WILMINGTON — For food truck owners who have cleared the bureaucratic hurdles, won over a following, and are paying the bills, what’s next? Not all survive, but those that do, often set their sights on expansion.
The region has seen plenty of trucks go, but others have grown into whole fleets — or, alternatively, into brick and mortar restaurants.
Port City Daily talked with veteran food truckers – including Michelle “Mama” Rock of T’Geaux Boys and Harley Bruce of Poor Piggie’s BBQ and Catering – as well as relative newcomers – including Molly and Brendan Curnyn of CheeseSmith and Erin and Kevin Langston of WilmieWoodie – for an inside look at the industry.
Out of gas
In the last few years, Wilmington has seen plenty of new food trucks, but it’s also seen nearly a dozen throw in the towel.
Rock can list the names from memory.
“There was the Cheesy Banker, Mr. Cheese, Groovy Fish, Beach House Dogs,” she said. “Ramen A Go Go. Yehmon51 isn’t running. Goin’ Ham,” Rock said.
Her husband chimed in “Dub’s Donuts.”
There’s no one reason a food truck stops running: financial difficulty, injury and health concerns, and in some cases, the industry is a lot harder than it looks. Vittles owner Todd Champion cited health concerns, as well as more nefarious factors when he announced he was shutting down, but for Carter McKaughan, who ran the Cheesy Banker, it was just too much to take on.
Bruce said he saw “food truck” shows – notably The Great Food Truck Race – were both a part of inspiring the latest boom in food trucks and a culprit in misleading people into thinking food trucking is an easy, breezy business.
“Those shows, there were a bunch of them, and that kind of ramped thing up — I can’t even watch them, they’re so fake,” Bruce said. “They ride around, park wherever they want, and there’s just a line waiting.”
While the businesses often fold, it’s not uncommon for the trucks themselves to come out of retirement. Rock’s truck used to be the Flaming Amy’s Burrito Truck. Bruce bought his Goin’ Ham truck from former owner Josh Andrews; he changed up the menu but the name, well, Bruce said it just stuck.
Brick and mortar vs. multiple trucks
For the trucks that survive — and thrive — the inevitable question is: how to grow? Usually, that means considering multiple trucks, or opening a brick-and-mortar location.
The relationship between food trucks and brick-and-mortar restaurants is complicated (even when we’re not talking about lawsuits over constitutional violations).
Some food trucks got their start as spin-offs from already-successful restaurants. Keith Rhodes of Catch, Joe Pate of P.T.s Olde Fashioned Grille, and the Musser family of Bill’s Front Porch have all taken their food on the road. And, some restauranteurs got their start on food trucks, like James Smith, who grew his following for the Patty Wagon food truck into a local empire, including Fork’n’Cork, Bone and Bean, and Smoke on the Water, and chef Kirsten Mitchen, who started the Vittles food truck and now runs Salt Fish in Carolina Beach with her mother.
Several other food trucks, including Joe Loves Lobster Rolls, have expressed interest in opening a permanent location.
Brick and mortar restaurants provide stability and generate revenue from alcohol sales that food trucks can’t. But they’re also a greater financial risk and they’re a full-time commitment.
Rock said she has looked at permanent locations but enjoys the flexibility of food trucks. Bruce agreed, saying “I could open up a restaurant, but I like the truck.”
Both agreed, it’s hard to run a successful business with just one truck. For Bruce, without a restaurant, multiple trucks are a necessity.
“People say, you must be a gazillionaire with all those trucks — but the truth is, you be able to make it with just one truck. You certainly won’t be able to support a family,” Bruce said.
That’s something some food truckers are learning. The Curnyns said they were considering another truck – or possibly a brick and mortar – but haven’t worked out anything concrete.
Either way, expansion brings a major concern — finding good help.
Good help is hard to find
Food trucks, like any restaurant, are only as good as your staff. It’s been the downfall of trucks in the past, Rock said.
“Are they worried about your food? Are they taking care of the truck? Are they worried about your till, the way you would be? You have to ask that stuff,” Rock said.
The Curnyns shared similar concerns.
“What makes it so good is who your employees — we kill ourselves to work all day, we start at 7 a.m., but it’s hard to give that incentive to someone who isn’t the owner,” Molly Curnyn said.
But, as a food truck grows — whether it turns into a fleet, or develops into a restaurant — eventually owners will need to let go of doing everything themselves and bring on more employees.
Food truck family
One thing food truckers can count on is their “food truck family,” Rock said.
Rock said she learned from Pate and Rhodes, as well as from working with Bruce — in fact, Rock’s son Nick now works for Bruce. Those friendships helped her mentor the owners of CheeseSmith and Wilmy Woodie, who shared a commissary kitchen facility with her.
The commissary-mates pitched in when Hurricane Florence ravaged the area, along with Bruce and the A&M’s Food Truck owners. The efforts were kicked off by World Kitchen International, which earned chef José Andrés a Nobel Peace Prize nomination. Rock helped coordinate with the trucks that hadn’t evacuated and got more than 150,000 hot meals to an area running short on food and largely without power.
That’s just the kind of thing food truck people do, it seems.
The Curnyns said their fellow food truckers have been surprisingly kind, whether it’s advice, help scheduling, or loaning a spare generator.
“It’s not competition at all — it’s super friendly, we all help each other,” Molly Curnyn said.
Kevin Langston said, “the food truck family looks out for each other. We talk to each other about our events and even though we are separate businesses when we help each other we all grow together.”
Rock and Bruce said they still get questions all the time from aspiring new food truckers. All you have to do is catch them at their next event.
“That’s my life, I’m open door about it. If you got time I’ll talk to you about it,” Bruce said.
Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at firstname.lastname@example.org, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.