By Mindy Friddle | Greenville Online
Restaurants may have customers, but food trucks have groupies. And no wonder: Gourmet food on the move, from sustainable local sources, and at reasonable prices? Bring it on. These mobile eateries — with their niche menus, tech-savvy chefs and an urban vibe — have hit the streets from coast to coast, in New York and Los Angeles as well as cities such as Atlanta and Charlotte. Now Greenville has its own growing mobile food culture, thanks to two gourmet food trucks that rolled in six months ago.
Chefs Lauren Zanardelli and Graham Foster opened their gourmet food truck, Neue Southern, in September, and often “dock” their truck in the parking lot near Community Tap at Stone’s Point. Neue Southern (Neue is German for “new”) specializes in European/Southern fusion. Zanardelli, who grew up in Pittsburgh, and Foster, a Greenville native, met at Johnson and Wales culinary school in 2011. Both interned in Michelin-star-rated restaurants in New York City, experiences Zanardelli describes as valuable but “brutal.”
After some soul searching at the conclusion of their internships, she says they had an epiphany: “If we’re going to spend 12-hour days, six days a week in kitchens, we wanted it to be our own. Especially when we already have our own ideas.” Foster noticed the streets in their East Village neighborhood were lined with food trucks offering some of the best food he’d tasted. Why not open a food truck?
While they’re fully mobile—and required to be driven to a commissary for cleaning and storage at the end of each workday — the low overhead of food trucks appeals to many chefs who want to run their own kitchens. “We looked at a lot of cities,” Foster says. “We considered Asheville and Charleston, but … found there were no food trucks in Greenville at the time.”
They soon discovered fellow food truck pioneers Roberto Cortez and Gina Petti had come to a similar conclusion. Cortez and Petti, who moved to Greenville from California, opened their food truck, Asada, in August 2012. Spanish for “grilled,” Asada specializes in gourmet Latin American food from San Francisco’s Mission District, where Cortez and Petti met.
When the couple visited Cortez’s brother, an airline pilot living in Greenville, “we loved it. We went back to our cramped San Francisco apartment and decided we wanted to move here,” Petti says. A fine artist and graphic designer, Cortez designed the food truck’s logo, website and branding. They started out small, Petti says, preparing their Latin fusion specialties in booths at Upstate food festivals. “People kept asking us where our restaurant was,” she says. A property owner in the Pendleton Arts District agreed to let them park their food truck on his parking lot across from Village Studios, where they now serve lunch or dinner several times a week.
They love being surrounded by art galleries and studios, Cortez says, and serve dinner on “First Fridays,” a gallery crawl when dozens of galleries open their doors to the public on the first Friday of every month. Street performers sometimes show up, Cortez says.
The chefs from both food trucks regularly collaborate, arranging certain dates to join forces for what’s known as a “rodeo.” Teaming up, Foster says, draws more diners who appreciate the opportunity to order from both menus. Like most gourmet food trucks nationwide, Neue Southern and Asada rely on social media to announce such events as well as their weekly locations and specials.
Neue Southern’s menu changes with the availability of local ingredients, and includes such dishes as sustainably wild caught North Carolina flounder fillet with collard greens and pommes frites tossed in a smoked pimento BBQ rub. When the couple traveled in January to Asia, “we basically ate our way through Vietnam, Japan and Hong Kong,” Foster says. They came back with ideas for dishes to add to the menu.
Both couples say they would like one day to open brick-and-mortar restaurants but will keep their food trucks rolling. After all, in addition to made-to-order meals, food trucks are known for bringing something else to their customers: a sense of community. The friends they’ve met though the order window, and who meet each other, are what makes their 12-hour days worthwhile, the chefs say. “I love that we have such a variety of customers,” Petti says. “Men in suits and ties, nurses, artists, families.” Cortez adds how pleased he is to see diners network: “I see them eating lunch and exchanging business cards.”
Zanardelli says she’ll never forget one of Neue Southern’s most rewarding nights: “We had 12 gentlemen who chose us for their monthly sit-down dinner. They set up a dining room table with a tablecloth right there in the parking lot. I was so tickled. It was the best.”