It's the middle of a sweltering afternoon, and Tacos Michoacan is parked in its usual spot just north of Pittsboro's humble downtown. Aromatic Roasters, the coffee truck with which Tacos Michoacan shares this unassuming lot, is closed for the day, and the communications company at the same address is as outwardly quiet as ever.
Yet that's not what cashier Renato Romero sees. He sees the cars on Hillsboro Street (the in-town name for Highway 15-501) and he knows that some of them contain hungry people. Between the truck and the road, flags boldly advertise Mexican food.
"It's the best place," Romero says. "It's real close to town, going in and out."
With a population of about 4,000, per the U.S. Census 2016 population estimates, Pittsboro has one-hundredth the population of Raleigh, while Durham is seventy-two times larger than this Chatham County town. Those cities support thriving food truck scenes and jam-packed rodeos, yet food trucks don't require a metropolitan population to stay in business. Even with a small customer base, trucks like Tacos Michoacan, Aromatic Roasters, and the Maple View Ice Cream Mobile Unit are thriving here.
"It doesn't matter the town," Romero says. "I believe anywhere, no matter how small or big the town is, there's always going to be support for food trucks."
As if on cue, a white pickup truck swings into the parking lot. Romero excuses himself, slipping into Spanish to take the customer's order. He stays busy here, and time passes quickly during Tacos Michoacan's lunch and dinner rushes. Jerry Richardson, who parks Maple View Farm's unit across the traffic circle from the historic courthouse on Sunday afternoons, tells a similar story.
"We're not just sitting down there twiddling our thumbs and hoping it's another nice Sunday afternoon," he says. "We have regular clients on a fairly regular basis that drive up from Apex and Cary and Durham. They don't want to fight the battle of the long line at the (Maple View) farm to get ice cream, so they'll get it from the mobile unit."
During the week, Richardson's truck exclusively works by-appointment gigs at corporate events or schools. Its only two weekly, recurring locations are in small towns—Saturday evenings in Saxapahaw and Sundays in Pittsboro. Richardson has learned the differences between running a food truck in a small town and in a city. In the little places, consistency is important—in quality, yes, but also in reliably parking in the same place. Familiarity breeds curiosity, particularly in a town of this size, and people who drive by often enough are likely to stop eventually. Unlike at a food truck rodeo, they know they don't have to dedicate thirty-five to forty minutes to standing in line just to find out if they like the food.
"A lot of folks who live in a small town, they live in a small town for a reason," Richardson says. "They don't want to fight the crowds, you know?"
Yet food truck rodeos bring a built-in crowd. Rather than leaning on that or on an idiosyncratic product, Maple View Mobile Unit must establish and maintain relationships with repeat customers. As a food truck with Spanish-English bilingual staff, Tacos Michoacan has a faithful clientele, too. For the local Spanish-speaking population, this kind of truck is special.
"It's like a cushion for them, a little place they can go back home to," Romero says. "The food is the same, the language. It almost feels like they're back home."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Little Engines That Could."