Food trucks have become Charlotte’s hottest culinary trend, so it was only a matter of time before local nonprofits came up with a quirky innovation in the name of workforce development.
The Community Culinary School of Charlotte has launched a food truck aimed at teaching cooking skills to jobless and underemployed people, including former inmates.
The so-called Bistro! Buggy is the first of what might be a series of roving classrooms that – for better or worse – give student chefs a shot at instant feedback from patrons.
Philly cheese steak hard as a brick? Veggie quesadilla stick like sludge? The culprit cook is right there, inches away.
Customer Virginia Brown liked the idea that students were visibly nervous as they worked on the cart last week.
“That’s a good thing. They have to know this stuff. They have to know how to interact with customers,” she said. “It’s all about customer service these days, no matter what field you’re in.”
Chef Ron Ahlert, the school’s executive director, says it’s also about money, or the lack of it. Most students are struggling to get on their feet financially and don’t have the startup money – or credit rating – required to start a restaurant.
But for about $20,000, they can get a used food truck and operate it themselves with a sparse menu of only a few popular items.
Students inspired by trend
Student chef Kevin Teeter noted some of Charlotte’s food trucks have developed such a following that customers follow them from place to place, like groupies.
He discovered this while attending Food Truck Friday events in Charlotte’s South End, when a dozen or more food trucks gather on Camden Road and sell artsy affordable food to throngs of customers.
“I’m talking 40 to 50 people in line. I couldn’t believe it,” Teeter said. “I wanted to start my own restaurant until I saw that. Now, I want a truck, and there will be no stopping me on the menu. I’m going to get creative. Maybe I’ll have a dessert truck.”
Teeter, 40, enrolled in the school after years of working as a parts salesman for an automotive company. But he felt more inspired by his part-time work on weekends as a short-order cook. “I’m looking for my niche,” he said.
Ahlert believes the school’s food truck has created its niche by offering an experimental menu that is made largely from items produced locally, including fresh-baked breads and vegetables. The menu changes almost weekly, too, he said, and entrees typically run from $4 to $7.
Among the more unusual items: a caprese sandwich made with local tomatoes and balsamic glaze; a bulgur chili of grains; and a sweet potato burger that sold really well, Ahlert said.
The school invested about $21,000 in donated money to buy the cart last summer and bring it up to code. Money came in part from Bank of America, which recently announced it gave $585,000 in grants to 16 Charlotte nonprofits to help connect the unemployed and under employed with job training.
‘Going way beyond’
Charles Bowman, president of the bank’s North Carolina and Charlotte markets, said he was impressed that the school was trying new ideas and collaborating with partners in the community to help employ students.
Michael Prince of Mocksville said that’s one reason he stopped to buy food from the truck last week.
“I love seeing things like this in action because the result is people getting back to work and contributing to the community again,” Prince said. “Anybody can throw up a hot dog stand, but these are going way beyond that.”
Plus, he said, “it’s kind of cool that they are training them right in front of you.”
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