MIDDLETOWN — In the last 12 months, Josh and Jillian Moskites bought a trailer so their grilled cheese food truck business could be in two places at the same time.
They lived away from the house they own in Marlborough while a massive mold infestation was remediated, and many of their possessions were in storage. For five weeks of that time, the whole family lived in a hotel.
And they had their fifth child. Jillian was back serving customers from their Whey Station truck a week later.
So when they ran into minor inconveniences at a gig last week at Wesleyan, such as no reserved parking for their truck, they rolled with it with only the mildest kvetching.
Even when construction workers complained that students were lining up for orders where they wanted to replace decorative bricks, Josh smiled and suggested they put sawhorses at the truck's window, while an employee hopped to the ground to take orders.
"It's always mass chaos. No matter what you prepare for, something's always going to go awry," Jillian says. "You gotta think on your feet, for sure."
Jillian, 36, and Josh, 31, started dating 14 years ago, and started working together a dozen years ago at his mother's cheese shop.
"We each have our strengths, and his is smiling," Jillian says. But she's not so easily ruffled either. After the construction complaint, she laughs and says, "All in a day's work."
Josh says, "We have very different management styles," and Jillian laughs raucously.
"We balance each other out," she says. "I want to say yes to everything. He's more cautious."
Josh takes care of all the permitting paperwork and keeps track of the finances. They both work on prepping ingredients and working events.
Choosing which events to accept is the hardest part of the job, they think. "I get anxiety over it," Josh said.
Because they've become friends with other food truck owners, they do ask them if they did a certain event the year before, and how it went. But they recognize that it's hard to predict.
When the couple started the Whey Station five years ago, it was a fallback option. Josh's mother was selling her Cromwell cheese shop and they thought they'd open a restaurant. They were thinking about a burger or grilled cheese place, but every time they found a spot to lease, another business would win the bid because it had a plan to renovate the space with cash. The Moskites had a loan lined up to launch a restaurant.
"It was a blessing in disguise," Jillian says now. That's because at a restaurant, they would've needed 10 times the capital investment, and because with the food truck, they have more freedom to set their work hours.
In January and February, they work only 15 or 20 hours a week. But in their busiest months, May, September and October, they work 50 to 60 hours, with Mondays and Tuesdays off.
Even then, Jillian says, "We're both home usually from 3 to 7 p.m., after school."
It's hard to manage the business cash flow so they have enough to support themselves and their five children, 8 and younger, in the slow times.
"We were doing really great last year; then both of our cars died," Jillian says.
The Whey Station doesn't do many private parties or weddings, because people want to book far ahead, and they have contractual obligations to staff Xfinity Theater concert dates and Mohegan Sun rooftop parties, which could conflict.
Wesleyan events are about 20 percent of the Whey Station's revenue, with steady Thursday through Saturday visits that start at 11 p.m. and go until 2 a.m. on weekends.
The greasy indulgence of grilled cheese and smothered fries is a good match with those who are partying.
Josh staffs Wesleyan events with a part-time employee. They try to have four part-timers in the busy season from mid-April to the end of October, but are short-staffed by two now, because some people they hired didn't show up when they were supposed to.
"I've kind of had it with putting ads on Craigslist and them not working out," Jillian said, so she's trying to hire through recommendations this time. They pay more than the minimum wage because of the demands of the job, and the part-timers do get a cut of the tips.
The most volume per hour the Whey Station ever did was at the North Haven food truck festival. They produced 900 sandwiches that day. "That was intense," Jillian says.
They'd like to develop one of the part-timers to the point where he or she could staff an event without one of the Moskites working it with them. The worker they had who was the most responsible is heading back to school to become a teacher.
"It's hard, it's your whole reputation as a business," Jillian says. "I'm not good at letting go of that stuff."
But if they don't, they'll never be able to have a saner schedule in their three heaviest months.
Four years ago, the food truck scene in central Connecticut was far different, they say. Fewer food truck festivals, and fewer food trucks in the field, too.
For the first year and a half, they had no employees.
"We just kind of booked everything that came our way," Josh says. "We lost money in the beginning," from paying event fees that were too high to break even and buying too much product and having to throw some out. The first two years were a big learning curve.
Last year, they crossed the $250,000 mark in revenue, which was twice what they grossed three years earlier.
They spent about $25,000 buying and upgrading the grill and refrigerators and adding a deep fryer in their used truck, which had a past life as a plumber service truck.
"We slowly did it without going into debt," Jillian says.
Even buying the trailer was done without traditional borrowing. They have taken a small advance from Square, the technology company that processes their credit card sales, and received an interest free loan from Kiva, a crowdfunding loan site. That loan was funded by Wesleyan students.
Erica Snyder, a freshman at Wesleyan, is a regular customer of the Whey Station at 11 p.m. on Thursdays. As she eats a guacamole-grilled cheese and fries at Spring Fling, she says patronizing the truck is her ritual that says "the weekend's beginning."
She can't make a sandwich as good as the Whey Station at home. "No, I've tried over break! It's not the same."
Will the Moskites still be running the food truck business 10 years from now?
"No! Our children!" Josh cries.
"I like to have a goal, but not necessarily make direct plans," Jillian said. "If you had told us we'd be at where we are now when we started, we wouldn't have believed you."
The Whey Station is at Coventry Regional Farmers Market on Sundays, Bushnell Park during the week and at other locations. To see a schedule, visit wheystation.com.