Social media connects mobile food vendors, customers despite restrictions
Detouring around the roadblocks of laws that keep them on the move and a sputtering economy, mobile food truck operators in Union County connect with customers through social media.
“A business like this couldn’t survive without Twitter and Facebook,” said Amy Shue who co-owns Lake Park-based Jim’s South Philly Steaks food truck with her brother Brian. “Our followers retweet our messages to help get the word out. That means we can reach thousands of people in just a few minutes.”
Shue’s twitter account, @JimsSteakTruck, has over 600 followers, but supporters’ forwarding Shue’s messages to their own networks of followers spreads the word on the street even quicker.
Named after Jim Shue, Sr., a retired police officer and Air Force veteran, Jim’s South Philly Steaks is a family dream for Jim’s daughter, Amy; and sons Jim, Jr. and Brian. The family, except Brian, moved to Lake Park with their dad and mom, Gina, almost a decade ago from Pennsauken, New Jersey.
Amy Shue said they loved their new North Carolina home but missed the food back home, so they decided to do something about it. The business began with an event at Union Academy in March of 2008. Shue handles the marketing and logistics – like ordering food and arranging venues for the business – while her brothers work the grill.
“Both of my brothers cooked at restaurants when we were growing up,” she said. “They know how a steak sandwich should taste.” Following in his dad’s footsteps, Brian serves as a police officer in New Jersey and drives down to help his family with events. He says he is looking for a job in the area, hoping to move with his wife and their two sons to be closer to his family.
Rules make doing business difficult for mobile food vendors
Mobile food vendors, like Jim’s Steak Truck, have grown in popularity across the country, with a website called www.roaminghunger.com now chronicling truck locations. In 2008, after hearing complaints from some neighbors about noise and crowds, the Charlotte City Council decided to enact restrictions that ultimately drove most of the food trucks out of business.
The law requires mobile food vendors to be off the streets by 9 p.m. In addition, vendors can’t be within 400 feet of each other or a residential area. They must secure new permits for their location every 30 days. A vendor can set up in one location for up to 90 days, but then permits there can’t be renewed for another year. The new law stranded many food trucks that relied on customers coming to them at the same place. After three years, it continues to hamper the remaining food trucks in their efforts to bring specialty foods to customers.
Currently there is a drive to petition the Charlotte City Council to change the ordinance that restricts mobile food vendors. The petition has more than 550 signatures so far.
Shue said she supports the petition because changes to the law in Charlotte will make it easier to serve customers. “Union and Cabarrus (counties) have been very friendly to work with,” she said, “But being able to successfully do business in Charlotte is critical because that’s where so many customers are.”
In addition to the food truck law in Charlotte, Homeowners Association rules in many neighborhoods around Union County, including Lake Park, discourage residents from parking commercial vehicles and trailers on streets or residential lots for long periods. For the Shues and other small businesses, this means incurring an additional monthly expense to park their food truck at a storage facility.
“The food trucks are coming:” Social media quickly spreads the word on the street
Despite challenges the food trucks persevere, harnessing technology to bring their passion for people and food to the streets.
Heidi Bancker, a friend of Shue’s and an Indian Trail resident, owns another mobile kitchen that features Italian cuisine. Napolitanos’ website, www.napolitanositalianmarket.com, boasts that its big red truck is “Charlotte’s only Italian Food Truck.” On twitter, @NapolitanosMKT has over 360 followers. Shue and Bancker, and other food trucks, support one another by resending tweets to their respective followers.
According to Shue, not only do their twitter followers come to their food truck’s location, but they also suggest where they’d like to see them set up.
For the Shues, the food truck phenomenon makes good business sense for starting a restaurant: first, build a following with a food truck, listen to customers and adjust your menu, then open a restaurant with a good reputation in place. Shue said they have talked with an architect to discuss the possibility of opening a restaurant with a permanent address.
But she said Jim’s South Philly Steaks still plans to keep the food truck on the road. “It’s what our customers want.” Shue added that they plan to join Napolitanos and other mobile food vendors at the new Food Truck Lunch Lot located at the corner of East Park Avenue and Camden in Charlotte. Food trucks gather there to offer lunch between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. “We’ll see how it goes,” she said. “If that’s where customers want us to be, then that’s where we’ll be.”
In addition to the lunch venues, Shue said Jim’s South Philly Steaks plans to participate in the uptown food truck rallies that will be held between 5 and 9 p.m. on August 18 near the Charlotte Imagine On library and Dixie’s Tavern on 7th Street.
To find the food truck’s current location, follow @JimsSteakTruck on twitter, or visit www.jimssouthphillysteaks.com.