On Sunday afternoon, thousands of people are expected to queue up in downtown Raleigh for paper platefuls of beef empanadas, dumplings and bacon-wrapped dill pickles. They’ll pay restaurant prices to sit at temporary outdoor tables or picnic on sidewalks at the first of four food truck rodeos the city will hold this year.
The event, which goes from the steps of the state Capitol to City Plaza on Fayetteville Street, is a testament to the continuing popularity of food trucks, which remain a culinary phenomenon in the Triangle even as other trends (think frozen yogurt) come and go.
When I began covering the Triangle’s food scene eight years ago, food trucks were still a recent addition. Their initial allure was the thrill of the hunt – going in search of a truck by tracking them down via Twitter. There also was the joy of randomly coming upon a truck outside a gas station or a bottle shop.
I termed it a “craze” in 2010, and as with most trends from cupcakes to bottle shops, the inevitable question about food trucks has been: When will the bubble burst?
But those pioneering trucks – Only Burger, Daisy Cakes, Bulkogi Korean BBQ To Go – were just a hint of the culinary adventures yet to roll into the Triangle. And as far as I can tell, the Triangle’s food truck scene is far from slowing down. Organizers of Sunday’s Downtown Raleigh Food Truck Rodeo received about 150 applications for 54 spots. More than a dozen trucks now have restaurants. And when the Los Angeles-based Cousins Maine Lobster truck of “Shark Tank” fame started expanding, Raleigh was among its first eight markets.
“The number of trucks certainly surprises me, but people seem to be succeeding,” said Nicholas Crosson, owner of the Porchetta truck, which serves an Italian stuffed, rolled pork roast. “It feels like it should be saturated, but it doesn’t appear to be that way.”
Crosson and his business partner, Matthew Hayden, are an example of that success. They have been on the road for three years and will open a counter-service restaurant at The Streets at Southpoint in Durham at the end of May. They will keep their truck on the road as well.
Sabin Lomac, one of the founders of Cousins Maine Lobster, sees the Triangle as a great market for one of their first franchises. Deb Keller, a Wake Forest stay-at-home mom turned food truck franchisee, convinced Lomac by sending information about the local food truck scene and events.
“A lot of cities haven’t necessarily embraced food trucks,” Lomac said last week. “It seemed apparent that Raleigh was food truck-friendly.”
That has not always been the case. Many Raleigh restaurant owners initially opposed food trucks, not wanting them parked outside their front doors. But nothing changed those restaurant owners’ opinions more than the Downtown Raleigh Food Truck Rodeos, which started in 2013 and happen four times a year.
At the time, Empire Eats owner Greg Hatem said his restaurants saw customers come to dine who were frustrated by the long lines at the trucks.
One of the organizers, Guy Caprioli, said the rodeos were designed as family-friendly community events to bring people downtown on Sundays. Their popularity was evident from the start. In the first year, the Raleigh rodeo went from two blocks of trucks to eight blocks and an estimated 3,000 diners to 10,000.
The attraction, Caprioli said, is simple: “This event is about a food adventure. It’s an opportunity to try a variety of trucks and the experience of watching a crowd.”
These restaurants on wheels, Caprioli said, are as much of a draw as live music: “Food trucks are our musicians.”
Making them work
Food trucks have lower startup costs than a stand-alone restaurant, but they have their own challenges. Owners have to find a convenient commissary kitchen to rent for food preparation and deliveries. Their sales are dependent upon the weather. There is fierce competition for locations and spots at special events.
The trucks cannot survive just by parking on a random street corner and hoping a tweet will attract a crowd. Owners have to figure out the landscape of events that make this business work: rodeos, regular gigs at farmers markets, office parks and breweries, college dining contracts and most importantly, catering, which can account for up to 50 percent of their business.
For Caroline Escobar, owner of Captain Ponchos taco truck, a typical week looks like this: Monday at Duke University, Tuesday at a private lunch in Raleigh, Wednesday at a Durham apartment complex, Thursday at a private party in Raleigh, Friday back at Duke University followed by a private party, Saturday at a strawberry festival at a Durham park.
“We’re booked every single day mostly. It’s not advertising. It’s word of mouth,” said Escobar, who will open a brick-and-mortar restaurant at Chapel Hill’s Southern Village this summer.
She has no intention of parking that truck. “The truck is No. 1,” Escobar said.
Raleigh accountant Art Sheppard tracks the Triangle’s food truck scene on his blog, Wandering Sheppard. He is often asked whether the Triangle can handle any more trucks. Sheppard reasons that if it couldn’t, he wouldn’t be seeing experienced restaurant chefs leaving kitchens to run trucks and serving amazing food from paella to duck tacos.
“I’m getting fine dining food from a truck,” Sheppard said. “It boggles my mind.”
There’s still room for more trucks, Sheppard said, because new trucks join the scene, offering food that hasn’t been done before. It wasn’t until a couple of months ago that the Triangle saw Thai food being served from a truck; and now there are not one but two Thai food trucks.
Where to enjoy food truck fare
Here are a few scheduled food truck events:
▪ The Downtown Raleigh Food Truck Rodeo will be 1-6 p.m. Sunday on Fayetteville Street. Other dates include June 14, Aug. 9 and Oct. 11. Info: downtownraleighfoodtruckrodeo.com
▪ From 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. May 15, The News & Observer is hosting three trucks: Bull City Street Food, Dang Good Dogs and Hibachi Express. Anyone is welcome. The trucks will be in the parking lot at 215 S. McDowell St., Raleigh.
▪ 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
To keep up on the latest food truck news in the Triangle, check out the Wandering Sheppard blog: http://wanderingsheppard.com