Don't be surprised to encounter some of your favorite food trucks on your next visit to The Streets of Southpoint. No, not in the parking lot as part of a food truck rodeo—in the food court.
The Durham shopping center, one of 120 properties owned by a leading national mall operator, is testing a food court concept that includes local food truck owners cooking with locally sourced food.
There is no set goal for working local businesses in the mix, says Lynn Gray, director of field marketing for the eastern region of General Growth Properties Inc. The project will not eliminate familiar chains or the ubiquitous eateries that wave come-on samples of sesame chicken, but it should provide some options for local foodies getting their shopping fix.
To date, two Durham-based food trucks are opening counter-service shops at the Southpoint food court. Porchetta, renowned for its variations on slow-roasted Italian pork sandwiches, opened June 10. American Meltdown, which has built an award-winning reputation for its creative grilled cheese sandwiches, is scheduled to follow in September. Additional Triangle-based providers may be added as current leases expire.
Nick Crosson and business partner Matthew Hayden started Porchetta ("por-KET-a") in June 2012. They were discussing opening a traditional brick-and-mortar location in the Apex-Pittsboro area last fall when General Growth approached them about taking an available space at the mall.
"They said they wanted to begin the process of rebranding and being more local," says Crosson, who will work the shop while Hayden operates the truck. "They felt food trucks would be a good fit because of the style and service and our connections with the community.
"Everything they said made sense. We were excited and, quite frankly, honored, that they contacted us," Crosson says. "They were very helpful in making sure the deal was good for everyone."
The expanded kitchen space—from about 180 square feet on the truck to 738 square feet at the food court has allowed Porchetta to add new equipment and menu items. Thanks to a new rotisserie, they now serve hot Italian-style sliced beef in hoagie rolls from Neomonde topped with zesty giardiniera, a mix of pickled vegetables.
Slightly higher prices than you'll find on the food truck—a sandwich, side and a drink costs about $10—are prompted by increased overhead, but Crosson says he is eating some of the costs to stay competitive with his neighbors.
"People aren't used to seeing this kind of service in a food court," he says. "Business has been fantastic. Every day, someone tells me they haven't eaten in a mall food court in 10 years, but they came for us."
Such diners, who place a premium on shopping and eating local, may attract a new demographic for Southpoint. Still, American Meltdown's Inserra appreciates that the mall is taking a risk in choosing to work with small, local shops than familiar corporate entities.
"We don't have a team of lawyers like the big companies," says Inserra, who launched the business in March 2012 with his wife, Alycia. "It took more time than we expected, especially getting a bank loan, but we feel that they really want us there. They said they were tired of the same old food court. They want a more dynamic food environment in their malls, and they felt we'd be a good fit. We are glad to be part of it."
Inserra says American Meltdown will offer popular items from its food truck, including sandwiches that have earned national honors at the Grilled Cheese Invitational. They'll have an expanded menu of sides and will introduce a changing selection of homemade ice creams.
"It's going to be great to have a neighbor like Nick," Inserra says. "We've shared information as food truck owners, and now we'll share again. It's what helps you grow as business owners."
Crosson and Inserra both say their food truck operations will continue regardless of whatever success they have at Southpoint.
"Our truck is finally paid off and generating cash," Inserra says. "I've got a restaurant to pay for now, so we're going to keep it rolling as long as we can."
This post first appeared in Indy Week.