WRITTEN BY MARLA HARDEE MILLING / PHOTOS BY ANTHONY HARDEN
It will take time before the food truck industry in Asheville equals the scene in larger towns like Portland, Austin, D.C., and New York City, but 2015 will be remembered as a pivotal year moving Asheville’s food trucks into a greater recognition and acceptance.
There are now two established food truck lots in Asheville—51 Coxe and the brand new Asheville Food Park—with plans for a third lot at New Mountain Asheville. Trucks are also attracting customers at area breweries like Highland Brewery, the Wedge, and Green Man, among others, as well as at tailgate markets, fairs, festivals, and special events.
Highland Brewing president Leah Wong Ashburn says having food trucks at the brewery is a win-win combination. “When we’re open later, people get hungry,” she says. “Offering food is simply a more responsible way to enjoy beer, and the food trucks make it easy for us. Plus, the quality is high, there are great choices in cuisine, and the food is delicious.”
You might think if you’ve watched the movie Chef, that operating a food truck affords a life of freedom and adventure with lines of customers at every corner. The reality, at least leading up to the current renaissance, is that the food truck lifestyle is often a continual battle against myths, misconceptions, inclement weather, lack of seating, and competition with traditional restaurants.
In order to operate a food truck, owners must have access to a commissary kitchen where they can properly clean their dishes, prep food, toss out gray water, and refill with clean water. A few in our area turn to Blue Ridge Food Ventures (BRFV) at the A-B Tech Enka campus, which offers a food truck commissary.
“The big thing by health department regulations is that food trucks have to change out water on a daily basis. They have to be able to wash hands and clean appropriately, so they’ll go to a restaurant or a commissary like ours,” says Chris Reedy, BRFV executive director.
BRFV charges $50 a month, but there’s no required length of time that an owner must agree to. They can use it on a month-by-month basis and can tailor the services for their specific needs. Some, like El Kimchi, use it for the commissary; while Reedy says, “Gypsy Queen uses our freezers to store product, but doesn’t use the commissary.”
“In season we may have as many as 10 or 12 food trucks and hot dog carts using our services,” says Reedy. “We’ve seen a lot of different carts and trucks come through. It’s certainly a growing trend, and I know more and more people are becoming comfortable eating at food trucks, especially when they are introduced to such cool cuisine.”
Dean Pistor, broker and co-owner of Realty World with offices in the Grove Arcade, offered a solution to some of these problems by creating the Asheville Food Park on property he owns at Amboy Road and State Street in West Asheville. Long associated with the property through his work as the realtor who has sold the property several times, he’s now the owner and has crafted a new vision for the building, which originally served as the Amboy Drive-In, and later as the Cascade Lounge.
He realized the spot is located in a “food desert,” which Pistor defines as an “area of growth with very limited sources of food and beverage.” It’s located in the River Arts District across from the city’s largest park, Carrier Park, and along a popular commute route for people traveling to the hospitals, UNC-Asheville, Asheville High School, and Biltmore Village.
“The neat thing about this location is we open early with a coffee kiosk so you can get espressos, danishes, hot sandwiches, paninis, and that kind of thing. I have that space leased to a local coffee roaster,” says Pistor. “It also offers a grab-and-go cooler and the food truck industry will be able to sell out of that cooler, if they have leftovers or prepare extras. It’s an opportunity for them to have a retail outlet without having to maintain a shift the whole time.
The Asheville Food Park, which opens in June 2015, offers space for three food trucks. The operators rotate among morning, lunch, and evening shifts seven days a week year-round. There’s also availability for carts, but as Pistor notes, “the only thing you’re allowed to sell out of a cart in North Carolina that’s cooked is hotdogs, but you can do ice cream carts, lemonade stands, and we’ll have a daily produce stand that runs May 15 through December 15.”
The Asheville Food Park also gives customers a place to enjoy their food with 24 seats in the bar/lounge area, a covered area in the back that seats 15 to 20, and a variety of picnic tables in the yard near the food trucks.
Seating proved a major obstacle at 51 Coxe (formerly called “The Lot”), a downtown parking lot located between the Greyhound bus terminal and a branch of Wells Fargo, and across the street from Asheville Gymnastics.
There’s room for four trucks at this lot, but when trucks began setting up shop there, they couldn’t put out tables for customers because doing so requires access to a handicapped-accessible bathroom.
Property owners John and Susan Robinson took over management of the 51 Coxe lot in October 2014, a move that upset some of the food truck owners who had been leasing and managing the property through a collaborative effort known as Asheville Street Food Coalition (ASFC).
Both sides claim simultaneous ideas for a similar plan: Remodel the existing building on the property (which once served as the office for Matthews Ford’s used car lot) to include a commissary, handicapped bathroom, beer and wine bar, and a deck featuring tables and umbrellas.
In a lengthy, public letter on The Lot’s Facebook page, ASFC outlined its stance, saying in part: “The property owner’s response to this was to inform us that we could not have the building at the Lot. They were also not interested in renewing our lease.”
“They felt that we pulled the rug out from under them, but it’s our land,” says Susan. “It became apparent to cover the insurance, to cover the taxes, to make it profitable, that the management had to change. We either had to charge them more rent, which we offered, or we were going to take over management. So we took over the management.”
The rift caused some truck owners to move on, while others stayed. The Robinsons moved forward with their renovation plans and opened the expanded services in June.
New Mountain AVL
The lease dispute gave rise to a new collaboration between the Asheville Street Food Coalition, led by Suzy Phillips of Gypsy Queen Cuisine, and New Mountain AVL, located on North French Broad Avenue near the backside of the Federal Building.
New Mountain AVL reached an agreement in the spring of this year to begin hosting food trucks. “From my understanding the move happened very organically,” says Adam St. Simons, marketing manager. “The ASFC was looking for a new space for their food trucks and New Mountain AVL had the lot space and clientele to support it. It’s an awesome fit.”
Their plans hit a snag when New Mountain AVL had to take a few steps back and reconsider the requirements of getting their lot rezoned by the city.
“We’re in the process of getting a level one review to be rezoned so we’ll have the same zoning as The Lot [51 Coxe] and the Wedge,” says Truth Wingfield, logistics and development director. “We’re adding trees along French Broad Avenue and upgrading electrical, which are part of the requirements.”
She says initial plans to add a commissary kitchen for the trucks just doesn’t work with their existing building, so they won’t be able to let the trucks park on their property overnight. The hoped-for zoning will, however, provide permission to host multiple trucks at a time. As to when their food truck lot will be up and running, Wingfield hopes it will be this summer, but she doesn’t know the exact timetable.
“We plan to house three to five trucks a day for lunch, along with food trucks for events in the evenings,” says co-owner Brandon Raab. Trucks will serve lunch and dinner seven days a week, with a full schedule printed regularly on their Facebook page.
The location also gives diners outdoor seating, bathroom facilities, and beverage offerings. “Our SOL Bar serves a wide array of sustainable/organic/local-sourced coffee, beverages, and a full menu of beer, wine, and cocktails,” says St. Simons. “It also provides onsite [light] food options for all of our concert and event patrons.”
Myth #1: Food trucks are just serving up hot dogs, burgers, and other run-of-the-mill fare.
Reality: The majority of food trucks in Asheville and the Western North Carolina region are chef owned and operated, serving gourmet meals prepared from locally sourced ingredients. “We cook food from all over the world,” says Chef Linda Benson, owner of Mobile Global Bistro, who graduated from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. “I try to do as much local as I can. I will go through the market and get inspired by the available choices.” “Most people in Asheville haven’t realized that food trucks have incredible food. It’s the same, if not better, than the restaurants,” Wright continued. The AB Tech culinary graduate has a good point of reference since he has served as a chef with some of Asheville’s best restaurants. “I do this because I can make my own schedule.”
Myth #2: Food trucks are dirty.
Reality: Food trucks have to be permitted and undergo regular Health Department inspections. They have to use a commissary kitchen to prep food, change out dirty “gray” water for clean water, and clean their dishes and utensils. “We have to have the same licenses and inspections that a restaurant has,” says Betty Sperry of Farm to Fork, which opens for lunch on the weekends at Silver Fork Winery in Morganton. “I have my rating outside that I post all the time.”
Myth #3: food truck owners make a big profit because of low overhead.
Reality: While some food trucks make a decent living, J. D. Medford of Appalachian Smoke BBQ says, “people think you show up and make money hand over fist, but they don’t see the permits, the insurance, and the prepping all week long to get ready for a weekend event. I put in 12 or 14 hours a day getting ready the whole week before serving on Fridays and Saturdays.” Owners also have to balance out the high season in the summer with the less profitable winter months and days lost to inclement weather.
Obstacles and Concerns
Back in the spring, two food truck operators serving lunch at 51 Coxe talked candidly about the struggles they face to run a successful business—Doo Wan Lee, owner of El Kimchi, and Wesley Wright, owner of the Taste and See truck.
Lee says when he and his wife, Miok Chung, opened their food truck four years ago it was much easier to make a living. He says at that time there were just a handful of trucks in Asheville, but the numbers continue to increase. “Almost every day someone comes and asks me how to set up a food truck,” says Lee. “There are too many now.”
Ultimately he and his wife hope to open a Korean restaurant in either downtown or West Asheville along Haywood Road, but it’s currently a dream that’s out of reach financially.
Lee and his wife continue dreaming and saving, while maintaining a regular schedule with their food truck at 51 Coxe, the Wedge Brewery, and other venues.
“People will say food trucks are so popular here, but they don’t understand what it’s like in other cities. On our best days of the year, we’ll serve 300 customers for dinner at a festival,” says Wright. “Food trucks in New York and DC and Portland and Tampa and places like that—their lunch is 300 customers a day.”
He says during lunchtime at 51 Coxe, most food trucks are lucky to serve 30 to 40 customers. The majority of truck owners supplement their income by rolling the trucks to breweries, concerts, special events, weddings, and catering.
Wright’s biggest frustration, as a food truck operator, revolves around how severely limited he is in terms of where he can set up service.
“I would like to petition the city to loosen up the restrictions because I’d like to see some street-side vending. There’s tons of foot traffic downtown, and just having one food truck in the center of Pack Square or over by Pritchard Park—one a day, we could all rotate in and out. My serving window is on my right side, so when I pull up to a curve, I can open up and start serving. That’s what you’re supposed to be able to do. But it’s Asheville Independent Restaurants (AIR) that legislate us to just being in parking lots. Restaurants see us as ‘unfair competition,’ that’s quoting them directly. We can’t provide ambiance. I can’t provide a place for someone to sit down. I can’t provide music. I can’t provide alcohol. I can’t provide shelter from the weather. I have a limited menu of only five items. How is that unfair competition? Some of the same restaurants that tried to not even let us be in business at all in Asheville are the same ones that are trying to open up their own food trucks. They say we shouldn’t be in business, but they can open up their own?
“I welcome anyone who wants to move to this town and start a food truck. I hope their wildest dreams come true,” Wright continues. “I’m not trying to scare off competition, but I want people to know that most food trucks go out of business that come here.”
This reality is why Lee says many food truck operators have to have other jobs to supplement their income. Some operate their truck only on the weekend, while maintaining a full-time job, or stagger their food truck schedule to also support part-time employment.
Cecilia Marchesini, the owner of Ceci’s Culinary Tour food truck in Asheville, expanded her business by opening two traditional sit-down restaurants—one in North Asheville (Ceci’s Kitchen) and the other in Black Mountain (La Guinguette)—but she has undying love for her truck, which still appears Saturday mornings at the North Asheville Tailgate Market and other events.
Cecilia, a native of Argentina, had the very first food truck in Asheville, opening in 2010. She had previously owned Bouchon restaurant with her former husband, and then worked for a doctor’s office before deciding she wanted to be her own boss.
“I knew the owner of the Wedge, and he said I could come and sell there. I also went to Highland Brewing and started doing parties,” says Marchesini. “From there the food truck business exploded.”
“I love my truck. Her name is Lola,” says Marchesini. “My food truck is a stick shift. I learned in Argentina, but where I lived was completely flat. So the first time I had to drive in the mountains I thought, ‘There’s no way I’m going to do it,’ but I’ve now been in Spruce Pine, Dupont Forest, all over the place with my little truck. She’s like part of my family. She’s never let me down. If I ever go to a job, she will break down after. She has always, always taken me to work. She’s an ’82 model. She’s an old lady, but so easy to drive.”
Betty Sperry has learned to balance her weekday job as an assistant teacher in Buncombe County’s dual language program with her weekend food truck business. On Saturdays and Sundays, she sets up her Farm to Fork eatery for the lunchtime crowd at Silver Fork Winery in Morganton.
[quote float=”left”]“I actually have a small trailer—not a truck,” says Sperry. “I attach it to my car. I joke that it’s a tiny dollhouse. I had it especially made for me by someone in Boston. I wanted it to be architecturally interesting. It has plank boarding on the outside and cute little windows.”[/quote]
Prior to moving to Western North Carolina, Sperry operated a Cuban café for 15 years with her mother in Miami. She continues to delight customers with her authentic Cuban sandwich, as well as other items featuring fresh, local ingredients.
She creates seasonal menus based on available ingredients and the freshest options at area farmers markets. “I tend to base my menu on Mediterranean, Spanish, Greek, Italian, and Cuban foods. It’s not a complicated menu, but a nice combination of things. I have a turkey avocado panini, and nachos with hummus and olives, fresh salads, and other sandwiches. It’s fun to pair the food with wines offered at Silver Fork,” Sperry says.
She lives in Nebo, about three miles from the winery, but uses a commissary located in Marion in McDowell County. “That’s where I do my prep work and wash the dishes.”
Low on Space; High on Fresh
Up in the High Country, Will Cocke and his girlfriend, Leilani Taylor, launched their food stand last July. “It’s basically a trailer that’s permanently plumbed in and wired along with outdoor seating,” says Cocke. “There are bathrooms next door at the gas station.”
Originally known as The Roost, they recently changed the name to Habanero’s Roost as a nod to the proliferation of habanero peppers they use in their offerings. They also make their own habanero sauce.
“I put a lot of habaneros in just about everything we do to give a little punch,” Cocke says. “Most people don’t even notice, but the jerk sauce is real hot. A lot of people come to get their mouths burning off with that.”
Business is swift at this spot near the Pixie Motor Inn in Linville, located close to the intersection of U.S. 221 and N.C. 105. They sell out of their freshly prepared tacos, sliders, and other creations daily. They are open every day year-round except Mondays, with the hours of 11 am to 5 pm Tuesday through Thursday, and until 6 pm Friday through Sunday.
The biggest challenge is space. They don’t have tons of freezer or refrigerator space, but this also proves to be a blessing because they offer customers the freshest food possible.
“Everything is made from scratch,” he says. “I have to order food multiple times a week because of space. We prep daily and have super fresh menu items every day.”
Collaboration with the Farming Community
In Boone customers line up for the wood fired pizza and other items offered out of the Farm to Flame food truck. It serves lunch and dinner Monday through Sunday at the Appalachian Mountain Brewery and also entertains customers each Saturday morning in season at the Watauga County Farmer’s Market.
Building relationships with local farmers is a cornerstone of this business according to Danny Wilcox, director of operations for the brewery and the food truck.
“We focus on the local farming community in a 50 mile radius,” says Wilcox. “Each month we feature a different local farmer, and we do a collaborative pizza with that farmer. We put a full marketing spiel on the website, plus 10 percent of profits for the month also go back to the farmer.”
The Farm to Flame truck opened for business in June 2014. The idea sparked when Wilcox met with the owners of the brewery, Sean and Stephanie Spiegelman, and devised a way to offer food to the beer drinkers gathered there. “It’s all a collaboration,” says Wilcox. “The biggest challenge is space. We’re trying to operate as a restaurant, but it’s still just a food truck.”
Farm to Flame continues to draw fans with the tasty temptations created in the truck’s custom-built wood fired oven.
Roaming the Region
“Operating a food truck is definitely a roller coaster ride,” admits Linda Benson, who operates the Mobile Global Bistro. “Sometimes I feel like I’m in my rocket ship when I’m heading out.”
The Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef launched her food truck three years ago. She first moved to Hendersonville and then relocated to Weaverville last year.
Maintaining a schedule at a lot for the lunch crowd isn’t something she finds profitable. Instead, she focuses on catering, serving at weddings and special events, and setting up regularly to feed crowds at Navitat in Barnardsville, Parker-Binns Vineyard Estate Wines in Mill Spring, and Mountain Brook Vineyards in Tryon.
She’ll go anywhere within a 200-mile radius, but being on the go presents challenges of its own. “Last December I was doing a Christmas fair,” she says. “My truck broke down on a freeway on a Sunday in the rain. I was sitting there with my head in my hands thinking, ‘Why am I doing this?’ I had to wait four hours for the right kind of tow truck and had food spoiling. Weeks later, I was at another event and my heart was singing and I loved it.
“I also made mistakes in the beginning,” she continues. “I would commit to being at certain places, especially for charity events, without fully understanding how many people [would show up]. So I prepped a lot of food and there were a fraction of the people they expected.”
Inclement weather is another hazard. A rainy day can spell disaster for a food truck operator who is prepped and ready to feed a crowd.
“If it’s raining, that’s tough,” says J.D. Melton, owner of the Appalachian Smoke BBQ food truck. “You have to start giving it away. We always find someone who needs this food. I believe God provided me this opportunity to live my dream. If we have food left over, we find someone who needs it.”
Like the Mobile Global Bistro, Melton says he shuns lunchtime lots and focuses on serving crowds at festivals, fairs, and breweries. “It’s all weekends for us,” the Western North Carolina native says. “We have two or three days during the week taken up with catering jobs. That’s a real blessing for us. Yesterday we set up for lunch for a construction crew and then went into downtown Asheville for a wedding rehearsal at the Windsor Hotel.”
He’ll head out on the highway every chance he gets saying his motto is: “Have smoker. Will travel.” Appalachian Smoke BBQ goes to Charlotte at least six times a year, as well as locations all over Western North Carolina and beyond.
“If we can spread the love of BBQ around, we’re there,” he says. “Plus it’s like a mini-vacation. Even though we’re working, we’re still seeing a different place.”
Food Trucks Around the Region
Appalachian Smoke BBQ
Ceci’s Culinary Tour
Doc Brown’s BBQ
Farm to Fender
Farm to Flame
Farm to Fork Eatery
Gypsy Queen Cuisine
Habanero’s Roost food stand
4150 Mitchell Avenue,
Linville, NC 28646
Melt Your Heart
Mobile Global Bistro
Pho Ya Belly
Root Down Food Cart
Smash Box Mobile Kitchen
Taste and See
Tin Can Pizzeria
The Bom Bus
The Real Food Truck
The Sqweelin’ Pig
320 Merrimon Ave
Weaverville, NC. 28787
The full article continues below. Click to open in fullscreen…