The sun was hot, but the tater tots were hotter as patrons gathered earlier this summer in a vacant parking lot on Geer Street decked out with picnic tables, a giant Jenga game, classic tunes, and a 1950s Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight.
The star of the show, though, was a sleek, refurbished silver Airstream trailer doling out the classic Durham fare that drew people to the lot in the first place.
This was the launch of King's Mobile, an extension of King's Sandwich Shop, a tiny takeout spot that occupies the corner of Geer and Foster streets, next to Manbites Dog Theater and across from Cocoa Cinnamon. It has been serving the same burgers, hot dogs, chili, and tots from the same red-and-white stand for the last seventy-five years.
King's owner TJ McDermott and his King's Mobile partner, Hud Giles, were working the Airstream at the launch, taking orders, handing out food, trying to navigate the ins and outs of their new business and beaming at how it had all turned out after more than a year of work.
Their vision for King's Mobile is less food truck and more food trip. In addition to having a mobile kitchen almost as big as the one in the original shop, King's Mobile brings music, lawn games, karaoke, and a dose of old-school road-trip nostalgia with it wherever it goes.
"We think the Airstream is pretty fantastic and has exactly what we're going for, which is that Americana, 1950s, solid, hardworking atmosphere, good food, and having a good time, too," McDermott says.
While the new truck continues to serve much of King's classic fare, including the cheeseburger, red hot dog, black bean burger, and Cackalacky King, the duo is eager to introduce some new options, including more vegetarian and gluten-free fare. New menu items already feature a goat cheese and arugula sandwich, an all-beef "Yankee dog" with mustard and sauerkraut, chickpea salad, and celery seed potato salad. The larger-than-usual food truck kitchen allows King's Mobile to offer about fifteen items at a time and get orders out fairly quickly.
In addition to its potential as a staple on the food truck circuit at bars and rodeos around the Triangle, King's Mobile also positions itself as an event-catering company. Its owners emphasize its flexibility; they've already experimented with an upscale menu at weddings, brought retro flair to classic car conventions, and catered Duke events. They're eager to expand their culinary palate even as they remain a mainstay of traditional Southern fare.
"My wife always says, 'Honey, I knew you would own a restaurant, but I didn't know it would be a hamburger stand,'" McDermott says. "So I have to grow a little bit, too, to show that we can do more."
McDermott bought King's eight years ago, after it had been closed for a few years, the building vacant and the roof caving in. A former construction manager, McDermott renovated the shop himself with the help of friends. Part of what inspired him to re-open King's and retain its old-school menu, he says, was an experience he had visiting his hometown of Valparaiso, Indiana, and looking for an A&W root beer stand he'd go to as a kid. It had been torn down and turned into a parking lot.
"It's so rare for these places to stick around, and I wanted to keep a piece of that for Durham," he says. "We have a real responsibility here to Durham because King's is a historic institution."
The restaurant opened in 1942 as a shack across the street from its current location. After it got wiped out by a car, the owners built the current shop. McDermott says people still come by with their grandparents who remember eating there and appreciate the opportunity to share the same meal across generations. When McDermott reopened it in 2010, he took care to track down some of the cooks who worked there in the 1960s to teach him the chili recipe and other secrets.
Though he'd been approached many times by people wanting to partner on a food truck venture, the idea was never serious until the Airstream entered the picture.
Giles and McDermott are longtime college friends. Several years ago, Giles worked at an events agency that outfitted old Airstreams to tour them to art and music festivals around the country for Toyota's youth brand; after the project was over, the Airstreams went into storage. Giles asked for one in lieu of a bonus several years ago, and it sat idle in Los Angeles until he and McDermott developed their big idea.
Giles drove the trailer across the country, and with the help of friends at the Young Roofing Company in Durham, he and McDermott stripped the interior and rebuilt it with an industrial-grade kitchen, quiet generators, and light-weight aluminum fixtures.
"We knew we had aesthetics working on our side," Giles says of the trailer, "but I knew that the King's brand was really the backbone of it. People will tell you, 'My uncle brought me here' and 'My grandfather brought me here,' and those stories take a long time to create. King's has earned that."
As opposed to the "transactional nature" of many food trucks, Giles says he hopes that, with its different perspective, King's Mobile can become something more.
"Our unique proposition is to give them a reason to stay," he says.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Mirror Image."