Tar Heel of the Week: Food trucker Tootie Holloway builds community in East Durham

Carolyn “Tootie” Holloway is well known in Durham for her food truck and for her community activism. She has organized several major events to unite her East Durham neighborhood. Now she and her family are raising money to make a permanent restaurant that she hopes to be a community gathering place.
Carolyn “Tootie” Holloway is well known in Durham for her food truck and for her community activism. She has organized several major events to unite her East Durham neighborhood. Now she and her family are raising money to make a permanent restaurant that she hopes to be a community gathering place. tlong@newsobserver.com

Carolyn “Tootie” Holloway got in the habit of keeping busy as a teenager, when she would leave high school early for an afternoon job and work another job on weekends.

She kept at it all her life, moving through office jobs to delivery jobs to owning her own restaurant and, finally, her popular food truck.

In recent years, Holloway, 57, has turned her busy mind and body toward building community in her hometown, in addition to building her own business. And Durham has benefited.

In 2012, Holloway teamed with the city to spruce up a block of Angier Street in an effort to encourage revitalization. She started the Thanksgiving in Spring event, where thousands of people of all stripes gathered in May to eat Holloway’s food and enjoy a wealth of activities.

In August, she helped organize and provide food for hundreds of people at one of Durham’s National Night Out events. She also has teamed up with the FARE Project, allowing immigrant food workers to cook in her truck as they highlight their own culinary traditions at events across the Triangle.

Now Holloway is seeking to expand both her business and her community work. She recently started a fundraising campaign to take over the old Lloyd’s Lounge on Rigsbee Street, where she hopes to create a community gathering place with meals served from her family’s three food trucks.

She is launching a nonprofit organization, Build a Better Block with Tootie. It will continue the community events she has worked on in the past, as well as new plans she is still developing, including outfitting hot dog carts to employ teenagers.

Wanona Satcher, who runs the city’s Urban Innovation Center and has frequently partnered with Holloway on community initiatives, says Holloway is the ideal kind of small business partner: energetic and capable, able to connect with a wide variety of people and committed to the public good.

“She’s very passionate about giving a lot of herself,” says Satcher. “What drives her is making positive change and leaving a legacy, not just for her kids but for Durham’s kids. She’s left such a mark already, and once you’ve left a mark you can’t go back.”

‘Just love to work’

Holloway grew up in Durham’s south side, the oldest of three siblings. Her mother worked as a cook, but at home she didn’t allow the children in the kitchen while she prepared food, so Holloway later taught herself.

The family valued education; she remembers her father making her read the newspaper aloud to check her skills. They also valued work. Holloway’s father was disabled, and she went to work at 15 to help support the family.

Her mother insisted she not work in the tobacco industry, so Holloway started out with a summer job through the city helping at schools and doing outreach at public housing communities.

Later, she did clerical work in the afternoons through a work exchange program that allowed her to leave high school early, and she cleaned offices on weekends.

She briefly attended King’s Business College in Raleigh, but soon returned to work in a dizzying array of jobs spanning decades: 15 years at Nortel, stints at fast food restaurants, banks and rental car companies, and running a home day care.

“I just love to work,” Holloway says. “Always have.”

Her first restaurant was a walk-up counter on Angier Street in East Durham that was successful for many years. It closed when the area, once a thriving business district, went into decline.

Her husband, Herbert, was against the idea when she and her son decided to start a food truck in 2009, but eventually it was he who transformed a white delivery van into Tootie’s Mobile Kitchen and Catering. He now runs a separate business building food trucks for clients across the state.

The food truck, and two others owned by her children, spend most days at work sites, focusing on workers who have no cafeteria and only half an hour for lunch. On weekends, they run a circuit of community gatherings, sometimes selling their food, sometimes giving it away.

Tootie’s offers a rotating menu of simple, hearty favorites, such as hamburgers, fried chicken, and macaroni and cheese.

Already well known from her first restaurant, Holloway has used the truck to build relationships with all segments of the community, from executives at pharmaceutical companies to local teachers.

‘You try to give it back’

In some ways, her community work started at her walk-up restaurant on Angier Street, where her children say she would give away food to homeless people or others who couldn’t afford to buy it. And she would rarely refuse a request to cater a fundraiser or school event.

“If you’re in business, you try to give back,” Holloway says. “You’ve got to build something to get something.”

She planned to return to Angier Street to open a restaurant at a different site, and it was there that she met Satcher by chance.

The two connected immediately and went to work planning a Build a Better Block event on Angier Street. Based on a national model, the 30-day program is meant to show the potential of a business district that has fallen into hard times.

The women and the volunteers they recruited spruced up store fronts, created a parklet and held a street party in the area. They later held a similar event in the Little Five Points area that grew into the Thanksgiving in Spring.

That event, meant to mark the finale of the Build a Better Block program, featured the state’s longest dining table, where Durhamites from all backgrounds broke bread together.

The event drew a group of 700 people whose diversity exceeded expectations. The next year, they added a daytime bicycle race and an evening lantern parade. More than 2,000 people showed up.

Holloway’s initial plan in starting a nonprofit organization is to continue this event, perhaps in a slightly different form. But she is constantly hatching other plans and lining up donors to make them happen.

At the same time, she’s hoping her business also builds up her home town by turning a neglected building into a vibrant meeting place.

The area, near Motorco and Fullsteam Brewery, is ripe for night life, and she hopes to bring in live bands. During the day, people will be able to use the Wi-Fi network and have coffee or smoothies.

Holloway wants to hire people whose pasts make it hard for them to find jobs, and she’ll have ample space to rent the space for parties or hold her own events.

Sarah Garrahan, a Duke University film student who witnessed Holloway’s all-night cooking sessions before Thanksgiving in Spring, says she’ll be an asset to the area.

“We need more businesses that have their heart in Durham as well as a commitment to giving back,” Garrahan said.

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