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Life Lessons and Burgers With Kyle Pounders

By Dylan Lewis - Apr 3, 2018 at 3:54PM

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An interview with Excaliburger’s Kyle Pounders about the logistics of the food truck industry, cooking good food, and what brought him from Little Rock to Austin for South by Southwest.

It's not just the delicious burgers, the amazing name, or the mouth-watering smell that wafts around food truck Excaliburger. It's the man behind it that makes it all a little magical.

In this special bonus episode of Industry Focus -- filmed just outside South by Southwest -- Tech show host Dylan Lewis and producer Dan Boyd talk with Excaliburger dynamo Kyle Pounders about the business of running a food truck, giving people an experience that makes them stop by (like opening their soda with a four-foot sword), crafting a lean menu that keeps things simple and people coming back, and the sometimes-unfortunate, sometimes-serendipitous nature of life.

A full transcript follows the video.

This video was recorded on March 31, 2018.

Dylan Lewis: Can you smell it?

Dan Boyd: No, not yet. We didn't smell it last time until we passed it.

Lewis: I guess we're not close enough yet.

That's me, Tech show host Dylan Lewis and producer Dan Boyd on East Cesar Chavez Avenue in East Austin. It's Tuesday night during South by Southwest, and we're about to stop by our favorite food truck in Austin, Excaliburger. We'd been there two nights before, and when we walked up, the owner, Kyle Pounders, recognized us immediately.

I think he remembers us.

Kyle Pounders: Who are you? No, I know. This is amazing!

Boyd: We're back.

Lewis: We were here the other night.

Pounder: Yeah, but where were you with all this gear, this is awesome!

Boyd: So, we do a podcast for our work.

Pounder: Oh, yeah! The Motley Fool!

Boyd: Yeah. And we wanted to talk about the experience of coming to Excaliburger.

Pounder: OK!

Boyd: And maybe even get you to say some words into our microphone at some point.

Pounder: Oh, that would be incredible! Yeah, I'll do whatever you want.

Lewis: Our original hook with Kyle and Excaliburger was that he traveled all the way from Little Rock, Arkansas to come to South by Southwest. We thought that made for a really great story and an interesting lens into the food truck industry. But a few minutes and a few Kyle-isms later, we realized we'd stumbled onto something special.

Pounder: This is fun! I've never done anything like this before.

Lewis: [laughs] Neither have we!

Pounder: I meant the cooking hamburger part.

Lewis: Dan and I weren't Kyle's only returning customers. Two guys at the food truck said they'd been there earlier -- an hour and a half earlier. Kyle joked that they hadn't even finished digesting their first bites of his burgers.

Over the course of the night, we met several other folks that came back for seconds. It was clear that Kyle had a pretty good feel for what works in the food truck industry. We asked him a lot of questions about running a truck, but we also asked him a lot of questions about himself. Kyle is an exceptional person. He's charismatic but incredibly genuine. You can't help but root for him.

Kyle told us that a buddy came up with the name Excaliburger, and when it was clear he wasn't going to do anything with it, with his permission, Kyle decided to open up shop. And Kyle is entirely committed to the name. When we first walked up, he asked us, "What is your quest?" He calls the caramelized onions on top of his burger "the crown jewel." But I would argue the real crown jewel of Kyle's business is a four-foot sword he uses to open bottles of soda.

Pounder: I just wanted a drink.

Boyd: [laughs] Oh, there it is!

Lewis: Where did you get that sword?

Pounder: From a guy named Raul, he's a Brazilian tennis coach, and I traded him 10 hamburgers for it.

Lewis: Given the reaction that everyone that sees it has, it was probably one of his best business ideas. One of the things he learned early on in the food truck business was, it's important to give people something special. There are a ton of food trucks. You need to give people an experience. Good food gets people to come back, but giving people novelty and personality gets them to come for the first time. Good smells help, too.

Pounder: I can't tell you how many people come up with some other type of experience that they're after besides just, "I heard it was tasty. I saw a picture and it looks beautiful." I've seen 15, 20, 30 pictures of this, and they've all looked beautiful. I open my Cokes with that sword, and I can't tell you how much money I've made by people who literally say to me directly, just straight-up, "I don't even want this Coke, I just want to take a picture of you opening it with a sword so I can put it on my Instagram."

Lewis: It's about the experience.

Pounder: Yeah, absolutely. So, they leave, they had a fun time, it was interactive, it was an experience. Which, that's what the whole electromagnetic sheath is. And we have a whole list of things we're going to do. That was just episode one for you.

Lewis: Wait, what?

Pounder: We're putting an electromagnetic sheath on this thing at the beginning of the month.

Lewis: I don't know what that means.

Pounder: A sheath, like you would store a sword in.

Lewis: Right.

Pounder: So, we're going to have this bad boy mounted on the front, sticking out kind of like a unicorn, and it's going to be held in place to where no one can get it out, akin to the Sword in the Stone, the Excalibur, which no one could get out. Until young Arthur, many a stronger man had tried to pull the Excalibur from the stone, but none could. So, we're going to have a similar thing, except for the sheath is going to be wrapped in a coil, which we're going to use to become an electromagnet. And the beauty of that is, whenever a cute kid walks up, I can flip the switch, the electromagnet shuts off and the sword slides right out. So, it's the Sword in the Food Truck, instead of the Sword in the Stone. The Excaliburger instead of the Excalibur. It's fun, right? We're just having fun.

Lewis: He also mentioned flamethrower turning signals. It's hard to know how serious he is about those. 

For all his complex plans for the truck, Kyle runs a pretty lean menu on board. There's a cheeseburger, single or double, with bacon as a plus-one. He also does chicken sandwiches, the Excalibird, and a Portobello mushroom burger, the Excalibella. But they aren't advertised. There are no fries or onion rings. Chips are his sides, and they're packaged and ready to go. The tight menu helps make the one-man operation manageable, and it keeps inventory really simple. In a cramped food truck, space and organization is key.

He was willing to make one new addition to appease local customers, though.

Pounder: Do y'all know about Topo Chico?

Boyd: Yeah, we do, actually.

Pounder: I didn't know about this. People go crazy for it down here. They're like, "You don't have Topo Chico? I don't want your hamburger." And I'm like, [laughs] what do the two have to do with each other? "This is awesome! You have to have Topo Chico!"

Lewis: He loaded up the truck with some sparkling mineral water once he realized it was a local favorite. In the kitchen, though, there are no concessions. Kyle is a self-professed texture snob, and he has the burger-making down to a science.

It's cool if we're back here? Wow!

Pounder: If you guys want to ask questions here, I can cook, you can hear the scraping and clinking, and these things make some Hibachi-type noises whenever they go through.

Boyd: Can we order burgers, too?

Pounder: Yeah, what do you want?

Boyd: Single bacon with everything.

Lewis: Single bacon cheese, the works.

Pounder: Yeah, baby!

Lewis: Oh, it smells so good back here!

Pounder: Let's do it. They haven't figured out how to transmit smells through those microphones yet, have they?

Boyd: Not yet!

Lewis: We haven't gotten there yet with technology.

Pounder: That'll be my greatest invention. Second-greatest invention.

Lewis: So, just to paint a picture with what we're smelling right now, we've got Crock-Pot onions over here on one side, next to a huge pan full of bacon.

Pounder: Those are sautéed until -- we'll spread a thin layer out, and we'll cook them until the bottom of them is burned. Then we toss them in a special sauce that has some sugars in it, and those caramelize, coat the onions really well. By the time it's done, we don't consider them a vegetable, even.

Lewis: What are they?

Pounder: They're sautéed onions. They're a vegetable. But they're unrecognizable.

Lewis: What do you consider them, though?

Pounder: Ah, I'm just joking!

Lewis: I would say a blessing.

Pounder: A blessing, yeah!

Lewis: Because, we had them, I remember, last night when we came by your place, you said that's the crown of the burger.

Pounder: The crown jewel, yeah. And here's the unsung hero right here, you see the stuff I'm scraping off? When I flip it -- this is actually a paint scraper from Home Depot. And that's because I can get up underneath the patties whenever I'm cooking them, and this stuff right here is called Mallard crust.

Lewis: Quick editor's note, it's Maillard. In fairness to Kyle, he was taking orders, cooking, and being interviewed at the same time.

Pounder: Whenever something caramelizes, think about the way sugar tastes, and how it's sweet but doesn't have any character, really. But then, you take it over a certain temperature for a certain time, and that's all it is, is temperature and time, and sugar becomes caramelized. Think about now, the expressiveness of caramel. The same thing happens with proteins after certain temperatures, they get restructured, it's called the Maillard reaction. It's the comparable term to caramelization. And it's very similar to where, these pieces right here are just going to be jam-packed full of flavor, so I'm always scraping this off and putting them on. I'm giving you all my secrets. It's no secret. But, here, whenever this cools off, you'll taste this. And when you taste it, don't think that you would sit down and have a whole bowl of this for dinner. Think about it the way that you would think garlic. You love garlic?

Lewis: Love garlic!

Pounder: You love garlic?

Boyd: Of course, yeah!

Pounder: You ever sit down and have a whole bowl of garlic?

Boyd: No.

Lewis: No.

Pounder: No. But on something else, in something else, with something else, it's delicious, it's an enhancer. So, if this is cool enough, I want you to take this and try it, and the same mentality as what garlic would be.

Lewis: Oh, that is delicious!

Boyd: That's really good!

Pounder: Right? See what I mean?

Boyd: It's really good!

Lewis: I can't even do that -- I can't do that justice.

Boyd: What about frying these buns? Why is that so important?

Pounder: Because I'm a texture snob.

Boyd: Would you explain what you're doing?

Pounder: So, right now, I'm taking a challah bun from my baker, fresh-baked. I have them actually undercooked the buns a little bit, which makes them a little gooey. Putting real butter on there... on a little butter, it's kind of like a hamster wheel that goes through a thing of butter. So, I'll roll it through that a couple of times. And I put it on there. And that's always the first thing that I put on and the last thing I take off, because I mean, we near-burn it whenever we put it on there. You heard the guy earlier who said, "Oh, but you burned my bun!" No, yes, I did. But, I call it love. It's not burnt. It's good stuff.

Lewis: He also has very firm opinions about cheese.

Pounder: I think it's stupid that this is America and people assume you don't want cheese. Right, though? If you don't say anything, you don't get cheese. That's stupid. I make the non-cheese eaters speak up at Excaliburger.

Lewis: But his true signature comes with the patty. The Maillard reaction scrapings give the flavor, but the texture and composition come from his split patty approach. His singles look like doubles, but really, they're one patty cut in half. There are taste reasons for this, but there are also practical business reasons behind this, too.

Pounder: I can cook two two-ounce patty quicker than I can cook one four-ounce patty, so it's efficiency. The Maillard reaction, taste. See, the thick patty thing, it creates a divide. The people who want their burgers cooked all the way through, what do they really want? They're weird about the color, right? They don't want to see any red or any pink. The people who want the red or the pink, they don't mind what color it is, they just want, what?

Boyd: Taste.

Pounder: A juicy burger, yeah, a good-tasting burger. They don't want a hockey puck. So, by having two thin patties instead of one thick patty, I cook them so quickly that they're cooked all the way through, but they're not on there long enough to dry out. So, the people who want the well-done burger get what they want. They don't see any red, they don't see any pink. The people who want a juicy burger, they don't really care what color it is, they just want the juicy burger. So, they get the juicy burger, they get the fully cooked burger, everybody's happy with the exact same thing, I don't have to change anything.

Lewis: Thin patties help him get everyone what they want, without having to worry about customizing to rare, medium, well tendencies, which can help with output times.

For Kyle, running a food truck wasn't always the plan. He's kind of a dreamer that happened into an idea he couldn't ignore.

Pounder: I've always had a bajillion ideas. And I woke up one day, looked in the mirror and realized, if I didn't pick one of those ideas and go with it, I was going to die -- pretty soon, life goes by quicker than you intend for it to --

Lewis: [laughs] 

Pounder: No, but, just, you wake up one day and you never chased your dreams, right?

Lewis: And then you die, yeah.

Pounder: And then you die. And I spent my whole life just bouncing around, failing out of school, working crap jobs and talking about what I was going to do someday. And I had this folder of all these ideas. And I sat down one day and I said, "OK, I'm going to find the idea that I'm going to pursue and I'm going to stick with it until it becomes realized." And I flipped through, and Excaliburger was just undoubtedly the one. 

So, I went out, got a second job, saved every penny from that job and got a griddle. $600, flat top, 48-inch griddle. It was kind of a fake it until you make it moment. I started having backyard barbecues, hey, I'm going to do this and that. It's going to be called Excaliburger. That's about all I knew at the time, and that we were going to have a lot of fun and make delicious food. But, I built the whole concept around the name, which is your original question. But, yeah, that's what we started with, and I built the rest of the concept just around the name.

Lewis: Kyle had never cooked professionally prior to opening Excaliburger. Everything he picked up was from doing his own homework and testing things out.

Pounder: When you're neurotic and passionate about something, you look at it from all angles. So, I'm going to look at the science of this, I'm also going to look at the art form of this. So, when every burger goes out, it has to be beautiful. I'm a fool for -- speak of fools, y'all are some Fools, I'm a fool too, for going into the burger business. There's so many hamburgers are out there. What business do I have, thinking that I can compete with everybody?

Lewis: South by Southwest is a chance for Kyle to run a food truck in a more competitive market and see how he stacks up. Austin is known for its food truck scene. There are plenty of options. So, if people don't like what you're making, it's going to be obvious. He ballparks that he'll break even around 500 burgers sold, a number that doubled on the way to Austin thanks to two truck breakdowns. But even without those, the trip wouldn't have been cheap. He has to buy supplies, pay for a permit to operate the truck in Austin, and actually get the truck to Austin. It only gets about five to six miles per gallon. So, over eight days, he needs to sell a little bit more than 60 burgers a day. A burger plus chips and a drink will run a customer around $12. 

He came to Austin with pretty low expectations, though.

Pounder: I said from the start of this trip that this is hands-down the worst trip we'll ever have to Austin. Because this is the breakthrough. No one knows us. The next time I come, there'll be 100 people expecting us and bringing friends. You disappear for a while, then you come back, and it's like, "Oh, Excaliburger's back!" You know?

Lewis: Kyle views selling burgers like being a musician. The first time you come to town, nobody knows who you are. If you put on a good show, you'll have fans waiting for you the next time when you come back. Another important part of the South by Southwest visit, Kyle is building business for future trips.

Pounder: I have a file cabinet, and we're going to do all 50 states in there. And anytime I get somebody from somewhere that's like, "Hey, dude, can you travel to where I'm from?" Sure. I don't know if I will or not, but I'm going to collect all these things, and whenever I go to a particular state I'll pull it out and email everybody from Detroit, if I'm going to Michigan, or whatever.

Lewis: On that note, we promised Kyle a plug. He's looking for interesting places to go and wants to travel with the truck. So, if you like the sound of the show and you like the sound of Kyle, shoot him a note at request.excaliburger.com.

The adventure of traveling around seems to be one of the most energizing parts of the business for Kyle. It's also the part of the gig where things tend to go wrong. As it turns out, there's a ton that goes into running a food truck that has absolutely nothing to do with food. Here's Kyle and his friend Bency explaining the business.

Bency: Owning a food truck, it's 60% being a mechanic and 40% making food.

Pounder: And by mechanic, that includes all the other plumbing and all that.

Bency: Yeah.

Lewis: And if you have any doubts about that, here's Dan asking a question about ingredients. Look how quickly Kyle turns from chef to mechanic.

Boyd: That's actually a question I had, did you bring your ingredients and stuff with you?

Pounder: Yeah. That was actually what created the problem. I have this massive inverter in the front seat that I purchased, and like a genius, the first time I used it was whenever I set it up to come down here. And the reason I need that is so that I can convert power from the alternator to -- the DC power to AC power, so that I can plug in the refrigerator while we're driving down the road. So, in theory, the power that comes off the alternator goes to the refrigerator, my food stays cold, and I can charge my cellphone. It ended up draining my battery entirely all the way down, because I was supposed to have a deep cycle battery, and I didn't know that. And whenever I shut the engine off the first time, it just, not even a click whenever I try to, because the alternator was keeping it going the whole time.

Lewis: Part of what made Kyle so amazing, and why Dan and I knew we had to talk to him, was that he has this cosmic magnetism to him. Things happen to him, sometimes bad, but they always seem to wind up working out, mostly because he has an unbelievably positive energy. Here's a story of the truck breaking down in Dallas, Texas.

Pounder: A buddy from college that I hadn't seen in 12 years pulled over to help me. I hadn't seen or talked to him -- yeah, in Dallas.

Lewis: Just out of chance?

Pounder: Yeah. I was in between Dallas and Fort Worth, just outside of a town called Arlington where they've got Six Flags and all the stadiums. We were right there. He was going to get fitted for a tux, with his whole family. And his whole family stayed on the side of the road with us. The whole family being wife and two children, one of which was born five days ago. And they sat on the side of the road for four hours. I should just edit this and put it online, I have to put that video up. This stuff just happens all the time to me, so I don't think that much of it, but the looks on your faces, I'm like, this isn't normal everyday life for people, is it? It's my normal everyday life, but I guess I didn't realize that would be interesting to see.

Boyd: It sounds like a script, like a film script.

Pounder: [laughs] I guess. I don't know. It's fun! I love it! I wouldn't do anything else. Even when I was broke down, I wasn't upset about it, it's just, this is what happens. This is why we built the extra day in. So, if you get there in enough time without anything going wrong ...

Bency: Where's the fun in that?

Pounder: Where's the story there? Right? Where's the story, for one. And then, I would have just got to hang out with him an extra day. But it just doesn't go that way. And I'm going to continue to travel across the country, and that type of stuff is going to continue to happen. I'm going to have to get towed, and I'm going to have crazy things that I can or cannot fix, I'm going to make friends and it's going to rain. It'll be fine.

Lewis: And here's the story of his first date with his now-girlfriend, Candice.

Pounder: I'm a big moves kind of guy. I was like, alright, if we're going to start dating, let's go all-out, I'm not just going to take you out for a movie. So, I took the truck to Missouri to her grandparents' house, and nobody knew I was coming. And I showed up in the food truck and I was like, "Hey! What's up? I'm here!" And I'd made a joke to her earlier. She'd said, "We're having this big birthday celebration with all of my family tomorrow afternoon, Sunday, in Springfield, Missouri." They were at, I forget the name of the lake, Tabletop Lake or something --

Boyd: Table Rock.

Pounder: Table Rock Lake. Her Grandma and Grandpa are on Table Rock Lake. So, she said, "We're going to go down there and everyone's coming." And I said, "Would y'all like to have hamburgers at your birthday celebration?" And she said, "Oh, my gosh! We would love it, and they would love you." And I said, "OK, on my way!" And she said, "Ha-ha, whatever." And then I showed up eight hours later. 

The transmission broke on that trip. I got to fix the transmission on the side of the road in Missouri with her Grandpa and her stepdad, Thad. Which was really confusing, when she was saying "My mom and Thad," and then she refers to her dad later. And I'm like, "I don't even know who we're talking about." 

We do the whole trip and we take the truck up there, and she's like, "Oh my gosh!" We found this beautiful stump, and I was like, "This would be a beautiful table." And I was like, "Oh, that was a very domestic thing to say, I guess I should ask her to be my girlfriend." So, we started dating. And we took this little stump with us. We wrote our initials on it. It was awesome!

Lewis: That's adorable.

Pounder: [laughs] It is adorable.

Lewis: That's such a good story.

Pounder: She loved it. And she was like, "Oh, my gosh! This is terrible, we're broke down!" And I said, "Candice, do you understand that me being broke down and getting to lay underneath the truck and fix the transmission hose lines with your stepdad, who's very important to you, is about the equivalent of you having an entire spa day with my mom?" Right?

Lewis: Yeah.

Pounder: I was like, this is good!

Lewis: It's a deep connection.

Pounder: This is all according to plan, just like me breaking down on the way here was according to plan, you document it, it's interesting, it's a better story. Look, y'all have a microphone on me right now and we're talking about it, right?

Lewis: While, we were recording, Candice called him.

Pounder: Oh, y'all want to talk to Candice?

Lewis: [laughs] 

Pounder: Here. If I can show up to her grandparents in the food truck, y'all can, speakerphone.

Lewis: Hi, Candice?

Candice: Hello?

Lewis: How's it going?

Candice: Good! How are you?

Lewis: Good. I'm interviewing Kyle right now. I'm with The Motley Fool. My name's Dylan, I have my producer Dan here. We're hanging out at the truck. Kyle just told us all about how you guys met.

Candice: Oh! What did he say?

Lewis: He told us all about the big trip, the truck, fixing the truck with your, is it your stepfather?

Pounder: I told them about the time I took your stepdad to the spa.

Candice: Oh, that's your spa, not my spa.

Lewis: That's an incredible story, Candice.

Pounder: Candice, you're on a podcast right now, just answer their questions.

Candice: OK. What questions do you have?

Lewis: [laughs] I'd love to get that story from your perspective. You have this guy that you maybe know, but haven't really gone on a date with, show up with your family.

Pounder: Dude, apparently she had a crush on me! I had no idea. I just thought she was a cool chick, but I didn't know there was anything there. Candice, you go!

Candice: Yeah, no, I totally had a crush on him for several months, but he had no idea. And we had been hanging out in groups of people for quite some time, but recently just started hanging out all the time. And then out of nowhere, he just shows up at my grandparents' house and meets my entire family. And I'm Italian, so it's not small.

Lewis: That's Kyle. And it seems like that's kind of Candice, too. If you talk to Kyle for five minutes, it's pretty clear: Kyle loves burgers, Kyle loves people, and Kyle loves swords. He has the formula figured out for an awesome food truck, and he's a warm guy. But for all the tinkering around and honing his concept, he says he's not a money-minded guy.

Pounder: Candice and I are basically perfect for each other. Her strengths and my strengths and her weaknesses and my weaknesses just play off of each other in a beautiful way, except we're both so terrible with money. So, maybe we could be a case study, and y'all can help us. 

Candice: Oh my god, this is a brilliant idea! Tell us what to do.

Pounder: Tell us what to do!

Lewis: Well, we do have a podcast called Motley Fool Answers.

Pounder: Baby, we're just going to listen to this podcast.

Candice: OK. But I do like the idea of us being a case study.

Lewis: Are you thinking, like, a Motley Fool financial makeover?

Pounder: Yeah! Yeah!

Candice: Yes! Oh, my god, yes!

Pounder: Will you look at our stuff and be like, "Why would you ever do this?!"

Lewis: And then we cut to the after shot, what does that look like?

Pounder: Well, check in in a year. We can just check in every year. I'm going to be a millionaire pretty soon. So, y'all could have found me when my stuff was in shambles and been like, "This is everything you're doing wrong," and I'll be like, "OK, I'll fix it." You know what would be a hilarious interview? If you interviewed my accountant. Oh, my gosh. She would just be like, "Oh, my gosh, Kyle is the worst client I have." She wouldn't say that, but that's just because she's a sweetheart.

Lewis: Who knows? Maybe there will be more Kyle and Candice on the show in the future. For now, though, Kyle has two new fans, and Motley Fool Answers might have two new listeners.

If you want to see a picture of me, Dan and Kyle at the truck, go to @MFIndustryFocus on Twitter. If you want to follow Kyle, he's on Instagram and Twitter @Excaliburger_.

Pounder: This truck broke down twice and I fixed it both times. I had to google things and ask a couple of questions, but that's part of what the failure teaches you, is how to push through the failure. It wasn't even a big deal. I didn't even get upset about it. I was just like, we're broke down, let's fix it now. Because it's happened so many times. And I remember the first time that happened, I felt so mature, was how I felt. And I'm not even talking about a particular failure, just failure as a whole. If you're doing anything, if you're going for greatness at all, failure is going to happen over and over, and you have to just continue going.

[Keep On Chooglin' -- Creedence Clearwater Revival]

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