By Paul Stephen | Star News Online
The secret is out: Beer is big business in the Port City.
Based on an analysis of breweries and bars per capita, average price per pint and overwhelmingly positive marks for the town’s suds on the social review platform Yelp, data-driven financial website SmartAsset.com announced in late December that Wilmington rates as the seventh best city for beer drinkers in the U.S. So it should come as no surprise that another locally booming industry has rolled in to help drive that growth. No fewer than 14 food trucks operate in New Hanover County, with many finding a regular spot outside the numerous breweries and bottle shops that have opened in the past year.
With the exception of the long-running Front Street Brewery, which also operates as a restaurant, no new beer businesses have kitchens on site. Some have added a cooler filled with a few packaged noshes; others sell nibbles like pretzels, brownies and cupcakes made by area bakers. But none can provide a complete meal the way a food truck can.
And because area regulations say trucks can’t simply pick a curb and hang out a shingle — they must operate on private property — the trucks get a place to park. More importantly, the captive audience makes the effort worthwhile.
“It’s the most amazing symbiosis in the world,” said chef Steve Harrington, who rolled out the Steviemack’s International Food Co. truck in early December. “The relationship there seems like a no-brainer. You’re creating even more of a gravity for those locations, and I can see that relationship continuing to build. That’s the biggest thing, in a lot of ways, that these trucks have going.”
The consistency of the brewery business was part of the reason Michelle Rock doubled down on the trend. She’s operated Momma Rock’s Dessert Truck since 2014, and this fall she debuted T’Geaux Boys, a New Orleans-style purveyor of po’boy sandwiches. For her, the marriage is common sense.
“After people have done a little drinking they want some carbs,” Rock said.
A quick evolution
While just now hitting their stride, area entrepreneurs have dabbled in food trucks since at least 2011. A lack of regulations, few venues and, as much as anything, a dining public not that familiar with mobile cuisine conspired to bring a quick end to some early adopters, including a pair of grilled cheese trucks and two burger wagons.
The city of Wilmington, which previously had no ordinance to address food trucks, set guidelines in 2013 that paved a clear road for new operators to enter the market. Downtown events such as the Truck-a-ROO or the Food Truck Rodeos held at New Hanover County parks kept a few operators sporadically busy, and others have managed to capture a lunch crowd outside such businesses as PPD and CastleBranch. But the breweries gave many a regular home and, consequentially, revenue stream. The arrangement hasn’t worked out badly for either.
“It’s almost to the point where people expect a food truck at a brewery,” said Michelle Savard, Wilmington Brewing Company co-owner. “And they do stay longer when there’s something to eat, so we end up selling more beer.”
Emily Barlas, co-owner of Flytrap Brewing on North Fourth Street, agrees. Flytrap has been among the leaders in hosting food trucks. It hosts trucks several times per week and has a large parking lot filled with picnic tables to accommodate the growing audience. In addition to burger and taco trucks, the fare outside Flytrap on any given night might include nearly fine dining from Keith Rhodes’ Catch the Food Truck or updated soul food from Soulful Twist, run by former Elijah chef Pat Green.
“It’s a great symbiotic relationship,” Barlas said. “There’s not a lot of easy access to food in this part of town, so it’s a terrific opportunity for people to come sit down and stay longer than if they had to run off and have dinner somewhere else. It really adds to the kind of culture we’re trying to create here.”
Bottle shops — retailers known for carrying hundreds of varieties of beer — have also captured a bit of the magic. Fermental, which is outside city limits in the Ogden area, has hosted trucks since completing a beer garden shortly after opening in 2013. The draw proved so strong on Fridays and Saturdays that owner Steve Gibbs recently started booking trucks on Thursdays as well.
“Some of these trucks, the food coming off of them is incredible,” Gibbs said. “It really helps keep people around longer, especially that little lull between 7 and 9 p.m. that gets slow.”
A dining revolution
It’s more than just beer driving the industry, though, argues Harrington. Long a top area culinarian — Harrington helped run the kitchen alongside Rhodes during the glory days at the former Deluxe, taking the reins fully after Rhodes’ departure to launch Catch — the skilled chef had hammered out a sound business plan to open a traditional brick-and-mortar establishment. The economy, he found out, had other plans.
“The biggest factor contributing to why you’re seeing more trucks right now is banking, Harrington said. “To get any kind of fine dining off the ground you have to borrow a substantial amount of money. When my loan offers started coming through from the banks, it was clear what they were looking for was out of touch with what most starting restaurateurs could do. My wife and I stepped back and said we need to redefine what it is we can afford to do without putting our house on the line.”
Once settling on a food truck, Harrington went all in. Thanks to industry connections and a broad set of skills — Harrington has also worked in fields ranging from audio installation to graphic design — he outfitted an 8-by-18-foot mobile unit with a full compliment of equipment rivaling many professional kitchens including an impressive 10-foot ventilation hood that serves a six-burner range, flat top griddle, deep fryer and grill, doing most of the work himself.
“Its never been more difficult for somebody to start a restaurant, but for less than a tenth of that you can get a truck going with no bank intervention at all,” Harrington said.
Bullish on the industry in general, Harrington also served as creative director for Foosye, a Fuquay-Varina-based Web startup. Billed by Harrington as “the first comprehensive data collection effort geared toward the food truck network,” the platform aims to network thousands of food trucks comprising an industry some analysts estimate to be worth $2.7 billion by 2017. The product will allow end clients, whether they’re booking a catering truck for a single day at a wedding reception or looking for a provider for a recurring date at a fixed location, to chose from a nearly limitless selection. At the same time, it can help truck operators connect with the commissary kitchens many municipalities require them to operate out of.
“Really what we’ve got here is a revolution,” Harrington said. “Food trucks are very much a fledgling industry.”
A profitable solution
While trucks are hard to miss in town — some of these operators roll in 50-foot mobile homes emblazoned with colorful graphics — Harrington and Rock both see room for the market to expand locally.
Municipal regulations are far from consistent across the region. In New Hanover County alone, Wrightsville Beach doesn’t allow any trucks, and Carolina Beach allows them to operate only under the blanket permit of events and festivals. Unincorporated areas answer to the county’s rules.
Wilmington’s codes, among the most accommodating in the area, state that trucks may park no closer than 75 feet from any open restaurant or 25 feet from any food cart less than 5 feet long. Other rules govern how long they can park in any one location and the maximum number of spots they can work per day. An annual permit costs $25.
The regulations are at least in part a concession to traditional restaurateurs concerned about fending off competition, although a recent evening found San Juan Cafe co-owner Billy Quetel munching a Cuban sandwich — one of his own establishment’s signature items — from the 2 Bros Coastal Cuisine truck parked at Flytrap Brewing. Quetel argues the trucks simply serve to elevate the city’s overall food scene.
“I think it’s great because it gives everybody more options, things to do and places to go,” Quetel said. “I’ve been a firm believer that a rising tide floats all boats.”
Still, at least one key component is still missing, say some truck proprietors.
In such large cities as Los Angeles, which arguably gave birth to the modern food truck business with the 2008 debut of chef Roy Choi’s hybrid Korean taco truck Kogi, and smaller addresses like Raleigh, diners have a regular centralized destination or otherwise recurring events where multiple food trucks park for lunch or dinner service. The facilities serve to create an audience that thinks of food trucks as their regular stop for a quick meal rather than a rare treat, with the added bonus of raking in vendor fees for the municipalities.
“Wilmington is missing out on a great deal of revenue,” Harrington said. “Places like Portland and Austin that have embraced the food truck culture are making a good chunk of money off of it. If anybody locally is profiting right now it’s private property owners.”
As the food truck industry continues to grow, suds slingers are more than happy to reap the benefits. It isn’t without struggles. Engines break down. Refrigerators go on the fritz. Venues accidentally get double booked. Business owners like Gibbs at Fermental keep a list of phone numbers handy and know just who to call for backup if an engagement falls through. And operators like Rock, who recently filled a few lunch dates when another vehicle broke down, welcome the chance to work in a new location.
“All of my business has been word of mouth, but I still have to turn down bookings for this truck three to four times a week,” Rock said. “This is supposedly the down season, but it hasn’t been for us.”