WILMINGTON — Cody Allen has been in the restaurant industry in some way or another his whole life. Currently, he operates East Coast Maintenance, which specializes in the upkeep of industrial restaurant equipment. He’s also worked in local kitchens, from washing dishes at 13 to becoming a line cook to managing restaurants.
“But I’ve always wanted to have a restaurant/bar,” Allen said last week while flipping burgers in his newly launched food truck, Champs BBQ.
Last spring, when Covid-19 wrecked 90% of business from East Coast Maintenance customers, Allen said his day-to-day life slowed enough for him to consider his dream a little more closely. Though the strain on his main business was tough, he had enough contacts to find a commissary kitchen (a place where food-truck operators prep all food, as regulated by the health department) once he decided to build a food truck from the ground up.
“We bought the trailer, and then we completely outfitted it,” Allen explained. “We built the kitchen, have freezers, refrigeration. We have three pot sinks — we have the cooking side, flat tops, ovens. The only thing we don’t have is fryers. And that’s because I don’t want fryers. I don’t want fried food. I’m looking for a little bit better quality than fried food.”
Allen has a lifelong love for barbecue — particularly smoking meats. He’s the go-to guy at family cookouts and gatherings for pulled pork, brisket, chicken, turkey, or anything else that can go in a smoker.
“It’s just been kind of a hobby my whole life,” he said.
The trick is in the smoke, followed by temperature, according to Allen. “You can’t rush barbecue,” he said. “It’s a low-and-slow process.”
A PitBoss smoker is front and center inside his 8-foot-by-26-foot food truck. He also uses a homemade double pig smoker for larger caterings. Part of the unctuous flavor from the pork comes from the wood used; the other is from the brine and binder on the meats, as well as a homemade dry-rub mixed together from a few seasonings that Allen keeps close to the vest.
He cooks his pork butts, which make their way across the menu in various incarnations, up to 18 hours depending on size and how many are in the smoker at once.
“I use hardwoods for pork and brisket, and I use some flavored woods for chickens and lighter meats,” he detailed.
Pork is on the Champs menu daily: as a sandwich, topped on hot dogs and stuffed in quesadillas. Champs also serves various burgers and a Philly cheesesteak, plus offers daily specials, like chicken and brisket. Allen occasionally puts smoked sausages on his breakfast menu, which includes biscuits and gravy, burritos, sandwiches and platters (eggs, bacon, grits).
He also makes his own barbecue sauce in two forms: classic Eastern North Carolina style (vinegar and red pepper flakes) and a thicker, sweet-and-spicy version.
“I’m born and bred right here in North Carolina at New Hanover Regional,” Allen said, “so, yes, I definitely have my vinegar-style, but I don’t put that on the meat — that’s for you to put it on yourself.”
Sometimes he makes a tangy version for the brisket, or specialized sauces for pulled chicken and smoked turkey.
As important as serving tasty, homemade food is to Allen, providing it at a fair price also is top-of-mind.
“I want to serve the blue-collar worker,” he said. “The blue-collar worker gets left out all the time.”
Allen has been setting up in front of hardware stores, paint shops and supply stores, places construction workers are found early in the morning and throughout the day.
“I feel like this is where Champs could do really well,” he said, “where we can be close to the tradesmen everywhere.”
Allen will be adding dinner eventually and traveling to breweries and event spaces.
Every Friday he offers first responders — military, firefighters, EMTs, police — 50% off their entire order. It’s a policy he wanted to continue after managing Mission BBQ for years and growing appreciation for its efforts in recognizing this sector.
“I love what they stand for — being in support of our community, our police, our firefighters,” he explained. “They also had a product I really enjoyed and loved, so that influenced the direction I’m going.”
With the help of his fiancée Heather Muira, and two employees, James Melvin (former chef at 22 North) and Eric Cocca, Champs has been operating at full speed since Thanksgiving. The truck will be set up in front of Home Depot in the Kohl’s parking lot off Racine Drive from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. through Sunday, Jan. 17.
Readers can check back in with Port City Daily’s Food Truck Tracker every Monday morning to follow up on their schedule.
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