Local Food Truck Owners on Making Their Dreams a Reality

Where the Rubber Meets the Road

Though the advent of food trucks as an event staple began in some of the nation’s largest cities, over the years, their popularity has slowly spread to hundreds of other locales across the country – and Chattanooga is no exception. You can find food trucks everywhere in the Scenic City, from events downtown and permanent parking spots to company parties and wedding receptions. While there are certainly challenges to running a mobile business, these area trucks are making it happen, and they all have one thing in common: They’re so grateful to the Chattanoogans who have supported them along the way. 

By Anna Hill / Photography by Sarah Unger

Cart & Seoul

Owners: Ian McNeese & Rocky Perry

 

Tacos Illustration

 

For Ian McNeese, the inspiration for his food truck started with a visit to Koreatown in L.A. “It was quite an experience eating off some of the pioneering trucks in the industry, like Kogi,” he explains. “Chef Roy Choi was doing some wild things with Korean food. I took that philosophy and applied it to Cart & Seoul.” 

Though McNeese is passionate about food, he hadn’t worked in a restaurant before and was even advised not to get into the industry. Unable to shake the idea, he started doing pop-up events. When the opportunity to purchase a food truck presented itself, McNeese jumped at the chance. 

The concept of Cart & Seoul is Korean fusion – “traditional Korean flavors wrapped in a familiar shell,” says McNeese. Some of the dishes the team serves out of this behemoth of a truck include Korean barbecue tacos, street corn, and McNeese’s fusion favorite: the Korean Fire Chicken taco. Served on a bed of Monterey Jack and topped with soy ginger pickles and gochujang crème, the chicken buldak that’s the star of the taco is McNeese’s twist on Nashville hot chicken. The bulgogi they serve is another of his favorites. “I crafted the marinade over a year through trial and error,” he explains. “I’m sure my wife got sick of me making it multiple times a week.”

There are certainly some upsides to serving your food from a truck as opposed to starting with a restaurant right off the bat, according to McNeese. “The running cost of a truck is a huge advantage,” he shares. “It’s like the difference between a mortgage and a payment on a Toyota Camry.” However, the truck comes with a whole lot of maintenance that can blindside you. “If your engine doesn’t start or your brakes have had it, business halts until those repairs get made,” he explains. “Not to mention the balancing act with the generators. Finding one that’s both powerful enough and quiet enough to serve at markets and festivals can be a costly endeavor.”

Ultimately, it’s the shared experience that comes with owning a food truck that McNeese finds the most rewarding. “I fell in love with the food and wanted to share that experience with people,” he says. “I also think that food truck people are some of the best, friendliest people you will find. Everyone looks out for each other.”

 

“I fell in love with the food and wanted to share that experience with people.”

Photos by Rich Smith

Spill the Beans

Owner: Lisa Dunny

 

illustration of coffee beans and mug

 

Lisa Dunny had always dreamed of owning a coffee shop, but taking that first step seemed a bit daunting. “I wanted to start small to see if it would be something I enjoy, and I figured starting with a food truck would be a good first step,” she shares. “I loved the idea of going to people instead of waiting for people to come to you.” 

Luckily, it seemed that Dunny’s coffee truck dreams were meant to be, as the stars quickly aligned in 2015. She was able to find a truck in a great location, and a local coffee roaster helped her collect the necessary equipment. At the time, there weren’t any other mobile coffee shops nearby, and curiosity drew in customers. 

The truck – cleverly dubbed Spill the Beans – now goes out regularly to markets, soccer and football games, and all other sorts of events around town. The menu that it offers is classic and straightforward, providing customers with high-quality familiar favorites such as lattes, chai, and mochas, with lots of options for customizing your drink. “What makes us unique is that you can get a quality espresso-based drink from a mobile truck,” explains Dunny. “We do more than brewed coffee or iced coffee. We are a full-service coffee shop on wheels.” 

Something Dunny appreciates about running business out of a food truck is the freedom to move around, of course – but also the lower overhead expenses. “Typically, you’re not going to have utility bills, rent, and you won’t need as much staff,” she says. But some of the challenges that come along with it are things that you might take for granted in a brick-and-mortar. “There’s never enough storage space in a truck,” Dunny explains. “You really have to get creative.” Beyond that, the freedom to roam can also come at a cost: If the truck breaks down, not only is the business down, but it could be down and stuck somewhere on the side of the road. 

Despite the difficulties that can come with broken generators, cramped space, and bad weather, Dunny loves the way that running a food truck can keep her connected to the city. “My favorite part is going to the people,” she shares. “We get to be involved in really great events all over, and it feels like we are a part of the entire community, not just one part of town.”

 

“What makes us unique is that you can get a quality espresso-based drink from a mobile truck.”

California Smothered Burrito

Owners: Jim Masiella & Elaine Essary

 

illustration of burritos

 

Jim Masiella’s decision to open up a food truck came in the wake of a family tragedy. When his son, Jimmy, was killed in a gun violence incident in Colorado, Masiella’s workplace didn’t allow for time off for the trial, so he left the company. As he considered what he wanted to do next, opening a food truck was something he kept circling back to, so he flew to Lincoln, Nebraska, to purchase a short bus and drove it home to Chattanooga. The rest is history. 

As Masiella is from the West Coast, it felt only natural to pursue a West-Coast-inspired menu. “We strive to serve fresh food, with as many local ingredients as possible,” explains Elaine Essary, Masiella’s partner. The signature dish, which lends the truck its name, is a burrito stuffed with meat and veggies, then smothered with white queso and green chili – the latter of which is the same recipe Masiella used at the restaurant he used to own in Colorado. Burritos can be purchased as a large, which is made with a 12-inch tortilla, as well as the “sassy” size, which is made with a 10-inch tortilla. 

The truck itself rounds out California Smothered Burrito’s funky theme with its vibrant colors and designs added by local artist Jerry Allen. 

Though Masiella and Essary love the ability to get involved in the community, running a food truck will always come with a level of uncertainty that they’ve had to adapt to. “Looking for events, waiting for calls, following leads – it’s all pretty different than running a brick-and-mortar,” explains Essary. “Your staff has to adjust to almost being on call for jobs that pop up.” On the other hand, she finds that moving from location to location can be a good way to keep things interesting.

California Smothered Burrito is coming up on a decade of business, and Essary says that they couldn’t have made it without the wonderful crew that’s helped them build their brand. “When we first opened the food truck, there weren’t too many in town,” she shares. “We’re grateful for all the support we’ve had from the people of Chattanooga over the years – even in the worst times of the pandemic, when they kept us going by inviting us to their neighborhoods.”

 

“We’re grateful for all the support we’ve had from the people of Chattanooga over the years.”

Fud Vybez

Owners: Terrence & Haajar Collins

 

illustration of shrimp

 

For husband-and-wife team Terrence and Haajar Collins, opening a food truck was both a learning experience and a labor of love. “We were married in Jamaica and had visited there a few times over the years,” Haajar shares. “We wanted to bring flavors that we love and that reminded us of both our Southern and South Floridian upbringings, while also filling a gap of what was missing in Chattanooga.”

The process of getting their bearings was long and arduous as they took the time to educate themselves and source the parts they would need to run the truck, but according to Collins, “Determination and great imagination got us rolling and serving some of the city’s favorite foods.” 

The Collins’ truck, Fud Vybez, serves up a Southern-Caribbean fusion menu. “These cuisines are what spoke to us most deeply,” says Haajar. On the menu, you can find Caribbean-inspired dishes like oxtail, curry shrimp, jerk chicken, and sweet plantains, as well as classic offerings such as cheeseburgers, fried fish sandwiches, and macaroni and cheese. The truck also features items that are an exciting blend of the two, such as jerk chicken nachos or wings tossed in Jamaican heat sauce. 

Another important part of the menu concept is the “vibe” – hence the food truck’s name. “It’s about the feeling you get when the food is so good you want to dance,” says Haajar. 

One of the biggest challenges the pair has faced is outsourcing and acquiring authentic Caribbean ingredients. “It can be tough to keep up with demand,” Haajar explains. However, they enjoy the ability to go out into the community, and running a business that represents who they are is incredibly valuable to them. “We want to give our children something to look up to by showing them a good example of black entrepreneurship,” Haajar shares. This, along with all the new experiences that have come with running the truck, makes the challenges worth it to them.

Terrence and Haajar are also thankful for the opportunity to grow their business here in Chattanooga. “We love working festivals here. The opportunity for more family engagement that this provides is something we value a lot,” says Haajar. “This is a beautiful city to be an entrepreneur in, and the support has been awesome.” 

 

“We want to give our children something to look up to by showing them a good example of black entrepreneurship.”

Photos by Rich Smith

 

Go Gyro Go

Owner: Paco Fotiadis

 

illustration of gyros

 

Though the Go Gyro Go food truck is small, it packs big flavor. “It’s all the room I need to cook good-quality food,” says Paco Fotiadis, the truck’s owner. The interior space might be limited, but Fotiadis keeps it pristine and organized at all times. When the truck is open for business, you can find him at the window, slinging gyros and other classic Greek offerings for his customers. 

“For newcomers, I always tell them to try the lamb and beef gyro,” says Fotiadis. “You can get chicken anywhere, any day. But lamb is the bestseller here for a reason.” However, there’s something for everyone on his well-curated menu. Options include chicken gyros in addition to falafel and spinach/feta versions of the dish for those looking to go meatless, as well as traditional fare such as spanakopita, stuffed grape leaves, and baklava. If you’re looking for an even larger selection, Fotiadis also offers catering, and he swears by his wife’s moussaka. 

As for the decision to go with a food truck instead of a brick-and-mortar, Fotiadis says that he loves the ability to keep costs down while being able to reach different people doing different things. “I’m not tied down with all the troubles that come with a restaurant, and I can serve my food here at my regular location for lunch while also being able to pick up public and private local events,” he explains. 

Furthermore, Fotiadis grew up working in restaurants in Las Vegas, but for the past 35 years, he’s relished in the freedom of working for himself. Controlling his own schedule, as well as being able to cook his food, is something that he can’t imagine giving up.

The philosophy behind the cuisine that Fotiadis puts out is simple. “It’s good, honest Greek food,” he says. “It’s fresh, it’s hot, and we never skimp on the portions.” Running a food truck allows him to minimize expenses while never losing out on the quality of the food or service, both of which are incredibly important to him. “We want people to leave full and happy. We want them to keep coming back because the quality of the food can’t be beat,” Fotiadis adds.

 

“It’s good, honest Greek food. It’s fresh, it’s hot, and we never skimp on the portions.”

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