Black-owned food trucks are thriving in Austin, despite rapid gentrification and a shrinking black population.
The mobile eateries offer food from a wide range of cultures and culinary styles, and present an opportunity for cooks from minority communities to get their businesses off the ground.
For five years now, Vann Brown has owned a soul food truck called My Granny’s Kitchen. Brown was a communications specialist for AT&T for 30 years before retiring and buying a food truck.
“I had the fortune of having some wonderful managers, but one day I realized that I was dwindling away,” she says.
Now, she’s found new life as one of a growing number of black food truck owners in Austin. Brown, who was born and raised in East Austin, says she makes sure to serve food made with quality ingredients like her mother did.
“I did a lot of cooking when my kids were growing up, but when I started doing it on this truck, I came to understand the concept of soul food," she says.
Food truck owner Hope Green has her own take on a classic. Green lived and worked in real estate in Seattle for 22 years before moving back to Austin with her daughter, who had a severe case of scoliosis.
With doctors' visits and the possibility of surgery for her daughter hanging over her head, Green says, it became hard to hold a 9-to-5 job. While Green was looking for a more flexible work schedule, her daughter suggested she open a food truck – even though Green wasn’t an avid cooker.
“I asked, 'What would I make that people would want to buy?'” Green says. “She was like, ‘Well, you make the best grilled cheeses ever,’ and I was like ‘Yeah, says you!’”
After successfully testing the concept at a couple farmers markets, Green opened Emojis Grilled Cheese Bar five years ago. The food truck serves about 30 different types of grilled-cheese sandwiches, including a blackberry cobbler grilled cheese and a jambalaya one.
“As an entrepreneur, you see opportunities and you take advantage of them when they come up,” Green says. “That’s exactly what we did, and it’s just been going strong ever since.”
Now, Green and Brown sell award-winning food. Last month, the two were named co-grand champions of the first annual Soul Food Truck Fest put on by Soulciti, an online media outlet for Austin’s black community. Almost 2,000 people turned out to taste food from 10 different black-owned trucks.
Greater Austin Black Chamber of Commerce president Tam Hawkins said the participants are just a sample of the black-owned food trucks in Austin
“We’ve absolutely seen an increase," she says, "because Austin is the food-truck mecca, and we’ve seen that trickle down into black business as well.”
Hawkins says that success is evident across black-owned businesses in other fields, too. While the black population has fallen to only 7 percent of Austin, the GABCC says black-owned businesses have been more profitable here than in other parts of the state.
“Much has been made about our segregation and things that are not right, but the city is hungry to explore opportunities to come together and support black businesses,” Hawkins says.
She says there are still historical challenges these businesses face, like funding.
“They start off with a funding deficit even when all things given – experience, credit scores and capital – are similar," Hawkins says. "They still somehow – because of systemic racism – start off with a deficit.”
Brown and Green say owning and running a food truck itself is challenging, but they've also encountered discrimination. Green says she and other black business owners have been charged higher rents and inexplicably rejected for certain projects. She says she knows it's speculation, but that sometimes there's no logical explanation.
"When you run out of logic," she says, "the only thing that you’re kind of left with is: ‘Was this decision made because I’m a person of color?’"
Both women say that won’t stop them from doing what they love. Brown says the positive interactions with customers make all the time and effort worth it. That and the chance to make sure people are eating vegetables with their mac 'n' cheese.
“I tell them, ‘No, you can’t have that; you have to have a vegetable,’” Brown says. "They look at me like, ‘Ma’am are you serious?’ and I say, 'Yes, ma’am, I’m serious. You have to have a veggie.’ And they would order a veggie.”