Cornell Sample's food truck has seen better times but he's not done just yet. Photo provided by Cornell Sample
Cornell Sample's food truck has seen better times but he's not done just yet.

Romulus resident Cornell Sample serves up a smile despite the hardships of COVID-19, has lessons along the way.

ROMULUS, MI—It takes a lot to ruffle Cornell Sample’s feathers. COVID-19 has caused him to lose some sales. Unmoved. He experienced some unfair treatment when trying to build his business with health inspections that were more than triple the length that they should have been.

The longtime Romulus-based entrepreneur still remains unshaken and ready to serve up his delicious BBQ meals with a sincere smile. And he’s got some stories to tell, too. He got his start surviving the tail end of the economic downturn in 2010 when his restaurant (by way of a Trenton gas station) was impacted when the quality of the gas station started to take a nosedive. So he pivoted and his Mr. Pit Master Barbecue Food Truck was born.

“I started losing money at that point,” Sample said, adding that he went into catering shortly thereafter for about four years and then had an epiphany to start his food truck business and he did. 

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“We opened up Mr. Pit Master Barbecue Food Truck and we started doing the food truck thing,” Sample said. “A lot of it has been trial and error. One of the first things I would say is do everything the right way as far as licensing, paperwork. You can’t cut corners because if you cut corners it’s going to catch up to you.”

Sample said that doing things the right way ensures that if a customer comes up and they happen to be with the government or the health department (which has happened before) he won’t be surprised with any penalties or have to close down.

“You need to make sure you’re doing it the right way and because when you’re serving people and dealing with people you never know who comes up to your truck,” he said. “I’ve had people  from the health department in civilian clothes; police, government. You always want to have your paperwork and you always want to be legit. It was always my purpose to be legit and do things the right way.”

As far as what advice would Sample would give to other businesses especially those of color when it comes to navigating uncertainties? He would tell them to be accommodating.

In his business he’s had to jump through hoops with the health department and other entities to ensure his business is running smoothly.

“At the end of the day you don’t want the Health Department to be your enemy,” Sample said, adding that he lives by a motto he learned growing up. “My mother always said, ‘You’ll catch more bees with honey than you do with poop.’ When I got my food truck and inspection I had to jump through hoops. An hour inspection turned into an eight hour inspection in Wayne County.”

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He added that it is important to also understand the process.

“It’s going to be a struggle; it’s not going to be easy. But once you get through it the first time then you’re in good shape.”

Behind the business is his better half, his wife. They are based around Oakland, Macomb, and Wayne counties. They’ve also gone as far as northern Ohio. Sample said that COVID-19 caused his mostly event-based business to look to social-distancing events and drive-through events like funerals and graduations this past summer. 

“When COVID first hit I panicked,” he said, adding that winter time is a slow season for food trucks, and when he accumulates debt the most. But the springtime is where he recoups his losses — this spring was a different story with the pandemic in full force. “I said, ‘OK, what’s the game plan?’”

He didn’t have to wonder for long as factories with essential workers and subdivisions began calling him up in the spring. People lined up and socially distanced; and he served with no-contact.

“That’s what got us through,” he said, adding that the catering segment of his business hasn’t fully recovered yet. 

“I think number wise we’ll come out not ahead but I think we’ll break even. Most of my business comes from word of mouth,” Sample said. “I take pride in what we do and how we do it. We give people what they pay for and more and people appreciate that.”

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