I’m a big fan of food trucks. Charlotte has some amazing food trucks, with delicious food served quickly that you can eat right there on the street. What’s not to love?
But you can’t love something without understanding it, so I asked Tin Kitchen if I could join them on one of their three trucks to see how it all goes down inside.
I hopped onto Wilbur with staff named Ben, Melissa and Michael, the general manager, for a lunch shift to learn the ins and outs of working on a food truck. Here are 8 things I learned:
(1) Planning ahead is the name of the game.
With the help of some lifters, Michael navigates Wilbur onto the pavilion outside the Wells Fargo building Uptown. From there, it’s a flurry of activity as the group gets ready, organizing lunch-opening containers, turning on the grill, setting up outside, putting water bottles at the stations.
After everything is in place, Ben connects his phone to the audio system. He kicks us off with a Dr. Dog song and we are ready for the lunch shift… in 20 minutes. A big part of the food truck industry is planning ahead and working early to tackle accidents before they even happen.
(2) It gets hot in there.
I’m not sure why I expected differently — it’s a metal truck with a hot stovetop, and Charlotte’s hot to begin with. Today, it’s only 88 degrees, but inside, it feels like the surface of the sun, and I’m only standing around taking notes.
Not only is it hot, it’s crowded, with four people jammed into Wilbur along what amounts to a scaled-down full kitchen.
When it gets really busy, how do you keep out of each others’ ways? I ask.
“We don’t,” all three say in unison and laugh.
(3) Not much cooking is allowed on a food truck.
Most cities require food trucks must have a commissary, an established kitchen where food is stored and prepared. According to the Charlotte Food Truck Association, all food trucks must do all prep work in a commissary that they return to at least once a day.
Now that the food truck scene is Charlotte is bustling, most food trucks operate out of a shared-space commercial kitchen, but since Tin Kitchen was one of the first food trucks in the city, they have their own commissary.
(4) It takes a lot of food to run a single truck, let alone three trucks.
Inside the Tin Kitchen commissary were two huge freezers loaded with food, carefully labeled and strategically placed, since rules from the Health Department dictate that items like raw pork can’t be stored above produce.
The freezer is stuffed with stacks of raw brisket, baskets of produce, and rows of the largest bottles of barbecue sauce I’ve ever seen. New shipments to restock arrive twice a week.
“In May and June, wedding season, this thing is stacked to the ceiling. Everything comes out and we use it all, and by that nighttime it’s stacked again for the next day,” Michael explained.
(5) But different stops need different inventory.
“You have to know your demographic,” Michael said. “You’re going to sell more of one item at a family event than at a brewery event.”
The same menu goes everywhere, but they might stock up on different items for different events. For example, at brewery stops, extra chips are necessary to accommodate everyone ordering nachos.
(6) Food trucks feel like boats.
At about 12:15p.m., a large group of young men in pressed button-downs cross the street and suddenly, the number of tickets posted above the grill stretches long. Ben even runs out of ticket stubs and has to get a new pad, but no one seems overwhelmed (except me!).
As they prepare the food, the truck literally rocks back and forth. No one else seems perturbed, but I feel like we’re standing on a boat.
(7) Working on a food truck is not like working in a restaurant.
Believe it or not, there are major differences between working in a large restaurant and a small truck that has to fit on the road.
“That big window makes a difference,” Michael said. “If it’s a beautiful day, yeah you have to go to work, but at least you’re outside. Breweries are a nice environment to hang out, and I get paid to come to breweries.”
In restaurants, the waiter serves as a barrier between the kitchen and the customer, but that’s not the case on a food truck, where customers have instant access to the people cooking their food.
Finally, the temperature differences can’t be overlooked.
“It’s hotter and colder,” Michael adds, and everyone in the commissary nods.
(8) The trucks break down
When I ask if the trucks have ever broken down, David just laughs.
“Our maintenance bill is huge” David said. “Whether it’s a cooler malfunctioning, or the generators don’t work, or the trucks themselves don’t work.”
But if Tin Kitchen commits to going somewhere, they’re going. Once, a truck caught on fire right after leaving the commissary, so a new truck was sent to pick up the food and go to the event.
“This is a really, really nice truck,” David said, gesturing at Wilbur. “But we’ve had all sorts of issues. These things are not Lexuses.”