It’s a Friday, and the crowd is two things: abundant, and hungry.
The abundance comes from the venue, both time and place. This Friday happens to be Black Friday, and it has descended on Hilton Head Island’s Coligny Plaza, bringing with it a mob of shoppers, a live performance by Cranford Hollow to whip them into a frenzy of rhythmic commerce, and even an appearance by Santa Claus (in a helicopter, no less).
The mob is hungry because of the sizzling siren song of pulled pork being expertly seared on a hot grill, binding it into a perfect carmelization of fall-apart tenderness and crackling crispness just begging to be stuffed into a taco shell with slowly melting blue cheese slaw.
The mob is here, it is legion, and it is hungry. And Ryan McCarthy is ready for them.
“Shrimp! I got shrimp. Hey, is this yours?” he calls out against the sonic wall of Cranford Hollow’s “Black Gypsy.” A hand is quickly raised among the mob, and a sesame shrimp taco with avocado corn salsa quickly finds a good home in a rumbling stomach. More hands, more rumbling stomachs, rush in to fill the void outside the window of Downtown Curbside Kitchen.
Having delivered the goods, McCarthy dips back inside his food truck, the four-wheeled component of the food service empire he owns with wife Leah that includes Downtown Catering and Bluffton’s Downtown Deli.
Inside, the truck is an orchestra of controlled chaos. Ryan shares roughly 80 square feet with two employees, Jack and Jamie, a countertop grill, two basket fryers, and just enough counter space and prep space to satiate the hungry mobs just outside its aluminum frame. (“You have to like the people you work with,” says McCarthy, dodging elbows and tongs, “because you’re in pretty tight quarters.”)
“I love it when it gets crazy,” Jack says with a grin as he carefully spreads out a new order of shrimp along the grill, the sesame glaze oozing out onto the grill and replenishing the mouth-watering aroma that pervades the truck’s interior.
A love of crazy is extremely helpful here, because when you’re rolling into a scene like Black Friday and you’re the only place around offering hot, delicious food to a hungry mob, crazy is what you’re going to get.
Even before the movie “Chef” gave food trucks their cinematic due, the rise of these gourmet mobile eateries had been building for years in major cities. Oddly enough, it was the recession of 2008 that many point to as this trend’s genesis. Previously more considered a blue-collar place to grab a bite, the old “roach coaches” found their clientele drying up as the construction industry deflated. At the same time, restaurants were shuttering, sending gifted chefs out into the street and making restaurateurs gun-shy about investing in a new business.
With this much culinary talent finding itself with nowhere to turn except for suddenly affordable mobile restaurants, a new movement in food was born.
Pioneers like Kogi BBQ in Los Angeles took the traditional menu items of the taco truck and remixed them with their own authentic flavors. The movement spread quickly, spawning a slew of notable East Coast eateries like New York City’s now-shuttered Rickshaw Dumplings. But with an architecture that relied on heavily trafficked streets and a tendency to draw millennial Twitterazzi, food trucks remained artifacts of big city living.
But like any hot trend in food, it could not be contained to the big cities for long.
Bluffton Jumps on the Chuckwagon
The easiest evidence that small-town Bluffton has big city tastes in food trends can be found at the Tanger Outlets on the road to Hilton Head, where a kaleidoscopic array of food trucks dominates the south parking lot, serving as the de facto outdoor food court.
With names like “Kona Ice,” “Breakfast at Kaboom,” “Ragin’ Cajun” and “Crave Cupcakes,” our local food trucks show that the modern food truck isn’t just tacos, hot dogs and sliders. It can be a three-meal al fresco experience. That’s not to say the food truck staples aren’t well represented at Tanger.
Shrimp Loco follows several food truck traditions, namely creating mouth-watering spins on tacos and telling you everything you need to know about the truck in the name. As they say, “We don’t call our food authentic anything. In fact we prefer to call it un-authentic.” It’s an apt term for an epicurean playlist that remixes Southern Coastal seafood with Tex-Mex and Californian influences.
If you’ve been to an outdoor event in Bluffton, you’re familiar with Lowcountry Lobster, the company that brought Northeast seafood to a Southeast seafood fight and won. Literally – they won Taste of Bluffton last year despite selling lobster in the heart of shrimp country.
And then, of course, there is Downtown Curbside Kitchen. Oddly enough, the emergence of Tanger’s Food Truck Court right up the road from Downtown Deli wasn’t initially what drove (no pun intended) the McCarthys to get into the food truck business.
“The food truck was custom built for us in Miami, Florida. It was an eight-week process and we picked it up and drove it back to Bluffton in July,” said Ryan.
“It was pure timing that the week after we got back with the food truck, Tanger Outlets started the Food Truck Court,” added Leah.
Indeed, the McCarthys had purchased their truck (after a year of exhaustive research) as a way to expand their growing catering empire. Downtown Catering has been in business since 2002, racking up a slew of awards from venues like The Knot for the husband and wife team. Downtown Curbside Kitchen just happened to be the best way to take things up a notch.
“It is actually a dream to have a working sink and ovens and fryers wherever we go now,” said Ryan. “The truck was primarily added to be more of a benefit to our catering clients and what we can do off premises. We just did a 300-person plated VIP dinner and it was perfectly executed because we had a full catering kitchen right at our disposal.”
And with their serendipitous timing, the McCarthys were able to not just expand their own operation, but join a burgeoning culinary scene that is finding a welcoming home in the Lowcountry.
Circling the Wagons
One surprising facet of this burgeoning mobile culinary scene is the tight-knit community springing up among the various vendors.
After all, there’s a certain fraternity that grows from sharing the same parking lot, feeding the same hungry mob, and rolling out at the same time each day. And the food truck operators who have started calling the Lowcountry home are no different. Recently, several of the local food truck operators have banded together to form the Lowcountry Mobile Food Association, a group dedicated to that brotherhood of local vendors. As Lowcountry Lobster’s social media guru Lori Holland puts it, “There is strength in numbers,” and that strength is evident as you peruse the LMFA’s Facebook page.
With every post, they’re promoting the members of this growing family. There are the standard Facebook calls to action (Come see our trucks at the Savannah Speed Classic! Don’t miss us at The Bluffton Arts and Seafood Festivals!), but there are also the viral slices of life that have helped define the food truck movement.
The Association shared Shrimp Loco’s photo of local musician Jevon Daly throwing back a taco (hashtagged #eatmoreshrimp #yummy). Above that, a young man grins to the camera while chomping on a mini Moon Pie from Downtown Curbside Kitchen. It’s that way of taking the food truck experience and sharing it through photos, letting the buzz build online, that helped build the food truck movement become what it is. And it’s what the Lowcountry Mobile Food Association is doing for its members.
But that’s not to say it’s not all hashtags and tweets. Even food trucks have to park somewhere.
As we caught up in late November, Holland was at that moment trading her social media hat for a painter’s cap, applying a fresh coat to Lowcountry Kitchen, an actual brick-and-mortar DHEC-certified kitchen for local food trucks and caterers.
While the local food trucks have established bonds and helped each other out online and in the trenches of a parking lot lunch rush, establishing an actual base of operations for them is one of the best ways this community has proven its devotion to establishing the trend in the Lowcountry.
“It will help not only our truck, but other people that need what we need. We how important it is to be able to park and have power and have a DHEC-certified kitchen and a place to store your stuff,” said Holland, in between brush strokes.
At press time, work was still ongoing at Lowcountry Kitchen, but the plan was for a Christmas opening, giving the local food truck a full kitchen, storage, six parking bays, a place to charge and, finally, a viable headquarters for this growing movement. And of course, every step of construction was shared on Facebook, from steel frames to drywall to – shortly after our conversation – paint.
It’s ironic that a food trend birthed from a real estate bust, raised in the city and schooled in mobility is now finding such a welcome home in a new piece of real estate in a small town that encourages one to sit down a moment and relax. But that’s part of what makes the Lowcountry’s food truck scene so unique.
“We feel like it could be a good trend here as well and it could complement so many of the things that the area is known for,” said Holland.
The McCarthys echoed that sentiment, saying, “People that live in the Lowcountry understand and want what is offered in bigger cities as long as we keep the small community feel.”
Seeing the way the Lowcountry’s food truck scene has come together, it’s clear that a community feel is definitely on the menu.
Written by Barry Kaufman
Photography by Krisztian Lonyai, Carrie Friesen and Rob Kaufman