Business of Life
No end to food truck trend
July 6, 2012By Liz Biro
Chef Keith Rhodes’ plate is piled high. His fledgling downtown Phun Seafood Bar is taking off as is the new brunch at Rhodes’ uptown Catch restaurant. The chef just hosted a private Catch cooking session with actress Gwyneth Paltrow and served his largest number diners ever on a single night.
More guests are sure to inundate his restaurants when Raleigh Metro Magazine this summer publishes its MetroBravo Awards listing Catch as best seafood restaurant and Rhodes as best coastal chef.
So why is Rhodes bothering with food trucks?
“I know people really enjoy what we do, and I wanted to bring it to them,” he said.
That’s the simple bottom line for Rhodes, but his trucks might dish up greater benefits on the Port City’s table.
Rhodes’s first truck, an extension of Catch, 6623 Market St., is scheduled to hit pavement July 7 at the Ocean City Beach Jazz Festival at North Topsail Beach’s Ocean City Beach Community Center. Expect easy Catch menu items and Latin leanings: fish tacos, Rhodes’ well-known North Carolina sweet potato salad, ceviche, fresh calamari tostadas.
About a month later, look for the Phun Seafood Bar truck featuring the Asian street food stylings served at the 215 Princess St. eatery.
Rhodes has yet one more food truck in the works, but he’s not ready to reveal details.
Rather than only roam the city, Rhodes said he’ll target events, possibly stage events and seek untapped niches to create mobile food service offering diners something different while building his brands and introducing them to new customers.
“I think in the past five years, the press and chefs have legitimized the food truck,” Rhodes said. “I just think that it’s got a good rap right now, and it would be senseless to not pursue that in a real well-thought-out way.”
Rhodes is not alone in his theory.
Some of the country’s most famous restaurant chefs have jumped on the food truck trend. When perhaps the hottest among them, José Andrés, named America’s Outstanding Chef by the James Beard Foundation in 2011, recently launched a food truck in Washington, D.C., he suggested that every chef have one to test markets and attract new customers.
Rhodes’ celebrity – he’s been a James Beard Award nominee and a Bravo TV Top Chef contender – helps assure his trucks’ profitability, but his entry into the market is also likely to boost the area’s food truck industry.
In spring, about seven food trucks were on the road locally, but between regulations, diners unsure of food truck offerings and resistance from restaurant owners who fear trucks will dip into their business, forward movement is often in the slow lane. Two trucks, Ms. Cheesy and Umami, recently hit the brakes.
“I think he definitely legitimizes the concept here,” Patty Wagon owner James Smith said of Rhodes’ efforts.
Smith’s weekend spot at Front and Dock streets has become a regular after-work stop for downtown chefs, some of whom think Patty Wagon serves the city’s best burgers (one-third pound freshly ground chuck) and brisket (hickory-smoked for 12 hours), both served on brioche.
Although thrilled with the accolades, Smith wanted a more exciting menu, but he didn’t think Wilmington diners were ready for a gourmet food truck. Rhodes’ bill of fare could help expand offerings.
“I think it will allow me to do other things,” Smith said. “I don’t think you can go too crazy off the truck.”
Smith and Downtown Wilmington Inc. president John Hinnant are among supporters of a fall downtown food truck rodeo to help educate diners and restaurant owners about food trucks.
Participating wheels would gather in a place where diners could buy tokens to sample fare from their choice of assembled trucks. The idea is to draw people downtown as much as to food trucks.
Hinnant said he hoped that Wilmington, like Durham, Asheville and Charlotte, would embrace food trucks, as they add to an overall vibrant food landscape, appealing to residents and visitors.
“The food truck phenomenon is not going away,” Hinnant said. “I suspect that it will continue to grow.”
Rhodes agrees with Hinnant’s take on food trucks’ contributions, another reason he decided to step on the gas in his own food truck.
“Hopefully,” Rhodes said, “it will continue to inspire people to support local food and local chefs.”