It’s just after noon on a Friday, and the idea of Swiss, Gouda or cheddar cheese melted with other toppings on buttered bread is attracting a crowd at The Streets at Southoint mall.
The beacon is American Meltdown, a Durham-based small business that specializes in gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches. American Meltdown is one of two Bull City food trucks that have ventured into the mall food court market, a territory typically dominated by national chains. A third food truck plans to open at Northgate Mall next month.
Ryan Outlaw, 44, who works at the Microsoft Store, was among those waiting for their orders from American Meltdown. Outlaw said American Meltdown and Porchetta bring variety, quality and locally owned business to the food court, even if diners have to pay a little bit more.
“If you’re paying for quality, it’s worth it,” he said.
American Meltdown owners Paul and Alycia Inserra opened at the mall Nov. 4. On Friday Paul was directing and working in the kitchen, while Alycia was taking orders.
Nicholas Crosson and Matthew Hayden opened a food court version of their truck Porchetta at Southpoint in June. Shawn Stanley, owner of the Heavenly Smoke food truck, plans to open at Northgate in December.
Opening in the food court, owners said, is a more affordable option for expanding their business than opening a standalone restaurant. Still, it wasn’t cheap. Start-up costs ranged from $30,000 to more than $150,000, the owners said.
The food court also allows the businesses to offer an expanded menu, appeal to a new market and provide service from a consistent location seven days a week that isn’t as affected by extreme temperatures and rain.
The challenges, however, include competing for customers with established brand like Subway, Taco Bell and Auntie Anne’s, which offer cheaper menu items
“Just getting people used to the idea that there can be good food in a food court,” Crosson said. “It doesn’t have to be coming off a buffet or fast food. There is a different option available there if they are willing to spend a dollar or two more.”
Crosson and Hayden, former co-workers at Raleigh’s 18 Seaboard, opened Porchetta in June 2012. The truck’s hook is its Italian-style slow-roasted pork sandwiches on a toasted ciabatta. Porchetta also serves chicken, veggie and ground pork sandwiches and plates.
The owners of Porchetta and American Meltdown decided to open at Southpoint after a mall representative approached them about bringing a local business to the food court concept.
Crosson said he and his partner were already thinking about their next step because the truck was reaching its revenue capacity.
“There are only so many nice days in a year and amount of food that you can pack on a truck in a week,” Crosson said. They talked about opening a traditional restaurant, but dropped that idea after Southpoint called.
“We felt like this might be a nice crossover concept before we take that next big step of commitment of a freestanding brick and mortar,” he said.
They spent about 30 percent more to upfit the mall space than they did to open the food truck. The owners were able to open it for less than $100,000. They borrowed some of the money and used existing capital.
The space’s new equipment includes a rotisserie, which allowed them to expand their menu and offer hot Chicago-style Italian beef sandwiches and barbecue beef tacos. On Saturdays and Sunday, Porchetta offers a citrus and chile-rubbed rotisserie chicken. The food truck employs three, while the mall space employs eight.
The rent is higher than some other locations, he said, but “you do have the luxury of having a lot of built-in foot traffic.” So far, the business has been breaking even, Crosson, 35, said.
“We are kind of taking the long view on this,” he said.
He likened it to the craft beer market about 10 years ago.
“They were all trying to bust in against the big labels like Budweiser and Miller,” Crosson said. “We are trying to bust in against the Chick-fil-As of the world.”
Inserra and his wife opened American Meltdown in March 2012. The food court concept was cheaper and easier than the other options, but still way more complicated and costly then a food truck.
The food truck employs three people who work in a 170-square foot space. The mall business is 700 square feet and employs 12.
Inserra approached five banks before he was able to secure a loan to pay for the $150,000 upfit, which included new equipment that would enable his crew to produce sandwiches in half the time it takes on the food truck. That is key as mall customers aren’t willing to wait like the food truck fans, he said. There were also unexpected expenses, such as $10,000 for a sign and construction delays.
Still, long term projections call for the food court location to outperform the truck by 50 percent, Inserra said.
Shawn Stanley said he decided to open Heavenly Smoke after attending a couple of events at the mall and having “tremendous” success.
Stanley’s move is much cheaper, he said, because the space already had all the equipment he needed and Northgate’s price point is less.
“I didn’t want to make a big investment that I was going to need a bank’s backing,” he said.
Yessenia Rodriguez came to the mall, she said, just to order some Porchetta. She didn’t know their food truck history or the fact that one of the owners was behind the counter. Rodriquez said she loves a pork plate that reminds her of dishes she had in her native Puerto Rico.
“Once I came across them, I fell in love,” she said.