Susan Morris was one of the first people in Winston-Salem to take food trucks seriously.
She saw the phenomenon unfolding in other cities, particularly Atlanta, and became convinced that the fledgling “movement” had a future in Winston-Salem.
This was when the most apparent manifestations here were taco trucks; a few early entrants to the industry included Camel City Grill, which in 2019 is still rolling up with tasty, hand-held fare. Morris corralled friends, fired them up, and the merry band of volunteers organized Winston-Salem’s first food truck festival in 2013.
It was a modest beginning. Thirteen trucks camped out on a short stretch of Burke Street, but folks turned out in droves. Morris, now program director at Venture Café in Innovation Quarter, and the other two principal organizers, Reggie Delahanty and Bethany Davoll, “stepped out on faith” — no grants or major underwriting but the event operated in the black first time around. Good eats, lines of eager diners, and an event that spoke of community through food adventurism.
Last year’s festival drew 75 trucks and included bells and whistles making it a family event — 16,000 attendees in a single afternoon. The Burke Street Food Truck Festival is taking a hiatus this year so volunteers can catch their breath, but organizers are assuring food truck enthusiasts the festival will be back in 2020.
So what about the future of the food truck industry? Naysayers call it a fad and predict its demise. But others who have watched it evolve tend to disagree.
Beer and a burger
Driving the craze right now is the robust world of social media and the surge in the region’s craft brewery industry. Because of cumbersome food service regulations, restaurant startup costs, and the headaches of managing an on-site eatery, most breweries have opted to not serve food. This is serendipitous for the food truck community, which has forged a symbiotic relationship with them.
Many local breweries have food trucks on site every night, drawing in loyal followings and cross marketing. Daniel Ashe, co-owner of Fiddlin’ Fish, says that food trucks were always part of his business plan.
“I never wanted a restaurant,” he says. He draws on a pool of trucks from throughout the area, some coming from places such as Mount Airy, Lowgap, and even Lake Norman where diner-pleasing Lobster Dogs is based. Its popular offerings can run as high as $18 but still create lines.
“Our patrons have their favorites but they also want something new and fresh,” Ashe explains. “We look for trucks with a lot of options and a reputation for dependability.”
Chef Michael Millan, co-owner of Mary’s Gourmet Diner, made his mark as a food truck operator with Mojito Mobile Kitchen. He and his wife still operate their high-profile truck, mostly with weekend gigs, offering what Millan describes as “old-school Cuban food” that includes Mojito’s “dressed up” tamales.
Mojito prefers to operate as a mobile kitchen instead of a food truck. That was a thoughtful choice by Millan who comes from a corporate background.
“If a food truck breaks down, you are out of business. But if you have a trailer, you rent a truck for the day, hook it to your trailer and you are back in business,” he says.
Millan also likes the smaller size of the trailer that allows him to unhook it and operate in a small space.
An ah-ha moment
Competition in the food truck industry is brisk.
“You have to have a unique concept, a catchy name, and good food to create a following,” says Matt Pleasant, head chef at Earl’s, a southern kitchen and whiskey bar.
Pleasant likes to travel and explore new cuisines. At one point, he found himself in Thailand with his wife, Megan, enjoying the local food and thinking about returning to Winston-Salem. That was the “ah-ha” moment when they conceived the Bahtmobile and its Thai-inspired Asian fusion menu, which was one of the area’s most popular food trucks before he sold it. It has since been rebranded and is back on the road again.
Pleasant went from brick and mortar to a food truck, and back to brick and mortar. He did well financially with the truck and enjoyed the interaction with customers in diverse venues.
“The scenery was always changing but so was the weather and your paycheck,” he says.
He was scheduling nine months in advance when he switched the motor off on his up-fitted plumber’s truck and took over the kitchen at Earl’s. While there is amazing camaraderie among the diverse operators and food truck venues, Chef Matt eventually began to long for more consistency.
Every food truck has its unique story and it’s not for everyone. But let’s circle back to our original question.
What about the future of the food truck industry?
All indications are that is strong and here to stay — and not just a flash in the pan.