. So I had to keep a minimum of three lunch specials, or five “appetizer” orders.
Then there was another problem. My parents didn’t usually give me lunch money, because my school lunch was subsidized. If I was having a slow week, my pockets would be too light for what I’d want to order. So, there were days I had to order Chinese food—my favorite food—but I couldn’t order any myself. I didn’t get into this to make money. I only collected orders so that we could meet the minimums for the lunch that I wanted, when I planned to order for myself. That was it. I wasn’t trying to start a business.
The market didn’t care.
Because on the few days that I said, “oh, I’m not ordering today,” demand didn’t fall. And there were other people around to pick up the pieces.
Once they started to learn that this was profitable, I was in trouble.
Then, there was another problem. People, unlike me, got tired of Chinese food. They wanted pricier options from non-mom-and-pop establishments. This meant receipts printed with logos on them. This meant fees.
This meant less profit for ordering food that I didn’t even want. I was pissed.
So, on days that we ordered from Dominoes, for example, I pulled out any coupons I had. I even allowed people to order pizza by the slice—tiny as those slices may have been. I had to up-charge for tax and delivery. I also struggled because they didn’t keep the same hours as the other places I would order from.
My class ate lunch at 11:35am. I had to order early enough for the food to be cooked and delivered by then, which meant that the restaurants had to be open before 11 for me to place an order. That’s not the norm. But the people wanted what they wanted. And I was in deep.
Meanwhile, did I remember to do last night’s World History homework?
So I ordered. I ordered whatever they asked me to order. And I had to start early in the day because now I had competition. I had to get people to commit to ordering sooner than my competitors. This sometimes meant taking orders as soon as we got in to school—while we were eating breakfast!
Who knew it would ever come to this!?
And then, one day something happened. My biggest competitor, eager to outsell me, took on a challenge that had previously cut into my profit reserves (or…pocket money). The people wanted Dominoes pizza, again. The last time I’d ordered from them, I had to cover part of the cost with money that I’d earned previously. The irony. Unsweetened irony.
So, I backed down that day and she excitedly ordered for everyone. And I sat back. She took the orders. She made the call. She picked up the food.
I went and collected my too-small-of-a-portion-yet-already-paid-for school lunch and pulled up a chair.
And it happened.
Storming back in to the school building with pizza boxes and buffalo wings boxes, she yelled, “I’m not ordering from Dominoes anymore. It’s too expensive.”
If there had been any tea around to sip, I’d still be sitting there sipping it.
You see, it was stressful enough ordering from the same place regularly. You had the people who wanted to place orders, but were short on money. People who had the money, but didn’t have class with you, that you had to chase down. There were security guards to make nice with. School administrators to persuade. There were fast transactions that needed to happen when neighborhood tensions were high and the security team didn’t want to let anyone in the building.
Now throw in a new supplier (restaurant) who didn’t understand the school’s culture, wasn’t at all loyal to earning your money, didn’t know to throw certain things in the bag even when you forgot to ask for them (simply because they knew your voice), and didn’t have much regard for the small window of time you were allowed to eat (we were 14 year old high school students who had new classes to go to every 40 minutes).
It was a lot of work. Businesses always look easier to run than they are. Even when you’re not making a whole lot.
So, needless to say, my competitor effectively burnt herself out trying to outdo me—she wasn’t about this lunch special lifestyle. For the rest of the school year, I didn’t have much of that problem anymore.
It was intense. I was 14, managing an operation that was a micro version of what some huge corporations were doing everyday. I wasn’t drawing the parallel. I wasn’t thinking bigger. I didn’t see why I should.
I didn’t place much value on what I was doing. And I lost out in the long run because of that.
Now, there’s no telling if I would have created anything bigger than this with a little more foresight, but let’s think about something else: I already knew basic HTML and web design. I had already built a website. Who’s to say that I couldn’t have started a service, just in my hometown, that helped people order lunch or dinner from their computers? Maybe even just fellow high schools? Maybe just for after school activities?
I just needed the right person to help me become a bit more sophisticated, if this was something I really showed promise in, to help me take a more committed step.
Since I didn’t have that person, I’m trying to be that right person for would-be entrepreneurs. And for entrepreneurial high school students, too.
When we’re good at something, especially something that we find easy to do, we don’t always see that we have an opportunity on our hands. Sometimes we do know that we have something special going on for us, but we don’t know what to do next.
That wasn’t my only side hustle that school year. So, as intense as this lunch ordering business was, I was doing a lot more than that. That year I also learned how to order products wholesale, “mass” produce accessories that I made on my sewing machine, and create demand in a niche I wasn’t known for—I was not the fashionable cool kid.
High school was very educational.
So, that’s the story that shaped the beginning of my high school experience. The lessons that I learned then are still helping me make decisions today.
If you never believed me before, I hope you understand what I mean when I say that what you’re passionate about can make you a profit.
And, yes. I’m still passionate about Chinese food today.