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Saturday, March 1, 2008 | The whole escapade started with a pricey video camera, and 17-year-old Matt Wong’s scheme to earn some cash.
It ended with a two-day school suspension, the shutdown of an amateur sandwich-making enterprise, and Wong’s name splashed on CNN.
Wong and his friends had shelled out roughly $3,000 for the camera — a sleek new tool for the filmmaking society he founded at La Jolla High School. He needed to earn it back. So like any good entrepreneur, Wong scanned his marketplace for a need, and met it.
“Food at school is not healthy at all,” Wong said, proffering a San Diego Unified school lunch menu that lists pizza, taco pockets and a scattering of salads. “Monopolies don’t get any better.”
Wong’s brainchild was the Sandwich Company: a cart serving up fresh grilled sandwiches layered with mozzarella, Roma tomatoes and olive tapenade; zucchini, Provolone cheese and pesto. He calculated prices, perused farmers markets, and studied world-famous restaurants; he built his own six-foot-wide cart, equipped with a heating lamp, and solicited bulk rates on sandwich wrappers, shipped on tankers from China.
In little time, he had a stack of sandwich pre-orders. Buzz percolated through the La Jolla High campus as students passed around his laminated menus, peppered with mouth-watering prose. To Wong, it felt like a rare moment of community on campus.
But Wong skipped one step: Getting permission. San Diego Unified schools prohibit students from selling homemade foods. Nor can they compete directly with the cafeteria — which was exactly what Wong set out to do. When Wong unrolled the Sandwich Company on Jan 15, the principal confronted him and told him to stop. Instead, Wong wheeled his cart across campus, and kept serving.
La Jolla High served him with a two-day suspension.
The odd episode made its way to television news, eventually ascending to CNN. Wong, meanwhile, is pitching a new juice-making venture to La Jolla High’s administrators, learning the nitty-gritty of San Diego Unified food policies, and filming a Spanish-language drama in his spare time.
He never earned back the money for the video camera.
Wong took a time out from his busy schedule of school, film and sandwiches to sit down with voiceofsandiego.org and talk about his odyssey, his business model, and why he doesn’t want to be Donald Trump.
So, how did all this get started?
I’ve always liked to cook. I found my cooking could be a solution to the club’s budget issue. So I came up with a few recipes that I usually like to have. I like pesto. The first one I came up with was the turkey pesto. The zucchini really adds some more volume to it, or it becomes flat and it doesn’t taste good. That was the first entree. We used In-N-Out Burger’s business model — a few recipes, but a few recipes that were good. I thought up a tomato-olive tapenade on a baguette, with olive oil on the side, and slices of Genoa salami.
What kind of preparation goes into this whole thing, to make it work on a school site?
Well, we made our own table. I made it, because I like to build stuff. Last summer I built my own bed and I built a dolly for our camera. So why not build our own table?
I don’t know how to describe it — it’s around six feet wide, with a little divot for me to work on where I can put my sandwich and cutting board, oils, and my heat lamp and ingredients — I put it in the middle of the quad so that everybody could see. … I got a deal for sandwich papers from China — they were going to sell me it by the ream — it was a joke because they asked me how many cubic meters I wanted on a transport ship, and I had to say, I’m not that serious, I’m not KFC or something. … On the first day — it was a Wednesday — I got all the orders together and I started making sandwiches. It was the 15th of January.
Did you think it might be something you could get in trouble for?
Yeah. I did.
Why? Had you talked to anyone in the administration beforehand?
I talked to the ASB [Associated Student Body] faculty advisor, and he said it was OK to have a fundraiser. But I didn’t go through the proper steps.
What happened when you rolled this out on the first day?
A lot of excitement. A lot of curiosity. It worked out really well. Nothing went wrong. The power was on. The grill was working. It would have been a really good day — if they’d let me do it.
I actually had a meeting planned with the administration the next day, but I jumped the gun and went ahead and did it a day earlier. That kind of cost me.
How many sandwiches did you sell your first day?
The first day I got 14 orders. Fourteen, I thought I could handle. My fourth period is political science and that’s a college course, so I don’t have classes on Tuesdays and Fridays, so those days I can operate the Sandwich Company. (College classes were out on the Wednesday that Wong started delivering.) People have to pre-order. … That kind of hurts the business, because a lot of people make spontaneous choices.
In your article for the La Jolla student paper, you talked about the sense of community that developed around the sandwiches. Tell me more about that.
I don’t feel it very often at our school. That day, or the day before when I was getting orders, it felt like people I never knew, people I’d never talked to, asked me if I could make them a sandwich. It felt really strange, first of all. And then I thought about it, and it felt good. There was something that people could actually share, together. I’m not making it up.
So I understand you’ve got a new venture coming up — something about smoothies?
The juice stand? I’m trying to get permission from coaches to fundraise during games. It’s a perfect time when people are hungry and they can make money. Everybody can be happy. So I thought of not just the sandwiches — the sandwiches I’ve got down, the roast beef and the turkey — in addition, I would have a juice stand offering orange juice and grapefruit juice. I drink homemade juices a lot these days. I’m trying to find a way to get the price wholesale for oranges and grapefruit. It tastes a lot better than Tropicana.
What lessons have come out of this experience for you?
I learned that you can’t really mess with the administration. Even if it’s funny. Even if you can get the whole school going for you. (pause) If I had my choice, I’d do it again — but right now, I wouldn’t do anything that risky.
Does this whole experience seem kind of surreal to you?
Because from the outside, when someone says, there’s a kid who was suspended for selling sandwiches to raise money for a film club …
Well, it’s not actually just making sandwiches that got me suspended.
What was suspension like?
I made a few sandwiches. A lot of sleep, which was good, and some homework. Did some reading. Stuff you do on the weekend.
Did the whole episode change the way that people recognize you on campus?
It made me more determined. Usually I come up with a lot of ideas, and I don’t really follow through. This one I came up with early on, and I actually got my act together. I actually did it. And it worked out — except I didn’t follow the proper laws.
What’s the red tape you have to go through to actually do this, to do it properly?
There’s a lot of random stuff. You can only sell food if it’s a fundraiser for a club. And to do a fundraiser for a club you have to get a blue form. And you have to turn that in, wait a week, get it signed by a lot of people — like the cafeteria — to make sure the food you’re selling doesn’t conflict with the food the cafeteria is serving.
How would it conflict?
Say I want to sell sandwiches in two weeks — well, it wouldn’t get approved (anyhow) because you can’t sell food that’s made at your home or made at school. But if it were approved, I’d have to go to the cafeteria and get the leader there to sign it and make sure that what they’re selling isn’t sandwiches because they have a monopoly. And I can’t do anything about it.
What was the media blitz like?
Yesterday they aired the local news, Channel 10. I thought — that’s amazing. I called all my friends. A bunch of people taped it. Today, or yesterday, I heard people in the [La Jolla High] office were watching it. One of my dad’s workers told him I was on CNN.
I have no idea why they would pick my local story out of all the local stories to be on national TV. Maybe the recession isn’t that great news.
So you think your story isn’t all that exceptional?
It’s a neat story, but it doesn’t deserve all the attention it’s got.
Tell me about the kind of movies you make, and what you’re hoping for the film club.
We’re shooting a movie this weekend, pretty much all weekend, about a kid who grows up by seeing his dad hurt by a work injury. It’s this conflict with his mother, who doesn’t want to take him to the hospital. And then he has to take his own actions. People don’t understand why I’m doing it.
Who are your icons? Do you have people that you really look up to?
There are a few people. Gordon Ramsay, have you heard of him? He’s a big-name chef in the UK. He has three TV shows and like a dozen restaurants that are top-rated in all the capital cities. He writes books all the time. I just thought, he’s so productive, why can’t I be so productive?
I look up to a lot of big-name people. The CEO and founder of IKEA, that guy is really amazing. He started his first company when he was 15. That’s IKEA. He’s 80-something right now, still working on it. He’s a very modest guy. I really like modest people. And I like different things from different people. I respect a lot of artists, a lot of pianists. I’m a pianist myself.
When people ask me who my heroes are, I can’t tell you exactly who they are because they’re for all different kinds of personality traits. I can’t say I want to be one person exactly, I can’t say I want to be Donald Trump — he’s hardworking, he wakes up at five o’clock in the morning, but he has a horrible personality.
I always read biographies, on Wikipedia especially. That’s what life is about. You want to take from what other people have gone through and make your life better. (pause) I don’t know.