Food truck survival strategy: Enter the neighborhoods

Once the staples of office parks and breweries, Charlotte’s food trucks roll into residential areas; ‘sharp pivot’ to cul-de-sacs, apartments

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 16, 2020, edition of The Charlotte Ledger, an e-newsletter with smart and original news and insights for Charlotte. We offer free and paid subscription plans. Sign up today:

Food trucks hit apartment complexes and subdivisions; ‘We had to find the people’

Kristen Bandoo and Anthony Denning — owners of a food truck called “Another Food Truck?!” — head to neighborhoods these days to serve up favorites like Hot Chicken Smash (a grilled cheese-style sandwich with chicken, house-made herb ranch and crispy onions). (Photo by Poprock Photography)

by Kathleen Purvis

When Anthony Denning and Kristen Bandoo cranked up their new business, called Another Food Truck!?, in early September, months of Covid-19 restrictions already had forced drastic changes in the food world.

Denning already knew what to expect, though: Other food-truck cooks had told him to forget about the breweries, office parks and food truck rallies that used to power the business. The winning formula now is parking around homes, where the eaters are.

“We’re probably spending 98% of our time in residential areas — apartment complexes and housing developments,” he says.

Tara Ebersold of Bleu Barn Bistro was in the middle of getting ready to open her new brick-and-mortar space in Camp North End’s Keswick Avenue corridor when the business for her truck had to go in search of customers, too.

“As soon as the stay-at-home order went into effect, we lost all our typical locations, breweries at night, business parks during the day,” she says. “We had to find the people.”

Neighborhoods come calling: Instead, people came to find her: Homeowners’ associations and apartment management companies quickly started lining up food truck visits as a perk for residents.

“Charlotte seemed to kind of jump on it,” Ebersold says. “All the neighborhoods started trying to get trucks to come out.”

For Jamie Barnes and Gregory Williams of What the Fries, the migration to houses and apartments was a major change. When they cranked up their truck business five years ago, their business was almost totally office buildings and business parks. Except for the occasional birthday or block party, they rarely got calls for residential areas.

When the restrictions started, Barnes says, “we were kind of in a panic. After the first month, office buildings started slowly closing.”

He calls what happened next “a domino effect.”

“One neighborhood contacted us and told us people were working from home. It started from there, word of mouth. Our in-box started filling up (with requests from suburbs and apartments).”

Jamie Barnes and Gregory Williams of What the Fries food truck used to think of their menu as mainly lunch fare, but the pandemic has made them realize that works for the dinner and late-night crowd, too. (Photo by Peter Taylor)

Apartments vs. single-family developments: It isn’t as simple, though, as just parking in front of houses or apartment buildings. Many truck cooks have noticed real differences, even between the types of residential areas. In housing developments and suburbs, people tend to have families, and they put in bigger orders, with four or five orders in a single household. At apartment complexes, people are either single or living with a roommate, so there may be more orders, but smaller ones.

“Our check average (in housing developments) has been way higher,” says Denning of Another Food Truck!?. “It’s not as many people, but the people who come order two and three items at a time.”

Schedules vary: Another difference truck cooks notice is that business in housing developments tends to focus on the traditional lunch hours, between 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. People are not only working at home, but they’re also feeding kids who are doing school from home. A break in the middle of the day is a relief for everyone.

“We come around and the kids are playing around in the grass, and (the parents) are trying to get them to come over and pick something.”

Jamie Barnes laughs about that: He gets it. He has kids himself.

“A lot of parents may be home with their children, you’re doing the virtual schooling — you don’t have time to put a lunch together. People look at (us) as a quick lunch.”

Meanwhile, Denning says, the apartment denizens order their day differently. They may prefer to work all day, then take a break late in the day. Or they may be up late at night and start their day at noon — or later.

“Night shifts are better in apartment complexes,” he says. “They’re not taking breaks during the day because they want to get it done.”

Quick pivot: Business for Mike Hargett’s truck, Detour Coffeebar, was always going to be a little different. Instead of burgers and tacos, he calls his business “a mobile, full-service coffee shop.” He started last October and usually aimed for early morning stops at office buildings and schools.

“Once Covid hit and we were at home, it was ‘I’ll turn the wheel and go where you’re working,’” he says. He tried one apartment complex and it worked so well, other apartments started calling. He quickly set up 12 locations on a regular basis.

“This was a sharp pivot,” he says. “It wasn’t a slight turn — it was a 90-degree turn.”

While he focuses on apartments on the weekdays, weekends are about neighborhoods — “cul de sacs, HOAs, that sort of thing.”

In one neighborhood, he pulls the truck into one man’s driveway, while neighbors come over to grab a cup and hang out. He’s added more hot chocolate and things for kids on those weekend stops.

Variety is key: “Here’s what I’ve learned in my one year,” he says. “Novelty wears off very quickly. I have to do something that’s different all the time, or people won’t come check you out. I want it to feel like it’s an event. I want that special-occasion feeling.”

Many truck companies changed up menus for a while, adding more kid-friendly items in neighborhoods. Ebersold says she tried family-style meals when she first started in residential areas, but that didn’t get much interest: When you’re stuck at home, part of the thrill of a food truck is that everybody can get something different.

Change here to stay: So what will happen when businesses reopen and people are hanging out in brewery tasting rooms again? Some drivers expect their business has changed for good.

“If a company realizes they can be as productive or more productive without renting office space, they’re not coming back to the office,” says Hargett of Detour Coffeebar.

“I don’t think the apartments are going to say ‘don’t come back.’”

He also doesn’t expect big events, like food truck rallies, farmers markets and winter festivals, to come back, at least not this winter.

“The neighborhoods are going to be doing their own events,” he says. “People are always going to want something (special). And I want to be there, whatever it looks like.”

Kathleen Purvis is a longtime journalist who writes about food in Charlotte and around the South.

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