By Paul A. Specht | The News Observer
The rush of customers came to Terrance Conway’s food truck right after his business partner left to get parts for their generator, which had broken only minutes earlier.
One woman wanted a chicken pita pocket. Another man wanted a Philly cheese steak. A dad ordered cheeseburgers for his whole family.
Conway was alone to run his business, the All American Food Truck, as it sat in the Fairview Garden Center parking lot. With the fan not working, the air soon became thick and hot as Conway fiddled with beef patties and vegetables on the grill.
“It’s just like they say, ‘Everything happens at once,’” he said with a laugh.
To customers, the 30-year-old might’ve looked out of place in the compact box on wheels. Conway, who stands 6 feet 7 inches tall, had to kneel on the metal floor to take food orders from the window. And he had to bend way over to chop tomatoes and assemble burgers.
He might look more at home at his night job as a player and assistant coach for the Cary Invasion semi-professional basketball team.
But Conway is an expert on the court and in the kitchen. He hooped for the school team at Paine College in Augusta, Georgia, before earning a culinary degree from The Art Institute of Raleigh-Durham.
And these days, his experience as a businessman and basketball feed off each other.
Conway says he can handle the daily grind of running a food truck because he’s been hustling on the court since he was a boy in Flint, Michigan. Meanwhile, Cary Invasion players respect Conway because he has real-world experience handling pressure, said their head coach, Erasto Hatchett.
“His relationship with the guys is really invaluable,” Hatchett said. “He has a good knack for plays and time management. They trust him. It makes it a lot easier for me as a coach.”
A hectic schedule
The Cary Invasion plays in the Tobacco Road Basketball League, a four-year-old independent group of about 15 teams across the Carolinas, Georgia and Alabama.
Conway, who has been involved with the Invasion for four of its five seasons, played forward on teams that made it to the league’s championship game. Since he started his food truck business last June, he mostly has served as a coach. This season, the team is leading its division with an 11-1 record.
Despite his new, sometimes hectic life, Conway has never missed a Cary Invasion practice or game. For that, he credits his food truck partner, Bobby Fulghum of Holly Springs.
Fulghum agreed to team up with Conway after hearing him talk about the food truck idea at their gym in Cary. At the time, Fulghum, 44, was taking a year off from teaching history in Wake County schools to help his wife raise their child.
“T is a great boss who gives me the flexibility to work whenever I want,” Fulghum said.
Fulghum, who taught for 15 years at Fuquay-Varina High and Holly Springs High, also coached basketball. So what he lacks in business experience, he makes up for with enthusiasm.
“The profit, the success, it’s out there,” Fulghum said. “It’s up to you to go get it.”
The duo likes to refer to themselves as the “biggest food truck in the Triangle” because Fulgham is tall in his own right at 6’4”.
As for their recognition around the Triangle, that’s growing, too.
“There was a definitely a learning curve,” Fulghum said. “But we now turn down twice as much as we take.”
Fulfilling a need
Conway entered the food truck business for the same reason he sold fried chicken out of his friend’s apartment in college: He saw a need.
At Paine, the cafeteria closed at 9 p.m. – long before the college’s students lost their appetites. After basketball practice and a trip to the grocery store, Conway often went to his friend’s apartment to cook chicken wings and fries for his friends for $6 a plate.
“It was $7 if you wanted a Capri Sun,” he said. “I could probably serve 15 or 20 people (a night) if I wanted extra money.”
Now in Raleigh, Conway started All American because he noticed few local food trucks offer an array of classics like you’d find at a backyard cookout or baseball game.
Many of them specialize in one type of food, such as dumplings, macaroni or stuffed potatoes. Conway serves burgers, cheese steaks and pita pockets – vegetarian or non-vegetarian – and a side of fries.
“Food trucks try to do a lot of different things, and American food is not one of them, oddly enough,” he said.
Art Sheppard tracks local food trucks on his award-winning blog called The Wandering Sheppard. He thinks All American will succeed because it caters to a large base of customers who aren’t crazy about spending $8 to $12 to experiment with less-traditional gourmet foods.
“No one casts a net like All American does,” Sheppard said.
Dealing with challenges
The experience has made Conway a better leader along the way, Hatchett said.
In late March, Cary Invasion was struggling to pull away from their rival, Bull City Legacy from Durham. The team was up by single-digits at half-time, “but it should have been more,” Hatchett recalled.
That’s when Conway commanded attention of the huddle.
“He reminded them what happens when we don’t … finish them off,” Hatchett said.
The Invasion scored 86 points in the second half and won 143 to 103.
Basketball has similarities to running a business, Hatchett said.
“You’re gonna have some tough times, slow days, fast days,” Hatchett said. “How you bounce back from that adversity shows the true character of a team.”
Back in the Fairview Nursery parking lot, Fulghum returned from the hardware store and fixed the generator after Conway had started work on about 10 orders.
“It’s so weird,” Fulghum said as the lights and fan powered back on. “That’s the first time (the generator) has ever done that.”
He took a seat on a stool in front of the window and welcomed requests with an upbeat tone. Behind him, Conway shimmied between the refrigerator, the grill and the fryer.
He chopped fresh lettuce, tomatoes, onions and jalapeños. Using a spatula, he flipped beef patties and chicken. And every so often, he lifted a basket of thick-cut fries out of a pool of peanut oil and poured them into a foam tray.
“It’s become fun to me,” he said as the line swelled outside his truck.
In the next five hours, Conway would drive home to Raleigh and then to the Herb Young Community Center in Cary for a 7 p.m. Invasion game.
But not before he completed 53 orders in an hour and 15 minutes – each one adorned with an American flag toothpick.
▪ For a Cary Invasion schedule and ticket information, go to caryinvasion.trblproball.com. Games are played at 7 p.m. most Saturdays at the Herb Young Community Center, 101 Wilkinson Ave. Games are scheduled April 25 and May 2.
▪ To find out locations for the All American Food Truck, go to www.allamericanrdu.com or follow on Twitter @AllAmericanRDU.
CHATHAM STREET CHOWDOWN
The details: Sunday, April 19, begins the Town of Cary’s Chatham Street Chowdown food truck rally. It will be on West Chatham Street between Academy Street and North Harrison Avenue from noon to 4:30 p.m.
Fifteen food trucks scheduled to attend, including All American Food Truck. Other trucks are Amigosan, Baton Rouge Cuisine, Big Mikes BBQ,Captain Ponchos, Chirba Chirba Dumpling, Deli-licious, Dump Pho King Truck, Gussy’s Greek Food, Mac-Ur-Roni, Not Just Icing, Philly’s Cheesesteaks, Porchetta, Stuft and SweetWater Ices. Other participating vendors include Chatham Hill Winery and Fortnight Brewing Co.
Local musicians will play in front of the Ivey-Ellington House, 135 W. Chatham St.
Traffic alert: Chatham Street will be closed from Harrison Avenue to Academy Street from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Drivers should use Adams Street, Park Street and Dry Avenue to travel through downtown Cary. Harrison Avenue and Academy Street will remain accessible.
Parking: Visitors are encouraged to use the parking deck on Cary Town Hall Campus, 121 Wilkinson Ave.
Upcoming rallies: Chowdowns are scheduled Sunday, July 26, from 5 to 9:30 p.m. and Sunday, Oct. 4, from noon to 4:30 p.m. For information, call 919-469-4061.