Even on a cold rainy afternoon, their loyalty is unwavering. Students, construction workers, lab assistants, all standing in a staggered line at Bailey Park, braving the elements for one unified purpose: the bulgogi.
It’s Friday, and Urban Street Grill is parked in its usual spot near the corner of Fifth Street and Patterson Avenue, feeding a hungry lunch crowd that has gathered from all corners of the Innovation Quarter. Urban Street Grill, with its unique Korean BBQ flavor, is just one of many rolling foodie establishments that are contributing to the growing food truck culture in the Piedmont Triad. And food trucks aren’t just trending regionally. In 2017, this segment of the food industry was valued at more than $2 billion, a huge number for an industry that took off in earnest only a decade ago.
The Innovation Quarter has become popular with entrepreneurs of all kinds—including mobile ones. Four of these food truck operators shared their experiences starting and growing their businesses. While these four are only a sampling of all the food trucks that visit the Innovation Quarter, each one of them agrees that the greatest resource for getting started in the industry came from a surprising source.
Luciano Flores, like many others who venture out into the food truck industry, had a long history in the Winston-Salem food scene before starting Taqueria Luciano’s, a Mexican food truck. And in his experience, the key to entrepreneurship is simple.
“Work, work and work,” Flores says.
Flores started his food truck in 2009 when he was working at another restaurant in Winston-Salem. When a co-worker told him he had a truck not being used, Flores jumped at the opportunity to launch what would soon become a staple of Winston-Salem’s food truck scene.
The “taqueria on wheels” is a product not only of Flores’ work experiences, but also of his culinary experiences. The menu itself has been developed from years he spent in Mexico before moving to North Carolina.
“No one in my family is a cook, except for my mother,” Flores says. “But she only cooked for us, not for a restaurant. I made my recipes after years of eating and preparing Mexican food on my own time.”
And preparing those dishes is part of the hard work that food truck operators have to put in every day.
“It takes a lot of time to prepare food,” he says. “It takes a couple hours every day to get ready to serve, sometimes more.”
Though the hours can be long and the challenges facing small businesses can be daunting, what keeps Flores going are the people.
“Winston-Salem has treated me very well,” says Flores. “I have many people to thank for helping me.”
Flores soon found the food community rallying around his business, connecting him with spots to set up and giving him business. And part of what he likes about being an entrepreneur is getting to interact with the community.
“You meet a lot of people, and it feels very nice when people come and tell me that they like my food,” he says. “It touches my heart. … I have a passion for what I do,” Flores continues. “Though there are good moments and bad moments, Winston-Salem is a good place to do business. Winston-Salem loves its people and offers good opportunities for food trucks like mine.”
King-Queen Haitian Cuisine
Easily the most tropical truck to visit the Innovation Quarter, the King-Queen Haitian Cuisine food truck is frequently marked by a box of pineapple sitting on the step of the truck. The tropical fruit is a staple in the truck’s best-selling dish—pineapple shrimp, a recipe first served at a festival a couple years ago.
“I experiment, trying new and different things. If it’s good, I go with it,” says Hilder Vilnor. Vilnor owns the food truck, along with his sister Djosen Vilnor, who can be found cooking with him in the truck most days.
Vilnor has been in the food industry since 1994, but was looking for an affordable way to strike out on his own. Enter the food truck.
“I thought, ‘Why would you work for someone else if you have experience and could work for yourself?,’ ” Vilnor says, his face beaming with the pride of an entrepreneur.
But the first year of owning his own business? Let’s just say it wasn’t exactly profitable.
“When people reach out a lot, I tell them everything I know because I remember how hard it was for me at the beginning.” —Nick Benshoff
“You don’t just open and make money,” he says with a shake of his head. “It’s not like that. I thought it was like that, but it’s not like that at all. It’s really hard.”
Vilnor soon learned that, in the food truck business, connections are vital, and relationships become entrepreneurial capital. What locations are the best for the lunch crowd? Where are the spots to avoid on the weekends? What’s the market like for ethnic food? These are questions that are nearly impossible to answer on your own.
“One of the people who helped me make connections and get started was Nick,” Vilnor says.
Nick is Nick Benshoff, the owner and operator of Bandito Burrito, a popular food truck based out of Greensboro.
When Benshoff started the Bandito Burrito food truck in 2012, he was one of the first trucks in Greensboro to target strategic locations to set up that weren’t just a random street corner—places such as business parks, breweries and hospitals—all locations with high foot traffic, the gold mine of food truck culture.
Being the guy who fellow food-truckers turn to for advice isn’t new for Benshoff, but he’s never slow to help out a fellow entrepreneur.
“In starting my own business, there was quite a steep learning curve. There was a lot of taking a step forward and then taking a couple back,” Benshoff says. “When people reach out a lot, I tell them everything I know because I remember how hard it was for me at the beginning and what it was like not having anyone to ask.”
After gleaning wisdom from Benshoff and the help he needed to mold himself into a more established business owner, Vilnor started waking up every morning looking forward to the thrill of entrepreneurship.
“Owning your own business is great,” he says. “You get to meet a lot of people.” Some of his favorite places to set up are at the festivals that take place across the Triad.
You can also find the brother-sister duo at breweries such as Foothills and Wiseman in addition to Bailey Park.
Urban Street Grill
“I did about every job in a restaurant—from line cook to general manager—before I decided to take on a food truck.”
For Eric James, the food truck business is a family affair. His brother, Adam James, is his business partner in the Urban Street Grill, a Korean BBQ food truck, along with their wives.
James and his family took their culinary passion on the road in October 2013 after a traditional start to his culinary career.
“I did about every job in a restaurant—from line cook to general manager—before I decided to take on a food truck,” James says.
James, however, took a slightly different path to starting his business. He and his brother tossed around several concepts for a food truck before an interesting opportunity fell into their laps: A friend in the industry offered to let them take over his food truck.
“He showed us what Korean BBQ was all about, and we decided to roll with that concept,” James says. “It saved us the hassle of building up the business from scratch.”
The previous owner taught them the traditional Korean marinades, spices and techniques. From there, the brothers put their own spin on the menu, tweaking it to include fusion elements—like tacos and burritos.
“We make everything from scratch in-house,” says James. “Including the pickles. The only thing we buy is mayonnaise because you can’t make better mayonnaise than Duke’s.”
James also received help from other food trucks in the area (sensing a theme here?), including a familiar name.
“Already established food trucks were the best resource for us getting started, particularly Nick from Bandito Burrito,” James says. “He helped us get contacts and know what to expect.”
A Tasting Menu
Want to start exploring food trucks? Unsure of where to start? Here are some of the specialties and crowd favorites from the food trucks featured in our article:
Taqueria Luciano’s chicken tacos are a solid—and popular—choice, but if you’re looking for something a little different, try the cochinita pibil, a dish that features plantain and achiote, a nutty and peppery condiment.
Zeko’s 2 Go features an array of Greek and Italian food, but some of the most popular foods on the menu are the lamb gyros and chicken souvlaki. The truck also recently added falafel, which is a popular vegetarian option.
One of the best-sellers on the King-Queen Haitian Cuisine menu is a shrimp and pineapple dish. It was an experiment at a festival that took off and quickly became a crowd favorite—it’s actually served in a pineapple!
The rice bowls at Urban Street Grill are constant favorites, but if you are to ask the owner, Eric James, his own personal favorite is the bulgogi cheesesteak.
According to Benshoff, helping other entrepreneurs get their start benefits the food industry as a whole.
“When trucks ask for our help, we try to point them to places that are working for us,” Benshoff says. “That helps locations build a clientele, and that’s better for everybody. The more people who are out there putting out awesome food, the more people want to go try new food trucks and restaurants and the more they get excited about eating.”
Even though the food culture of the Triad is growing, food trucks still face challenges on a day-to-day basis—and Urban Street Grill is no exception.
Not being locked down to a brick-and-mortar store has its benefits, but with that brings the challenge of having to clue your customers in to where to find you each day.
Another advantage? Tapping in to the ever-increasing desire of consumers to shop locally.
“People often like to support large chains, which can create a challenging environment for local businesses like food trucks,” James says. “But I think people are starting to look for that quality, local product.”
The food truck gets a lot of support from other trucks and from their clientele, especially the following that they’ve built in the Innovation Quarter.
“Bailey Park is consistently our busiest shift of the week. It’s definitely our favorite place to set up,” James says. “We try not to miss no matter what, even if it’s raining or if there’s a little snow coming down.”
“We love it here,” he continues. “And we think ‘the more, the merrier,’ so we hope to keep seeing the food truck business grow in this area.”
Zeko’s 2 GO
Koory Zeko had no other choice, really, than to start his own food truck.
“Winston-Salem is a great place, especially for food trucks.” —Koory Zeko
He already owned a small business—a brick-and-mortar pizzeria called Zeko’s. When construction started in the streets of downtown Greensboro it restricted his customers’ access to his food.
“We thought, ‘If the customer can’t get to us, we will get to the customer,’ ” Zeko says.
That was eight years ago. Today, Zeko owns two Greek/Italian food trucks and a dessert truck, called Cherry on Top, along with his original restaurant and a thriving catering business.
Getting to the point where he owned his own business was quite the journey. While a student, he was able to travel around the world, visiting places like Italy, France, Greece and Indonesia. During these trips, he soaked up the unique flavors of each country, flavors that would become the foundation of his own style of cooking.
But before starting a restaurant in America, he had a long way to go. When he stepped off a plane in New York City from his home in Egypt, he had $80 in his pocket, no job, no place to stay and not a friend in sight. But soon he found a job washing dishes, combined it with his can-do attitude and put himself through culinary school.
Zeko eventually moved to North Carolina where his uncle owned a restaurant. He worked in various positions within the restaurant industry—including line cook, manager and driver—saving up his tips until he could buy a pizzeria in Greensboro.
“It’s exciting to make something from the ground up, to start with $80 and build something of your own,” Zeko says.
But while he’s built something of his own, he’s the first to admit he hasn’t done it on his own.
“The person who has helped me the most is, honest to God, my wife,” he says with a smile. His wife, Lovie Zeko, handles marketing and communication for the food truck, among other things.
“I’ve also received a lot of help from other restaurants and food trucks,” Zeko says. “In the Triad, restaurant businesses help each other.”
Winston-Salem features many of his favorite spots to set up shop, particularly at sporting events throughout the city, such as Wake Forest football games and the Winston-Salem Open tennis tournament. The Innovation Quarter is another of his favorites.
“Bailey Park is cool, especially in the summer. Different people come to the many events in the summer. I like the variety,” Zeko says. “Winston-Salem in general is a great place, especially for food trucks. It’s growing quickly.”
From Korean BBQ to authentic Mexican tacos and from Haitian cuisine to Greek and Italian fare, you can find a variety of food trucks that frequent the Innovation Quarter. What these entrepreneurs all share (besides good eats) is a community of small-business owners truly invested in seeing each other succeed. And that’s a lesson the entire entrepreneurial community can learn from.
Get a tasty peek of the Innovation Quarter’s Food Trucks with our photo gallery.