Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.
It was the Fourth of July, so of course there would be fireworks. Des Cortes was dreading it. After five and a half years in the Navy that included deployments in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Djibouti, Cortes knew the sound of explosions would trigger her. As the light display crackled across the sky that night in 2017, she stood in a Tin Hut BBQ truck on an Air Force base in Honolulu, struggling to count out the night's receipts. "I couldn't focus on what I was doing," Cortes says. "I completely shut down."
Fortunately, her boss, Frank Diaz, was by her side--as he had been since she'd texted him about a job. PTSD had forced Cortes, at age 24, into early retirement from the military. Unable to find work, she'd been couch surfing with friends or living out of her car. Diaz, the founder of Tin Hut, hired her by text five minutes after she reached out, and trained her one-on-one. Over the next two years he helped Cortes sign up for benefits and therapy through the Veterans Administration, found her temporary housing, and taught her to budget her money so she could move into her own apartment.
On that night, "Frank told me I was safe. That I am right here for you," Cortes says. Calmly, gently, he led her through the process of counting out the money in incremental steps: Let's lay the ones out here. Let's lay the fives out here. It was a five-minute job completed in 35 minutes. "Frank saw where I was," Cortes says. "And he met me there."
Tin Hut BBQ is a 17-employee food truck company serving three military bases and--with one strip-mall location--a base-adjacent neighborhood in Honolulu. The company's name is a pun squared: at once a play on "ten hut" (a military officer's call to attention) and a reference to the metal trailers from which the business operates. Diaz is also founder of Aloha Gourmet Food Trucks, which subcontracts catering jobs to independent mobile-food operators on the island. Combined annual revenue for the two companies is $1.2 million.
Since Tin Hut's launch seven years ago, it has employed 65 veterans or veterans' family members, accounting for roughly a quarter of the workforce. Diaz has helped many of those in their struggles with PTSD and addiction. Three homeless men have lived in a loft in his kitchen while getting back on their feet. (Honolulu has among the country's highest proportion of homeless veterans compared with overall veteran population, according to a study by WalletHub.)
"I'm always spreading the word: If you know any vets, I will help them out," Diaz says. "I never feel like it is appropriate for someone who has sacrificed for this country to be left without care or without a home. I don't agree with that at all."
Diaz's other priority is to provide active and retired service members with the kind of food he associates with relaxed good times. Sandra Bannan, a disabled Air Force veteran who works as a contractor for the Department of Defense on Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, buys Tin Hut's smoked chicken and spicy mac and cheese for lunch on Tuesdays and Thursdays. She and her husband, a civilian who also works on the base, are such big fans they had Tin Hut cater their wedding. "That kind of barbecue is not very common in Hawaii," Bannan says. "So it is a really big treat for people to try food that brings back memories of other places they have been deployed or lived."
Meat and military traditions
Barbecue was among the few constants in Diaz's peripatetic childhood. A military brat, he bounced around the world: Maryland, New Jersey, Arizona, Central America, Turkey, Iran. Overseas the family hosted shindigs for the troops--roasting whole pigs on a spit and inviting soldiers to prepare their own traditional dishes from places like Puerto Rico and the Philippines.
In 1977, the Diaz family settled for good at what was then Fort Lewis (now Joint Base Lewis-McChord) near Tacoma, Washington. Diaz went to college but left to join the Army in 1981, where he "started learning what real discipline was about. And real duty."
Over the next 33 years--first in the active military, and then as a civilian working for the Department of Defense--Diaz racked up skills and experiences. Among other jobs, he inspected special weapons systems, tested the first Humvees, served as a member of special ops, commanded a recruiting station, and developed safety plans for U.S. forces in Europe. Throughout he kept alive his father's tradition: inviting soldiers for holiday or weekend barbecues.
While stationed in Germany and later, during a brief retirement, Diaz and his wife started businesses. Among them: a company that sold lingerie through parties at people's homes and one that printed people's names--along with those names' origins, meanings, and other information--on works of art. "We had multiple kiosks throughout Europe selling that product," Diaz says. But the military proved too absorbing for full-on entrepreneurship.
Covering the bases
In 2007 Diaz--now divorced and remarried--found himself back at Fort Lewis, working on security plans for the Department of Defense. One day he volunteered to barbecue for a conference being held by his church. By the time he'd finished cooking, there was no food left for him. "On the following Monday, I go to work and I am craving barbecue," he says. "I go onto the base and there is no barbecue there. There is no barbecue nearby. My planning wheels started to roll."
Diaz imagined launching an on-base food service out of a mobile kitchen trailer similar to ones used by the military. He developed a barbecue recipe and a business plan, and prepared to launch. Then the DOD offered Diaz a position in Honolulu, which required overseas deployments, complicating his startup plans. Still, he brought a smoker and started testing his recipe and processes.
Back in Honolulu for good in 2011, Diaz struggled to source equipment on the island. After permits, certifications, and payments for a commissary kitchen, startup costs were about $120,000. An SBA loan was approved too late for launch, so Diaz and his wife spent savings and took out a loan against his retirement plan.
Tin Hut's first menu--a conflation of popular items from mainland restaurants and local favorites--included lots of pork, as well as chicken, brisket, beans, and mac and cheese. "And because we are in Hawaii," he says, "we had to have rice."
A tragedy and new mission
Diaz introduced his first Tin Hut in 2012 on Schofield Barracks, an army installation, where it quickly overshadowed the two other food trucks and pop-up tents selling hot dogs and hamburgers. Soon he was posting schedules and promoting the food truck on Facebook. That caught the attention of personnel at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, which is about 20 minutes away, and Marine Corps Base Hawaii--roughly a 40-minute drive. "They would send one person here with a bunch of orders and bring them back," says Diaz. "Eventually it opened the door for us to go to those other bases as well."
The focus on hiring veterans began five years ago. That's when Diaz met a sergeant--newly discharged and grappling with PTSD--at Schofield Barracks. The veteran, who was running a pop-up burger tent on base, asked Diaz to mentor him on starting a food truck business. "One day he was overwhelmed by the voices in his head and shot himself," Diaz says. "I said this will never, ever happen to a vet I know again."
Diaz shows his employees how to navigate the VA system, trains them in culinary and basic business skills, teaches them personal financial responsibility, and "helps them make better choices"--which generally means not drinking. Before they're stabilized, some workers are unreliable, which means Diaz must be endlessly flexible. "In the Army we had to plan for contingencies. I apply the same principles to operating Tin Hut," he says. That may mean closing a location early or not opening one at all if human resources are scant.
But once they have their feet under them, veterans make the best workers. In 2016 Diaz used profits from Tin Hut to open a catering business, Aloha Gourmet Food Trucks. In their contracts with Diaz, the 35 owner-operators of those trucks agree to hire veterans, whom he regularly refers to them. "They want veterans as part of their teams because they know they are dependable," says Diaz, who to-date has placed around two dozen.
Grand plans to help (and feed) military members everywhere
The holidays are hard on troops who pull guard duty while others celebrate. Two years ago, Diaz started bringing them turkey dinners with all the trimmings. In 2018 the business fed 75 people at Christmas. Last year the number was above 200.
And Diaz has grander philanthropic ambitions. He is starting to raise money for a nonprofit, Call 2 Duty, to assist veterans with PTSD and other problems transition to civilian life. The plan is to build a center that will include housing for the homeless, mental health and spiritual counseling, skills training, and retail outlets that will give some vets their first post-military jobs. A large commercial kitchen will support the truck and catering operations while providing experience in food preparation.
Diaz also hopes to expand Tin Hut to bases around the country. "Military people rotate duty locations, on average, every two or three years," he says. "They'll have some really good barbecue on base. Then they'll move to another base. And they'll see a familiar name."
He will have help with that. Des Cortes, the veteran whose fears Diaz calmed amid the fireworks, is now Tin Hut's assistant manager, something she couldn't have imagined three years ago. Diaz's confidence in her, she says, bred confidence in herself and a fierce loyalty. "I want to help Frank take it to the next level," Cortes says. "Whatever his vision is, I want to be part of it."