Once a month from April through October, in a vacant Washington, D.C., lot near the famed Nationals Park, about 20 food trucks convene for an evening of music, food and dancing. Hundreds of D.C. locals have the opportunity to purchase everything from lobster rolls to Korean tacos, from homemade ice cream to gourmet hot dogs.
One thing you quickly notice while trying to figure out which 20-minute line to endure for your next culinary experience is the demographics of the food-truck owners. Food trucks have become a big business—some may even refer to them as the next big thing in culinary fads—but if you’re attempting to find food trucks owned by black people, it’s similar to seeking the figurative needle in a haystack.
But not impossible.
Nnamdi J. Nwaneri is one of the owners of NeatMeatDC, and his food truck is one of the few black-owned trucks in the D.C. area. NeatMeatDC started in 2007, when Nwarneri teamed up with his Howard University law school classmate Na’Im Moses. The two men realized they had similar goals outside the law profession.
You’d be mistaken if you thought NeatMeatDC served your average sloppy joe sandwich. With a menu that includes such masterpieces as a pulled spiced pork joe in a cerveza chipotle sauce, it’ll make you think twice about pulling a Manwich can from your local grocery store’s shelf.
When asked why he wanted to start a food truck, Nwaneri waxed poetic about his intentions. “‘A lawyer’s either a social engineer or he’s a parasite on society’ is a quote from Charles Hamilton Houston. We reference this quote many times, as it is interconnected to our legal education as well as our life’s mission. We believe that creating a viable business allows us to become social engineers to benefit ourselves, our friends and families, and, most importantly, our society,” Nwaneri says.
It’s this enterprising spirit that has motivated other black food-truck owners, too. But starting out in the food-truck business isn’t something that can be done overnight. The NeatMeatDC team took 18 months from conception to launch, and it’s still a growing endeavor.
One obstacle to overcome is the price of the truck. The going rate for a new truck is about $75,000, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other options.
Chef Michael Bowling, owner of the Charlotte, N.C.-based Hot Box Next Level Street Food truck, decided to take a more cost-effective route: He bought a shell of a food truck from another truck owner and “designed it and had it built out.” Bowling, who has 25 years of cooking experience under his apron, started his food-truck venture after a restaurant he was working for shut its doors.
“I couldn’t find a job. I decided to venture out on my own and started a catering business, offering boutique catering for special events as well as private chef services,” Bowling says.
Eventually Hot Box was born out of his desire to expand. But Hot Box is no ordinary food truck. Signature staples include cheese-and-herb risotto fritters with fire-roasted pepper and arugula aioli, house-made ramen, the classic Reuben, smoked-chicken pita, and cauliflower-and-potato curry.
Bowling’s reputation in the Charlotte culinary community and his relationships with other food-truck owners in Charlotte helped him get started. But as with any business, there are obstacles.
“In the beginning I had money issues, and even now, finding a kitchen to work and prep out of, with secure storage and water dump, continue to be challenges, but not obstacles that I can’t overcome,” said Bowling.
So you’re sitting at home reading this article and remembering all of the compliments you’ve received after feeding your culinary specialties to friends and family. Maybe the thought has crossed your mind about starting your own food truck. But how, exactly, does one make it happen?
As Nwaneri stated, it definitely doesn’t happen overnight. According to the owner of Goodies Frozen Custard & Treats, based out of Oxon Hill, Md., there’s a lot of red tape, especially when you’re dealing with the health department. After leaving a position at XXL magazine, Brandon Byrd, without a formal culinary background, decided to follow his passion and start his dessert food truck. But following your passion doesn’t mean you get to pass “Go” so easily with the department of health.
Although Byrd said the process is more streamlined than it was back in 2011, there are still certain regulations you have to follow. “Essentially, you will need to get a business license and sales and use permit in your jurisdiction. Then you’ll have to pass a health inspection, and of course a truck build that can meet local … health codes. After securing appropriate documentation, securing your truck, that’s when it’s time to get curbside and build your following,” he says.
During tough financial times or in career transitions, sometimes it’s beneficial to go into business for yourself. Whether it’s a food truck or something else, Byrd wants to encourage more black people to become entrepreneurs and self-starters.
“In my opinion, entrepreneurship is when we [African Americans] had the most cohesiveness as a community and created the most wealth in that [early 20th century] time period. Think black Memphis [Beale Street], black Richmond [Jackson Ward], black Oklahoma [aka the Black Wall Street] and the likes,” Byrd says.
So the next time you happen to get an urge for a meal on the go, bypass your local chain or fast-food restaurant and check to see if there are any black food-truck owners in your neck of the woods (word of mouth is usually the best method). Like everything in our society, food has gone mobile, and black people are putting in work in their own food-truck kitchens.