At a time when the coronavirus pandemic is threatening the very existence of some Charlotte-area restaurants, food truck entrepreneurs Jamie Barnes and Greg Williams are making plans to expand their business, What The Fries LLC, to include a brick-and-mortar location.
The restaurant will open early next year at 10707 Park Road (Suite R). The 3,420-square-feet space will seat about 100 people at full capacity.
What The Fries has seen steady growth since March, with sales up 33% over 2019, the company announced.
“This is a long time coming,” Barnes, in a press release, said of the new restaurant. “Being in one spot — and not on the truck — will give us a chance to spread our wings from a culinary perspective.”
Why it matters: Not only is this good news for one of Charlotte’s Black-owned businesses, it also bucks national trends.
Earlier this month, the National Restaurant Association announced that 17% of all U.S. restaurants – about 110,000 establishments – had closed permanently.
The association used that figure in a plea to Congress for financial assistance.
What The Fries specializes in “loaded fries,” with menu items that include cheesy fries, truffle fries, lobster mac & cheese fries and flaming hot fries.
Once the restaurant opens, the truck will be put on hiatus, the partners said.
In an email exchange, Alicia Barnes, administrative director and wife of Jamie Barnes, talked about the venture and hopes of a new year:
What defines WTF?
What The Fries is a business that centers around creating unique – original toppings for loaded fries. We take pride in providing creative and upscale toppings on hand-cut fries and tots.
How did the concept for the truck originate?
We were finalists on The Great Food Truck Race and our idea that was submitted to the show was loaded fries. After not making it past the final selection of groups to participate, Jamie pushed forward to make that dream a reality by leaving his job and starting a catering business to save money for a truck, and Greg joined him on this journey as partners shortly after.
At a time when many restaurants are struggling, how are you able to expand?
We owe a lot of this to our local support! Without the greatest customers, we would not be where we are today. In addition to having community support, we have had the honor of being recipients of the Innovation Fund Grant and Small Business Recovery Grant. At the start of the Covid pandemic, we were able to shift our model of working lunches at business parks, to moving into neighborhoods for lunch/dinner and that caused our sales to steadily increase, thankfully. With a combination of grants and SBA loan funds available as well as increased revenue through sales, it put us in a prime position to open.
What’s been your biggest challenge?
Our biggest challenge has been the unpredictability of knowing what will happen with the truck. It can be physical like a flat tire on the way to an event, or it can be a literal scenario or driving a vehicle being stuck in traffic unexpectedly — that causes a delay of getting to an event. Working on an automobile has its ups and downs, but the downfalls are extremely significant when they happen.
Your most pleasant surprise?
Learning that the landlord of the restaurant we are leasing believed in us enough to let us rent. After so many rejections to various shopping centers and food halls, it had us feeling a bit discouraged, but we knew we would find a place when the opportunity was right for us. So we kept trying and came in contact with a landlord that believes we will be a successful brick and mortar restaurant. Being honest, the location we landed is better than any other opportunity that we sought out before, so this is a blessing and we could not be more thankful.
How will a brick-and-mortar restaurant change how you operate?
We will operate as a typical restaurant that you walk up to order, we will have hands-free ordering available, and pick up when your order is ready. We have roughly 100 capacity seating, so customers can sit where they’d like to (based on what the government mandate is at that time). We are excited to have the ability to provide a menu that offers more of a variety and expand to a few Vegan options for example, with the ample space we will have. Whether a shut down makes its way back, we have a plan in place to remain successful with focusing back on the food truck in communities as well as providing pick-up and perhaps delivery options at the restaurant. The main change will be that the food truck will only operate in the Spring and Summer months and we will primarily work out the brick and mortar restaurant.
Aside from the new location, what excites you about 2021?
A new start. We hope to see the world move into the direction of being back to normal so we can really provide an atmosphere of community and gathering together again. Limitations have hurt the food industry tremendously and affected many people in the world within their overall lifestyle. Having the ability to unite with a large group of loved ones over a meal without having to worry about compromising anyone’s health will be wonderful.
What advice do you have for other Black entrepreneurs with dreams of opening a restaurant or launching a food truck?
Don’t give up. You may feel you have to do more to prove you are good…you do. You may feel you have to work harder than others to gain recognition…you do. But not giving up on your dream and giving 200% of your time and energy is absolutely necessary to be successful. Don’t look at what the person next to you is doing, be unique and innovative in your own way. Lastly, social media is an outlet that captures the attention of people locally and internationally. Post your food often and use hashtags. Wishing much success to all!