Food trucks finding their place in Chattanooga area

·4 min read

Oct. 24—Who knew food trucks could be so much fun? Hard work to be sure, but fun? Darci Cena, owner of Nonni's Empanada's, opened her truck in June.

"I love to cook," she said. "My passion is cooking."

She and her husband, Jim, owned a Taste of Argentina truck a decade ago, but she said they were ahead of the curve at the time and both quit their jobs to do it, so that wasn't so much fun.

"It was very stressful," she said. "The city was making it hard."

But, after selling that truck, the 50-year-old mother and grandmother continued to make her empanadas for family and friends and just about anybody else who asked.

Nonni's Empanadas is an 10 x 8-foot truck that is big enough for two people, and it can be found Tuesdays and Thursdays across from the Home Depot in Hixson and in Soddy-Daisy on Wednesdays on Porter Street just down from the Walmart during lunch hours. She also does weddings and special events and can be found every Sunday at the Chattanooga Market.

"It is a lot of work, but I love it," she said.

Food Truck Alley owner Karol Brigham never imagined starting a business that organizes an alley between Market and Broad streets manned by four to six local food trucks would morph into "so much fun and cool."

Her relatively simple idea has grown into her working full time with about 20 local food trucks helping find, schedule, vet and coordinate events that want to offer a variety of food choices to patrons without actually having to do the work themselves. She matches trucks with things like weddings, Chattanooga Red Wolves soccer matches, parties and even the occasional live music event.

"This is so much fun," she said.

She represents a variety of vendors such as California Smothered Burrito, Chicken with Bones and Windy City Eatz, and when the alley is open, the trucks are there between Fifth and Sixth streets at Market Street from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. on Friday and from 11 a.m.-7 p.m. on Saturday. She recently got a beer license so patrons can enjoy adult beverages while they eat, as well.

"I love coordinating, plus it's fun to meet people. I love weddings especially, and concerts. and I get to hang out. It's getting pretty wild. I'm starting to get calls from places like music venues out of town wanting me to book trucks for them," Brigham said.

The job is not without its challenges, however, and she said the biggest one currently is that there are not enough trucks to supply the demand. In fact, the alley has gone unstaffed on many weekends as there are more events every week that pull the trucks away.

"I've had to close up the alley on [some] weekends to supply the weddings and parties. I thought it would slow down, but it hasn't," she said.

Brigham's business model is fairly simple. As she got into booking the alley, she amassed a list of truck owners, and as people started planning their events, many wanted the opportunity to hire a service that would show up with everything needed to feed people quickly and well. For many, trucks fit that bill.

Knowing which trucks and which types of cuisine are even available is outside of the purview of many planners, especially those throwing a one-off event. That is where Brigham comes in.

"I go find them and introduce myself," she said. "For the trucks, I make it easy. I do all of the back-end work. They do the important work, which is cook, but I vet the event and figure out which ones work best for which event."

Melinda Bone has operated restaurants in the area for 20 years, including a brick-and-mortar Chicken with Bones place on Lee Highway. She bought a food truck two years ago to be able to take her product out of town. She has been working with Brigham for some time and estimates about 35% of her truck business is generated by the relationship.

"They sought us out during the height of the pandemic to feed the masses and it took over from there," she said.

"She brings us business and puts us places that we wouldn't know about, and they are local. We want to work with people who want to work with us," Bone said.

Each truck owner is his or her own boss and makes all the decisions as far as the business. Brigham gets a percentage of sales, and the owners can book their own schedules in addition to working with Brigham.

"If they book it, it has nothing to do with me," she said.

Trucks that work a wedding or special event are typically paid as you would any caterer meaning it can be pay-as-you-go or the host covers the costs. Many require a minimum guarantee to show up.

"I do have a minimum but what I do is tell the person to make up the difference if I don't hit that number," Cena said.

Contact Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354.

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