In an Untested Market, Durham's First Food Trucks Drove Into Brick-and-Mortar Success | Dish | Indy Week

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In an Untested Market, Durham's First Food Trucks Drove Into Brick-and-Mortar Success



"Observe due measure, for right timing in all things is the most important factor."—Hesiod, 700 B.C.E.

If you run a business, you know this mantra. No successful entrepreneur could claim ignorance of such a quote and, neither, by extension, could Brian Bottger. In 2008, when he partnered with Tom Ferguson to put the Only Burger truck on the road, Durham offered a different culinary landscape than it does today.

"The iPhone 3 Days," Bottger calls them. On his fingers, he counts off the other factors in play. "The recession, Facebook just got started, Twitter had recently launched. The only food trucks in the Triangle were late-night taco trucks who always stayed in the same location."

Bottger lived in Southern California and witnessed the rapid success of the Kogi BBQ taco truck. He recognized that Durham, which Bon Appétit had named "America's Foodiest Small Town," was the perfect place to start Only Burger.

Becky Hacker of Pie Pushers was right behind him. In 2011, she and her husband, Mike Hacker, were daydreaming beyond their jobs at Durham's Watt's Grocery.

"We'd walk around Durham and look at all the empty spaces and think, 'Oh, that would be fun,'" Hacker says. "But we knew deep down it would not be realistic."

Conventional wisdom dictates the mobile food unit can't last forever. Internet advisers declare all food truckers must have a plan to move to a physical location. Neither Bottger nor the Hackers, who enjoyed success in the initial few years, ever had such a plan.

"The plan was always more trucks," Bottger says. "Year one was spent convincing people to eat off a truck and getting the word out. Year two we started Durham's food truck rodeos. By the third year, we wanted another truck, but the kitchen we shared with Durham Catering got crowded."

Bottger's proposal that Only Burger get a kitchen of its own led to the addition of a take-out window, then a small bar where folks could enjoy a beer while they waited. Before long, they'd opened their first brick-and-mortar location, on Shannon Road. The second location is at the American Tobacco Campus downtown.

Hacker figured Pie Pushers would remain a food truck enterprise, at least in the early stages.

"Our plan originally was to have fun and try not to fail," Hacker says. But as they began to look at spaces around town a bit more seriously, Kym Register, who owns the Pinhook, offered them the space one floor above their bar. The restaurant opened in September.

Only Burger and Pie Pushers made their move indoors just as the food truck landscape in the Triangle changed precipitously.

"Food trucks are ubiquitous," says Bottger. "Nowadays, there's no street fair, event, or corporate function that doesn't have a food truck."

"When we started, there were not a lot of different cuisines on the road," Hacker says. "But now, there's Indian food, Thai, there's like three different arepa trucks."

She adds, "There are over one hundred trucks in the Triangle now. It's that much harder just to let people know who you are and why you are different."

While both Only Burger and Pie Pushers hit the streets at just the right time, then moved inside just as fortuitously, one has to wonder what the future holds for the trucks that made their good names. Bottger sees the Only Burger truck as part of his brand's DNA. His downtown location is marked by a miniature Only Burger truck above the front door. The truck still rolls out every day, although Bottger splits his time between the restaurants and limits his tours on the truck to once per week and during big rodeos. Pie Pushers also keeps its truck on the road, although Hacker says they've cut back from ten truck services per week to five or six.

"Not being on the truck frees me up to do other things," she says, as she takes another order inside her Main Street restaurant. "Like deliver these pizzas."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Risky Business."

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