New Food Truck Friday spots to be in South End, Plaza Midwood

Customers order at the Papi Queso food truck during a food truck Friday evening event at Camden and Park in South End on January 9.
Customers order at the Papi Queso food truck during a food truck Friday evening event at Camden and Park in South End on January 9.

Food Truck Friday has a pair of new homes.

Starting next spring, Gaines Brown, organizer of the popular South End event, said Food Truck Truck Friday will be held in two locations: At a Mecklenburg County-owned parcel at South Tryon and Kingston Avenue, and at the Light Factory, an art center on Central Avenue and Nandina Street in Plaza Midwood.

“I never expected it to last four years when I started it,” said Brown, who started toying with the idea of a food truck gathering spot when he was laid up after surgery in 2011.

Brown has owned most of the triangular site bounded by Camden Road, South Tryon Street and West Park Avenue since the early 1980s, and he thought it might make a good spot for food trucks.

As South End has boomed, especially since the light rail opened in 2007, the area has become a more attractive office market. Dimensional Fund Advisors said this summer that it plans to open an East Coast headquarters in Charlotte, and it will build a 285,000 square-foot office building on the site. Although the office building will include ground floor retail at each of its corners, it will displace Food Truck Friday. Construction could start late next year if plans are approved.

Brown, an industrial designer and sculptor, hopes to have about a dozen food trucks at the South End and Plaza Midwood locations. This week is the last Food Truck Friday event this year, while the group goes on winter hiatus.

Kay Tuttle, executive director of the Light Factory, said the event would be a good fit with group’s receptions and exhibitions, and would draw more people.

“We’re always looking for different audiences,” said Tuttle. “I think the food trucks being here would be a definite fit.”

The empty lot is technically the Kingston Neighborhood Park, but is undeveloped. Jim Garges, director of the county’s Park and Recreation Department, said staff are still working through a few details but he doesn’t anticipate any problems with the South End location. Part of adjacent Kingston Avenue would be closed for the trucks to park and pedestrians to circulate.

Brown was one of the early pioneers of South End, moving his design studio to the area in 1983, when it was a decaying, largely industrial enclave. He helped organize a trolley line that raised interest in the Blue Line light rail. Art gallery crawls and outdoor concerts also helped draw people to the area, which wasn’t seen as safe.

Brown’s properties also became home to popular local businesses, such as the Common Market’s South End location. The Queen’s Beans Coffeehouse by Johnice Stanislawski was another pioneer in that location.

While he was recovering from surgery in 2011, Brown said his friend Deborah Triplett, a photographer, showed him fashion photos taken on the streets in other cities. But what caught Brown’s eyes wasn’t the clothes: It was the food trucks he kept noticing, their bright graphics and snappy names catching his eye. When he saw a bacon-themed food truck named “Get Your Lardon” (That’s French for bacon), Brown was hooked.

“There was a lot of soul in those vehicle graphics,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to see Charlotte have a creative edge on it.”

So he started looking into food trucks, and felt that they weren’t getting a fair shake or enough exposure in Charlotte. He decided to rent his lot to food trucks once a week. It started small at the end of 2011, with four trucks selling lunch. Next year, in February 2012, he moved the event to the evening and paired it with a gallery crawl. From there, things grew fast.

Soon there were a dozen trucks, and hundreds of weekly attendees. By summer 2013, after increasing local media attention, the event drew 3,500 people one week, Brown said.

When he started talking with developers, he knew the food truck gathering would need a new spot. And by then, he felt protective. “I wanted to make sure my rescue puppy has a good home,” said Brown.

Now, Brown said he’s glad the trucks will remain in South End. And having a second event in Plaza Midwood will likely help relieve some pressure from the crowds and draw in more people.

“It really is becoming a culture,” said Brown.

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo