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 before.
One woman wanted a chicken pita pocket. A 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 outside Fairview Garden Center near Holly Springs. 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 have 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 played basketball at Paine College in Augusta, Ga., 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, Mich. Meanwhile, Cary Invasion players respect Conway because he has real-world experience handling pressure, said head coach Erasto Hatchett.
“He has a good knack for plays and time management,” Hatchett said. “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 4-year-old independent group of about 15 teams in 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.
The duo refer to themselves as the “biggest food truck in the Triangle” because Fulgham is tall in his own right at 6-foot-4.
Fulfilling a need
Conway entered the food truck business for a simple reason: He saw a need.
Conway noticed few local food trucks offer an array of classics like you’d find at a backyard cookout or a 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 blog, 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.
The men are learning how to succeed in the food truck business.
“There was a definitely a learning curve,” Fulghum said. “But we now turn down twice as much as we take.”
Dealing with challenges
Back in the Fairview Nursery parking lot, Fulghum returned from the hardware store and fixed the generator after Conway started cooking 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.”
Fulghum took a seat on a stool in front of the window and welcomed customers with an upbeat tone.
Behind him, Conway shimmied between the refrigerator, the grill and the fryer. Conway 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,” Conway said as the line swelled outside.
Within the next hour and 15 minutes, Conway would complete 53 orders – each one adorned with an American flag toothpick.
Then he would pack up his truck, drive it home to Raleigh and make it to Cary for the Invasion’s 7 p.m. tipoff.
Where to enjoy some food truck fare
Here are a few upcoming food truck events:
▪ The Downtown Raleigh Food Truck Rodeo will be 1-6 p.m. Sunday on Fayetteville Street. Other upcoming dates include June 14, Aug. 9 and Oct. 11. Info: downtownraleighfoodtruckrodeo.com
▪ A small food truck rodeo will be 3-7 p.m. May 16 at Orange United Methodist Church, 1220 Martin Luther King Blvd., Chapel Hill. Proceeds will benefit TABLE, a nonprofit that provides emergency food to hungry children in Chapel Hill and Carrboro. Info: tablenc.org/calendar-of-events
▪ Cary’s Chatham Street Chowdown will happen July 26 and Oct. 4. Info: nando.com/chathamstchowdown
▪ Durham’s Food Truck Rodeos at Durham Central Park will be June 21, Sept. 6 and Nov. 1. Info: durhamcentralpark.org
▪ 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. A game is scheduled May 2.
▪ To find out locations for the All American Food Truck, go to allamericanrdu.com or follow on Twitter @AllAmericanRDU.