On March 17, when Gov. Roy Cooper announced that all restaurants would have to shut down dine-in operations due to the growing threat of the novel coronavirus COVID-19, things quickly became dire for the food industry in our state. In one rapidly growing sector of the industry, however, things were less clear; what would happen to food trucks like the popular Charlotte-based What the Fries?
Of course, food trucks don’t have dining rooms, so their operations weren’t affected by the governor’s order. Yet just a week later, when Mecklenburg County Public Health announced that a new stay-at-home order would be going into effect on March 26, things became a lot more dicey. After all, how could a business that survives on foot traffic and mass gatherings get by in a world where office buildings are closed and no more than nine people are allowed to get together?
“At first I was nervous,” recalls Greg Williams, co-founder of What the Fries. “I was thinking we were going to be done, not necessarily done for good, but I didn’t know what was going to happen.”
A large percentage of What the Fries revenue came from setting up shop outside of call centers and office buildings, where the employees expected them and they could rely on a steady flow of hungry workers. And yet all of those spots were shut down as part of the stay-at-home order.
“It would have been a long time before we could go back to work,” Williams says.
Williams and his co-founder Jamie Barnes discussed pausing the business, as they couldn’t be expected to revamp their whole business model in weeks, seeking out customers at a time when everyone was hunkered down at home.
Or could they?
What the Fries follows its customers home
Things began to look up when several of their regular customers began to miss that WTF lunch break while working from home. One customer called up the guys to ask if they could stop by and cook up lunch, promising that their neighbors would be hungry too and it would be worth their while.
Then another called … and another.
“It was like a domino effect with neighborhoods contacting us,” Barnes says. “The word just started spreading.”
From the jump, the crew implemented health and safety protocols and precautions so they could continue their business without fear of adding to the problem. They inducted regular cleaning procedures, acquired enough staff members to get food out quicker.
If someone was taken by surprise at seeing one of Charlotte’s most popular food trucks parked on their street and wanted to order right there on the spot, they were ready for that too. The team parked in front of empty fields and closed-down parking lots, where people would have no issue with social distancing.
By late May, Barnes says the company had already seen a 20% increase in sales compared to April. But they weren’t just going to stand by and congratulate themselves for a successful pivot while others continued to struggle with the COVID crisis.
They partnered with Red Hill Ventures, a local real-estate investment and technology firm that owns several local multi-family complexes, to bring a special kids menu to the children living in their apartment communities and serve meals to the kids for free. They also hosted fundraising opportunities on Facebook and Instagram for people to pledge meals to essential employees.
Their ability to adapt and overcome will be no surprise to those who are familiar with the drive they have shown in developing What the Fries into a successful venture over the last five years.
Jamie and Greg stay on the grind
The relationship between these two entrepreneurs began in 2004, when they roomed together at Johnson & Wales University. Both had become interested in the food industry and began working in the restaurant industry at the turn of the century.
After each spending years working in different Charlotte-area kitchens, the duo decided to come together and strike out on their own.
“We kind of got tired working for everybody else,” Williams says. “We wanted to see something else and do our own thing.”
They got that chance through the popular television series The Great Food Truck Race, which launched on the Food Network in 2010. The show, which began its 12th season in March, challenges chefs to leave their traditional restaurants behind and try out the life of owning a food truck. The show gives eight chosen chefs “the chance to embark on a coast-to-coast journey in gourmet food trucks to convince Americans to step out of their food comfort zones and try something new,” according to its website.
Being big fans of the show, Barnes and Williams signed up to compete. The producers called back a month later showing interest in the pair’s concept, a menu packed with gourmet French fry dishes, house-made tots and other adventurous options. After another month of discussions, the two made it into the final pool of 10 potential contestants, but didn’t make the last cut of eight.
Yet still, the fire was lit. Even though the two rising chefs didn’t make it onto their favorite television show, they still held onto their ambition and persevered, deciding to move ahead with What the Fries anyway.
“We ended up sticking with the idea and we just wanted to make it happen”, says Barnes.
The two started in 2014 as a catering company, while still participating in culinary programs that would shine a light on their ever-evolving idea. They partnered with Coca-Cola to do a four-city food tour that year, hitting Charleston, Charlotte, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. to share their cooking experiences.
While developing their business model, Williams and Barnes purchased a FedEx truck for $3,000 and built it out, launching it as the first What the Fries food truck in August 2015.
More than just fries … but mostly fries
Over the last five years, the team has built out a menu of mouth-watering French-fry dishes that need no “main course” to go with them. Those include the shrimp and steak hibachi fries, with sautéed shrimp and steak, bok choy, carrots, scallions atop hand-cut fries with Yum-Yum sauce, the food truck’s exclusively made secret house-made sauce. There’s also the lobster mac and cheese fries, with lobster, cavatappi pasta, boursin cheese sauce, Gouda cheese, Asiago cheese and parsley atop hand-cut fries.
There are also the seasoned house-made tots (or The Undecided, which features half tots and half fries for the indecisive) and the bread pudding tots that rotate weekly but in the past have included toppings like salted caramel, pecan pie, strawberry cheesecake and red velvet cake.
The truck also offers up your more expected lunch fare, such as chicken sandwiches and burgers, and if you’re super indecisive, The Undecided lets you go half French fries and half house-made tots — all the way seasoned.
In 2016, Jamie and Gregory helped found the Soul Food Sessions Dinner Series, creating diverse dining experiences that reflect diverse culinary specialties with an African twist, in an effort to acknowledge and support people of color in the culinary arts, restaurant, beverage services and hospitality industries.
The two built their brand on social media, and were helped along by an appearance on the second season premiere of Southern and Hungry, a Cooking Channel show hosted by culinary expert Damaris Phillips and auto racing analyst Rutledge Wood.
“I think that really brought us attention,” says Williams.
As much as their life on the road saved them from the stresses of shutting down a dining room during COVID, Barnes and Williams wish to eventually open their own brick-and-mortar restaurant. Until that happens, however, they say they’ll continue to play it by ear, adapting to the unprecedented experience that is working in the food industry in 2020.
When I ask what advice they would give young people today who are trying to pursue a dream, Barnes emphasizes that it never hurts to ask for help.
“You have to have a plan that will help you stick out,” he says. “But also, have someone to reach out to; have someone you can always look to, someone who you can lean on for advice”.
Barnes and Williams continue to host events and provide for those around Charlotte despite the circumstances, and they look forward to running a new Food Truck Friday once mass gatherings are safe again.
Until then, they’ll be working hard and snacking on their own favorites from the truck: chicken sandwiches for Barnes and bread puddings for Williams. That’s right, the guys who started a whole food truck based on French fries would rather eat the other stuff. WTF?
Find the newly updated What the Fries schedule on their website to see when the team will be near you next.