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Low-Cap Soul Food

Two common ingredients in the sizzling successes of Alabama’s food truck enterprises: low entry-level capital and a booming demand by workers that their souls be fed, as well as their growling stomachs.

On a beautiful September day in downtown Mobile, the sky was bright blue; the spire on the RSA Tower seemed to pierce white, puffy clouds; and near the skyscraper, at the corner of Royal and Dauphin streets, the Smokin’ Gringos taco truck was sold out of its trademark smoked brisket tacos, as well as steak and chicken. “What a crazy day!” enthused owner Jason Harsany as he emerged from the truck, where he’d spent two hours making tacos, quesadillas and salads for a steady stream of hungry office workers.

Running out of food doesn’t happen often, he says, and he hates turning away the seven or so straggling customers who leave disappointed just before 1 p.m. But he tells them all cheerfully, “We’ll be back tomorrow!”

Smokin’ Gringos was Mobile’s first food truck, which Harsany purchased in 2009 after working at several area restaurants. He had the experience and the will to open his own eatery, but he didn’t have the money to invest in a bricks-and-mortar building. So he capitalized on the food truck trend that’s swept the nation in cities like Austin and Miami and has inspired TV shows like “The Great Food Truck Race” on Food Network and “Eat Street” on The Cooking Channel. And he’s been busy dishing out his Tex-Mex-style plates at lunch and dinner all over town.

Harsany describes the truck as “a fully self-contained restaurant on wheels.” On some days, finding a primo parking spot downtown is his biggest challenge. (He also has to remember to keep the meter fed.) The Smokin’ Gringos truck, its generator humming along behind it, is a fixture in downtown Mobile on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. On those same nights, he parks the truck at its “commissary” — every food truck must have a permanent kitchen, in this case a tiny midtown restaurant called Queen G’s — and serves dinner from the parking lot.

Other challenges faced by food truck owners include the weather — it can’t be too cold, too hot or too rainy — and the fact that it can be tricky to estimate how many people you’ll serve on any given day. Harsany typically serves between 80 and 100 lunches, with one person up front taking the orders and two people cooking in back. The food truck also caters special events.

Depending heavily on word of mouth and social media, Harsany has discovered that “you’re only as good as your next taco.” He welcomes competition in downtown Mobile, where at least two other trucks regularly park. “The more, the merrier!” he says. In fact, Harsany is working on organizing a local food truck association and hopes that eventually there will be rallies, as there are in other cities, where several trucks congregate in one spot and people can walk along, as if they’re at a food court or a fair, and choose what they’d like to eat.

He hasn’t given up his dream of owning a “real” restaurant, but in the meantime, Harsany says, “The sky’s the limit with this.”

Icing on the Cake

Jan Moon wrote the book on cupcakes, literally. Last year, Southern Living published her Big Book of Cupcakes.

After working for years in the test kitchen and as a food stylist for Southern Living magazine, Moon achieved her dream of opening her own Birmingham bakery, Dreamcakes, in January of 2009. Within a few months, the bakery had outgrown itself and moved to a larger space in Edgewood.

The following Spring, Dreamcakes jumped on the cupcake bandwagon and began selling dozens of its signature cupcakes all over Birmingham. Dreamcakes now has two cupcake trucks, according to Jan’s daughter Katie Moon, the co-owner of the bakery. “They’re kind of our answer to franchising or expanding,” she says. While customers will drive to the bakery to pick up special orders, such as wedding or birthday cakes, they’re not as likely to drop by for something small like a cupcake. So the cupcake truck allows Dreamcakes to spread the love — and the butter, and the sugar, and the icing — to far-flung areas of the city. “It gets our name out there,” Katie Moon says.

The daily schedule and flavors are available to customers via an iPhone app, and the information is posted on Facebook and Twitter, as well. The trucks are loaded with 12 to 15 dozen cupcakes at a time, and all of them will sell on a typical day. In addition to providing a hand-held bite of dessert around town, Dreamcakes’ cupcake trucks also are available for special events, including wedding receptions.

Dreamcakes’ most popular flavors include Wedding Cake (white cake topped with almond buttercream icing), Over the Moon (vanilla bean cake topped with marbled sky frosting, white chocolate and edible glitter), Chocolate High and Caramel Sea Salt Mocha.

Maggie Lamorell added a food truck as an outrider to Momma’s Mojo, her popular Cuban cuisine restaurant in Mobile.

Photo by Matt Gates

 

Spreading the Mojo

America “Maggie” Lamorell took a big chance on Mobile when she chose to relocate there from Miami in 2011 — and the rest of her family did, as well. “We knew no one here,” she says. “But everything fell in line so perfectly.” Her West Mobile restaurant, Momma’s Mojo, was an instant hit, and the Momma’s Mojo food truck, added just a few months later, has added devoted fans in downtown Mobile and even farther north, in Chickasaw.

Lamorell named the restaurant after her mother’s delicious garlic-cilantro mojo sauce. “Momma” is Cuba native Barbara Serrano. Lamorell’s boyfriend, James Napoli; her son, Steven Mena, and her younger brother, Joe Serrano, all work in the business together. While she didn’t have any restaurant experience — in Miami, she’d worked in the mortgage business — she was determined to bring Cuban cuisine to a place where it was lacking.

Mobile did not have any Cuban restaurants or many food trucks, either. Food trucks are “amazingly popular” in Miami, Lamorell says. “We did things a little backwards,” she admits of adding the food truck after the restaurant opened. “That comes with not being in the industry before. But it has worked out well, thank God.”

Like other food trucks, Momma’s Mojo can be hired for special events, in addition to serving the downtown lunch crowd at Royal and Dauphin streets on Tuesdays and Thursdays. On Wednesdays, the truck goes to the Honeywell plant in Chickasaw. On Saturday nights, it serves the downtown bar and nightclub crowd.

Lamorell describes Momma’s Mojo’s food as “Cuban fusion.”

“It’s not really spicy, but savory,” she says. Specialties served from the food truck include a Cuban sandwich and a pulled pork wrap with plantains — and, of course, the popular yucca fries that aren’t available at the restaurant, which doesn’t have a fryer.

Recently, Lamorell was thrilled to report that Big Machine Records, Tim McGraw’s record label, had selected Momma’s Mojo’s food truck to promote the country superstar’s new single, “Truck Yeah.”

Food for the Soul

Mac Russell’s middle name is McDonald, and when he was growing up, he thought he had something to do with the fast food giant because he loved McDonald’s double cheeseburgers so much. Today, he’s a chef who believes fast food doesn’t have to be unhealthy. Russell and his business partner and fellow Alabamian, Chad Schofield, opened Shindigs in June of 2011 as a way to promote “local food fast” around Birmingham.

Russell has been enamored with local cooking since he was a child, watching his grandmother cook meats and vegetables grown on her ranch in Selma. When he attended culinary school at Apicius in Italy (which happens to be where he fell in love with his wife), he realized how similar the Italian geography is to Selma’s. After meeting Schofield at Hot and Hot Fish Club and working in other kitchens, he ended up running the Stones Throw Bar and Grill (now Shindigs’ commissary), and eventually teamed up with Schofield to start a catering company. Now they cater special events and serve lunch from the Shindigs food truck on weekdays from locations all over the city.

“I liked the food truck idea because it’s such a wonderful tool,” Russell says. “You can go anywhere. And just because you’re busy doesn’t mean you shouldn’t feed your soul.”

Russell’s “soul food” includes locally grown ingredients prepared in the healthiest way possible. He credits his mentors, famed Birmingham chefs Chris Hastings and Frank Stitt, with “elevating the status of chefs and local purveyors,” and for establishing relationships with area farmers.

The result is a devoted fan base for Shindigs, who will stand in the rain to buy a Willis burger (as in “What you talkin’ about?”) made with grain-fed beef, served on specially made sweet potato buns from Continental Bakery with a side of truffle fries. “It’s definitely been a blessing beyond our dreams and expectations,” Russell says. “The Shindigs brand is actually recognizable” — so recognizable that Shindigs hopes to add another food truck or two and has plans in the works for its own restaurant.

How They Roll

In Mobile:

Smokin’ Gringos Tex-Mex: Smoked brisket or pulled pork soft tacos, quesadillas and taco salads. 251-458-6890.

Momma’s Mojo Cuban: Cuban sandwiches, pulled pork and plantain wraps. 251-607-0442. 

In Birmingham:

Shindigs: Local food fast: Burgers with truffle fries, steamed pork belly buns. 205-538-1170.

Dreamcakes: 205-871-9377. 

Michelle Roberts Matthews is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Mobile.

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