Here's a look inside Charlotte's food truck scene
Editor’s Note: A version of this episode was originally published Oct. 7, 2020.
In the summer of 2020, Carolyn Osberger of Charlotte started looking online for Black-owned businesses to support. She said she was inspired by the renewed focus on racial injustice in the U.S.
“As I was searching, I noticed that a lot of the Black-owned restaurants that came up were food trucks,” Osberger said.
She said since food trucks usually set up outside and don’t have seating, she was looking forward to trying new places without worrying about possible exposure to the coronavirus. But then she realized all of the food trucks were 20 to 30 minutes away from her–not close enough to make a quick lunch run.
Osberger wanted to know how to find nearby food trucks. So she asked FAQ City: Is there a map of Charlotte food truck locations?
‘A Nice Color Of Marinara’
On a fall afternoon in 2020, Daniel Pitre opened the door to DPC Kitchen in Concord. Inside, there were rows and rows of shelves loaded with supplies: jugs of ketchup, packages of paper towels, containers of fryer oil and big bags of potatoes and onions. A wall of double-door stainless steel refrigerators and a walk-in freezer occupied the next room.
“This is really where it all begins,” said Pitre, who has run the Korean food truck Hiya for about seven years and started DPC Kitchen in 2019.
Pitre said a lot of people think that food trucks just set up at an event to cook and serve food and that’s the extent of the business.
“But the food has to come from somewhere. There’s a lot of behind the scenes work in regards to prep, shopping, cleaning,” he said.
A lot of work happens off the truck. And that’s where DPC Kitchen comes in. Names of different food trucks adorn the shelves and fridges: CLT Burger Box, Happy Taco, Big City Bites and so on. About 25 trucks rent space there.
“One vendor had close to 50 gallons of ice cream in the freezer. And all of that fits on a truck,” Pitre said.
Truckers also use the kitchen at the back of the building to chop veggies, slice meat and prep any other ingredients before they put them on the truck. On a busy day, Pitre said the kitchen can get pretty hectic.
“People are running back and forth, things flailing everywhere. You’ll see guys out there with boxes of food and just all you hear is the cutting board--that dat dat dat dat sound,” Pitre said.
Then the vendors can load everything onto the truck and head to an event or a neighborhood.
Food trucks usually run on electricity from generators and use propane for cooking. Each truck, according to Pitre, has a hood system to let fumes out, a sink, refrigeration and cooking equipment. Since all of this is loaded onto a moving vehicle, something as small as hitting a pothole can be disastrous.
“Every food trucker I know has a story where they didn’t tie something down or strap something down secure enough and they took that corner a little too fast only to find out at the event, ‘Cool, the floor’s a nice color of marinara,’” Pitre said.
‘Everybody Went Crazy Over This Lobster Mac And Cheese’
Charlotte has at least 125 food trucks and they serve all kinds of cuisine: dumplings, tacos, barbecue, empanadas, curry, wings, ice cream. Andarrio Johnson’s specialty is what he calls “Southern gourmet.” He’s the chef and co-owner of Cuzzo’s Cuisine.
“Tell you the truth, when I first created this menu, this was stuff that I like to eat,” Johnson said.
Johnson grew up in the South Carolina lowcountry. One of his favorite dishes to cook is shrimp and grits.
“You know, that was my specialty–I thought it was. But when I came to Charlotte, everybody went crazy over this lobster mac and cheese,” he said.
Johnson started his food truck in 2014. Before that, he spent about a decade running a catering company which he still owns. He said it became clear he needed a truck when he started getting invited to food festivals and would have to set up his whole kitchen outside, under a tent.
“I had to buy an old food truck which was a 1975 Chevy P30 and it was only $3,000,” he said. “We took it back home and converted it, put all of the equipment in it.”
He estimated it cost about $15,000 to renovate. Once Johnson was on the road, the vehicle had a lot of mechanical issues.
“I broke down so many times, man,” he said.
But Johnson persevered and his dishes were a hit. About two years later, he and his cousin, who co-owns the business, opened a brick and mortar restaurant in Enderly Park.
During the initial months of the coronavirus pandemic, Cuzzo’s Cuisine actually saw an increase in its business with delivery and to-go options, according to Johnson, though he said his catering business suffered. The Cuzzo’s Cuisine food truck drove to meet customers in their neighborhoods during the stay-at-home order. Around the Black Lives Matter protests in May and June of 2020, Johnson said the Black-owned business saw a big sales bump–about 50%.
“It was a tremendous impact, man. We actually had some record-breaking numbers because of this,” Johnson said.
How Can You Find The Food Trucks Near You?
Two websites, called Street Food Finder and Roaming Hunger, map food truck locations in various cities, including in Charlotte. On both sites, food truck owners can create their truck’s profile and then add its schedule and locations. Some trucks are probably missing but the websites are a good starting point.
Ross Resnick, the CEO of Roaming Hunger, which has more than 100 truck listings in Charlotte, said that initially during the pandemic, food trucks saw an increase in popularity.
“We’re not sure, as a society, how people are going to be gathering. So that creates a need for flexibility. And that’s what food trucks are really able to offer,” Resnick said.