The conventionally understood life cycle of many new restaurants seems to go like this: idea leads to food truck; food truck leads to success; success leads to brick-and-mortar restaurant.
King’s Sandwich Shop in the Central Park neighborhood is anything but conventional, and as it approaches its 75th anniversary, its owners are turning the well-worn story of food truck-to-restaurant on its head.
Owner TJ McDermott and business partner Hud Giles have launched King’s Mobile Catering & Events, a mobile food and event business centered around a customized Airstream trailer. King’s Mobile – referred to as King’s Airstream – has been rolled out at a few events and will officially launch this weekend.
A King’s on wheels, you could call it, but it’s really much more.
Let’s rewind for a moment, though.
King’s, which opened in 1942, has been a mainstay of the Durham food scene for generations. With the exception of a single year, King’s has been selling hot dogs and hamburgers from its walk-up shop adjacent to the original Durham Bulls stadium longer than most other businesses in Durham.
When McDermott and his wife, Maggie, bought King’s from the original owners in 2009, they had an inkling that they were entering hallowed ground, but they were surprised at the enthusiasm Durham residents had for their beloved sandwich shop.
“Our first day, we had four generations of a single family come,” McDermott recalls. The family had been King’s patrons for years and were thrilled to continue the experience.
Since its re-opening, King’s has remained a popular and steady presence amidst the seemingly never-ending development of downtown Durham. With nearby eateries like Parts & Labor at Motorco Music Hall, Piedmont Restaurant, and the newly opened kitchen at Fullsteam Brewery offering modern twists on Southern favorites and global fare, King’s continues to churn out hundreds of hot dogs, barbecue sandwiches, and the famous King Burgers to hungry lunchtime customers. The menu has seen remarkably little change over the decades.
But the entire time, McDermott, his wife, and the King’s crew have been operating out of the tiny original space at the corner of Foster and Geer streets. As catering requests poured in from places like Duke and UNC, McDermott had to systematically turn them away. They just didn’t have the space.
Enter Giles, a longtime friend and corporate marketing professional. After years coordinating marketing campaigns in the automotive industry for clients like Mercedes-Benz and Lexus, Giles was ready for a change.
The two friends put their heads together.
“TJ and I talked last summer and hatched a plan to make King’s mobile,” Giles says.
The bonus? Giles already had an Airstream trailer in California. He moved to North Carolina from New York City, picked up the trailer from California, and King’s Mobile was born.
To listen to McDermott and Giles talk about King’s Mobile is akin to listening to a kid describe all of the amazing presents he got for his birthday and tell you exactly how he plans to play with each of them. Their enthusiasm is palpable.
“The trailer allows us to tap into the ‘New Durham,’ ” McDermott said, “as well as to honor requests for catering.”
But King’s Mobile won’t be a typical food truck catering experience. The pair have custom-outfitted the Airstream to be a sort of one-stop party in itself.
“We can help you with a tent. We can do audio-visual. We can play music,” Giles says, ticking off the customizable options that come with a King’s Mobile event.
Want lawn games like cornhole and giant Jenga? They have it. Want a coloring station to keep the little ones busy? Check. They’ll even arrange a display of vintage cars to delight the gearheads in your crowd.
Perhaps most importantly, the menu itself is fully customizable as well. They already have booked private events for the summer.
McDermott describes King’s Mobile as a sort of King’s 2.0. Never wanting to stray too far from offering what customers have come to love about the King’s brick and mortar, he was itching to try something new. With King’s Mobile, customers can expect modern spins on some of the traditional favorites, as well as entirely new items never served before at King’s.
For example, a new hot dog offering is “The Yankee,” a beef dog with brown mustard and sauerkraut. A new sandwich features prosciutto, mozzarella, tomatoe and basil on toasted ciabatta.
There are vegetarian options too, including a sandwich with goat cheese and arugula with caramelized onions. Sides include chick pea, onion and tomoto salad and a potato salad.
McDermott and Giles don’t think they could have taken this next step anywhere but Durham.
“The ability to come here and take a stab at living your dream” is what makes Durham unique, McDermott says. “If you have the energy, you can get started here.”
Giles agrees, and sees lots of possibilities in the future for King’s Mobile.
“We’re probably going to need another trailer,” he says.
Matt Lardie is a Durham-based freelance writer. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @matt_lardie.
▪ King’s Sandwich Shop is at 701 Foster St., in Durham’s Central Park neighborhood, diagonal from the Old Durham Bulls Ballpark and just north of downtown Durham. King’s offers takeout service Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
▪ King’s Mobile Airstream will launch Saturday, June 10, from noon to 8 p.m. This all-day event will be on Geer Street, near King’s Sandwich Shop. Bull City Ciderworks will sell cider.
▪ For information or to book King’s Mobile, go to kingssandwichshop.com or email email@example.com.