By JONAH LOSSIAH
One Feather Staff
Three Cherokee-owned food trucks will be setting up at The Cherokee Convention Center this Friday, Feb. 4 and Saturday, Feb. 5 to serve any and all who want an Indian dinner or Cherokee fare.
The ‘Food Truck Rodeo’ is being put on in collaboration with the EBCI Cooperative Extension Office and EmPOWERING Mountain Food Systems. This is project is focused on ‘bringing expanded opportunities and capacity to food and farm businesses across the southwestern NC region’. Jess Mrugala, the regional foods agent, has been working with local food truck owners since July of last year.
“Chumper Walker, who is the director of the EBCI Cooperative Extension Office, he really had a hunch that our grant wasn’t doing an adequate job of really reaching those non-farmers. Indigenous folks in Cherokee who are doing something with local food,” said Mrugala. “Late summer we had an open house. ‘Come learn about our grant if you do anything with local food’. We had a ton of food truck owners show up. We realized that was group of people who have needs that haven’t been served adequately.”
By offering small grant funding and connections to the right information they have been able to provide support to several local business owners.
“We have bought some folks’ wraps for their food trucks. We’ve helped them get on code with their fire safety requirements. One of the things that we’re offering through the cooperative extension office is scholarships to get your ServSafe certification here on the Boundary. Typically, folks will have to go to Asheville or Atlanta to take this class to get certified. But we’re able to offer it right here in our office for free,” said Mrugala.
Another focus has been visibility for the food trucks. Mrugala wants to help establish these businesses in Cherokee. One of the steps to this is going to be the Food Truck Rodeo.
The three trucks you can visit this weekend are Nikki’s Frybread, Sugar’s Place, and Lulu’s Food Truck. Tasha Martinez, who runs Sugar’s Place, said that she has a lot of emotion coming into the event.
“I’m scared, first of all. Because we’ve never done any event this big. But, I am looking forward to the reactions of the people and just see that they enjoy our food as much as we enjoy putting it out,” said Martinez.
The program was able to fund the wrap for Sugar’s Place, and Martinez said they have been essential in getting their business off the ground. She opened the food truck with her mother, Sugar Arch, last September. Martinez said they use local ingredients as much as possible, sourcing from local farms. They also get their corn meal from Hilliard Sneed, who grows and stone mills his own corn.
She said that she is so thankful to be able to offer local food to the Boundary and hopes that the community can get together to support Cherokee-owned food trucks. Martinez said that supporting the community with food something her mother has always done and that they will always do.
“We’ve had a lot of our people that walk the street or maybe don’t have a place to go. We make sure that when they walk by and we’re down there, ‘hey do you want a drink? Have y’all ate today?’ We wouldn’t ask them for money. Just making sure that they could eat, making sure that someone was not hungry.”
It’s that community aspect that the food trucks are trying to maintain. Martinez said that the other trucks have constantly helped her and her business early on. One of those has been Nikki Crisp, owner and operator of Nikki’s Frybread.
“I’d like to have a support group for food trucks,” said Crisp. “It’s like during the fair when we do that. There’s several of us that take care of each other. If we got something that one needs, then we do that. If they’re having trouble with their fryers, then we help. If we need them, then they come and help us. It’s just a good comradery.”
Crisp said that working with EmPOWERING Mountain Food Systems and the Cooperative Extension Office have been extremely valuable and has also sparked new ideas on what food truck owners could do to grow their businesses.
“People can’t open these big businesses. The little people like us try to open a business we can take care of and it’s comfortable for us. It’d be nice to have a place where food trucks can set up, said Crisp. “It’s getting more and more popular. There’s a lot of good, good cooks in Cherokee and a lot of people are getting more interested in food trucks. So, that would be a great thing for us to be able to have. A food truck park with electricity, sewer, water, where we could set up.”
This is something that Mrugala echoes and sees as a big opportunity for Cherokee.
“I am hopeful that Tribal government and the economic department and tourism departments will see the benefit of having a permanent location for these food trucks to set up and call home,” said Mrugala. “I’ve seen a lot of success in other states for these permanent food truck rodeos. If you can establish just a group, a fleet of diverse owners supporting each other, that’s how you become unstoppable and you build a name for yourself. It doesn’t have to be competition. There is an opportunity for a collaborative. There’s strength in numbers.”
The initial goal surrounding the Food Truck Rodeo was to also host a conference for the business owners. Those plans had to be postponed due to the ongoing pandemic.
“I decided to do a little bit of research and found the Street Food Institute. These are folks that are based out in Albuquerque, New Mexico, who have worked with some indigenous folks out there with everything that has to do with street food, food trucks, and catering,” said Mrugala. “They offer two different beginner and advanced 12-week courses. We’ve been talking to them about coming out to Cherokee and doing a condensed one-week boot camp that summarizes everything you need to know about food truck ownership.”
Mrugala said that conference is not dead, and they hope to hold it in Cherokee at the end of this year. Until then they feel this event can still be helpful for all those involved.
“This is a really wonderful opportunity for the casino and the convention center to test out what it would be like to have local food trucks serving near their establishment. Because that benefits their guests as well as the employees who are very much a part of our community. As well as the business owners and the Tribal community,” said Mrugala.
Mrugala’s contract for this program is over at the end of the year, but they are looking into funding opportunities to extend her work on the Boundary. Regardless, she hopes the rodeo and her work can offer at least one thing.
“To continue to support these women and indigenous-owned food trucks we’ve been working with. Also, to really tell the community, local food is here and it’s your neighbors that are participating in it.”
The Food Truck Rodeo kicks off Friday, Feb. 4 at 11 a.m. The event will run from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. on both Friday and Saturday. The trucks will be set up outside The Cherokee Convention Center at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort.