In city that only recently accepted food trucks into the fold, a natural disaster—and a handful of dedicated Savannah food truckers—proved how essential the presence of a mobile kitchen can be.
Photography by Malcolm Tully. Written by Maggie Harney.
As Hurricane Matthew surged water, wind and loss of power onto our city’s shores, there was at least one city ordinance that was going to bring relief to the community: the Mobile Food Service Unit ordinance, which went into effect on August 18, 2016, giving mobile kitchens in Savannah the right to serve in public spaces. But more than giving them power to park at the park, the ordinance allowed them to help.
As the saving grace for many, the Savannah Food Truck Association during Hurricane Matthew excelled at the very thing the city was most concerned about: the mobility of our kitchens. Far from causing worry, these food trucks embodied community spirit and fed thousands—something many traditional kitchens weren’t able to.
“During [the hurricane] we were able to operate as normal since our trucks are fully self-contained, meaning we don’t need access to water or electricity to operate,” explains Ryan Giannoni, the founder of the Savannah Food Truck Association. “It allowed us to send trucks all over to feed our community when they had no other options for food. This was a perfect chance to give back to a city who recently accepted us and changed laws to allow us food truckers to earn a living.”
Along with truck owners and operators Roy & Mandy Chambliss, Dylan Kennady, Gordon Card and Chaz Ortiz, Ryan served more than 2,000 people since the early morning of Friday, October 7, and proven in every sense of the word that Savannah’s need for food trucks is more than a fad, but an essential part of the community’s well being.
“I talked to one lady who had been eating canned beans and peanut butter for four days,” notes Ryan. “I handed her a Cuban sandwich plate and the look on her face was something I will never forget. Yes the Cubans are delicious, but having a hot meal after 4 days of ‘ruffing it’ will make anyone smile.”
Roy’s Nutz & Buttz fed more than 200 on the Sunday night after Matthew, while Chazito’s Latin Cuisine rolled out to Highway 204 to serve those outside the city and other trucks were placed throughout Savannah during the evacuation—including the Civic Center, which was the home base of the city’s emergency crew and first responders—to provide good, hot food for those in need.
“On Friday morning the city had power,” remembers Ryan. “But everywhere was closed and out of food due to the rush. When we pulled up to serve them, I’ve never seen people so appreciative to get a meal. One paramedic, Steve, had been working nonstop for 72 hours with no food.”
Are food trucks just a food service? We’re not convinced. For sure, Giannoni and his passionate followers are making their mark on the city’s clean-up, but we’re writing this down as a game changer in the landscape of Savannah’s restoration, and future. We’re calling it a revolution.
“Not knowing where your next meal is coming from is something our city, or our country, isn’t familiar with,” remarks Ryan. “It was a very humbling moment for myself and the association to be able to help. I thought I loved Savannah before. Now I’m positive we live in the best city in the world and I’m just thankful that the association can be a part of such a wonderful city.”
Before Matthew, our freelance writer Ariel Felton caught up with Ryan at the annual Statt’s Festival in Daffin Park, where he was making sure the food trucks ran smoothly for the event. With him were Jared Jackson and Melissa DeLynn, two Savannah residents who recently purchased their own truck with hopes to bring made-to-order, walkable meals to the city’s forgotten Westside food deserts. Together the three caught Ariel up on the movement and took her through the nuts and bolts of business, and how they’re set on changing the face of food in our city. As far as we’re concerned, they’ve now got that in the bag—or to be clearer, in their hands. Here’s what they said.
SM: How did the food truck association start?
Ryan: The idea came from traveling to Austin, Texas, seeing how well food trucks did there, and thinking ‘Why not Savannah?’ I’d experienced trouble with street vending in Savannah before. I wasn’t allowed to post up on the corner and sell food, but at certain events I’d see a guy with a grill standing on the grass selling food. I always wondered how that was legal and food trucks weren’t.
SM: What is the main goal of the association?
Ryan: I guess it’s a little bit different now. Before this new ordinance, our goal was just the advancement of the food truck industry. Now with the huge amount of interest people have expressed in starting their own, we want to put these trucks to work and help them establish a good customer base and good relations with event coordinators. All of our events are non-profit/charity based events. We want to promote the industry, but give back to the community at the same time.
Jared: Our community needs an organization to bridge the gap between those that need help and those who have the resources. I think with all the buzz surrounding food trucks and the new ordinance right now, it’s really important that we keep pushing in that positive direction.
SM: What does this new ordinance mean for the current operations of food trucks?
Ryan: It’s a loaded question, because there are so many different parts of the ordinance. We aren’t allowed to serve within 200 feet of a brick and mortar restaurant, there are certain times and areas that we aren’t allowed to do business in, and of course everything has to be up to code with the Health Department. But the most important thing to know is that you should have a base of operations that is separate from your truck. It doesn’t need to be a whole restaurant–don’t think you’re opening a Chili’s. It’s a just a place where food, containers or supplies are kept and prepared.
Jared: It’s just another way for the Health Department to ensure everybody is up to code and doing what they’re supposed to be doing.
SM: Since the ordinance has passed, have you noticed a difference in how the city responds to food trucks/festivals?
Ryan: The city has always been helpful, but now they’re putting in a lot of time and creating jobs around this new industry to help promote them, which I think is more than other cities would do. People like Susan Brooker, a.k.a. the Food Truck Hero, were big advocates for the food trucks and helped write the ordinance. Without her, I don’t think we would be in the spot we are now.
Jared: People think that because it’s taken a while for us to get here, the city has been blocking everything. But it’s not the case–it’s just a big undertaking. We’re creating an industry from the ground up. And that takes a lot of work, a lot of push and pull, and a lot of paperwork.
Ryan: It’s definitely been a passion project. I was running my own truck for a while, but as other people became interested in the association, I realized I could be most helpful in a different role and stepped down.
Jared: Ryan is our leader, though. None of this would be possible without him.
Melissa: He’s like a food truck agent–he makes us look good!
Ryan: But at the same time, I could never do this without having people who liked to work, no matter how good of an agent I am. I can call these guys up last minute for an event and they all show up because they want to work. That’s important.
Jared: The association really is like brotherhood. As soon as I spoke up and told Chaz Ortiz, the chef behind Chazito’s Latin Cuisine food truck, that this was my dream, I felt welcomed. Chaz introduced us to Ryan, they took us under their wing and really showed us the ropes.
(Just a stone’s throw from Southbound Brewing Company, Jared is welding space for a serving window into his “baby”—a giant, gutted ground travel truck that stretches more than 21 feet. It looks expansive, colossal, full of promise. For now, it’s completely empty behind the driver and passenger seats; a giant metal cage of great potential. The sparks that fly off his blow torch bounce around in front, behind and through the metal. He’s got a steady hand, but you can tell it’s hot. When he flips his face mask, he takes a gloved hand to wipe the sweat that beads on his face. Soon the shell will no longer be empty. In complete accordance with city health codes, it will be outfitted with a stove, a refrigerator and all the trappings of a mobile kitchen to feed his customers with the freshest, and most famous, of Hostess City treats. Named Walk and Talk, it will be splashed with new paint, decorated in palette colors of red, yellow and green, and wrapped in pop-art logo graphics that tell the future of food truck success in Savannah. Today, a window size metal sheet comes out, tomorrow the serving stand goes in, and like that, Walk and Talk is one step closer to its goal.)
SM: Jared and Melissa, your food truck is called “Walk and Talk.” Tell me what it’s all about.
Melissa: One of the focuses of Walk and Talk is food deserts–the places where food isn’t readily available, grocery stores are too far, or people can’t afford fresh local food. Thirty thousand people in Savannah live in a food desert. They might be around liquor stores or convenience stores, but there’s no way for them to access fresh meat or veggies. We want to set up in these places and offer these people fresh and yummy food.
Jared: We’re about social entrepreneurship; we aren’t just trying to make a buck. We want to influence people, bring in some more culture. People don’t think about Savannah’s west side, full of low income families, but we’re interested in using the power of food trucks to bring people and business to that area.
Melissa: It’s kind of funny, the idea for Walk and Talk was a play on being able to walk and talk with food, but it’s really turned into us being able to walk the talk of the things we believe in and keep up this idea of social entrepreneurship and social change.
SM: What goes into preparing a truck for the road?
Jared: I bought just the shell of the truck, and now I’m filling it with the things I need–a table over here, a water heater over there. It’s actually been nice because most chefs are thrown into a kitchen and told to make it work, but I’ve gotten to design my own space and consider how I can serve the most food in the quickest time. It’s not necessarily a lot of work, but there are steps that have to happen in the correct order to make sure trucks are up to code.
SM: When can Savannah expect to see you on the road?
Jared: We should be on the street no later than Jan. 1, 2017! We’re also having a fundraiser in Nov. 12 at Dollhouse with live music, live painting and I’ll prepare some tastings. It’ll be a lot like a block party. And this is all happening in the west side of Savannah. We want the community behind us before we were even on the road so people are looking forward to it.
Melissa: There will also be a GoFundMe campaign that will last until we’re on the road. Every donation buys a meal for West Savannah. That way the money that you give actually goes back to helping the community.
SM: Can you share a dish you’re working on?
Jared: I’m focusing on taking popular dishes and making them street food–something you can walk with. I’m specializing in sandwiches, but with a lot of creative twists as well as some vegan options.
Melissa (to Jared): Oh, tell them about the…. (whispers in Jared’s ear)
Jared: Okay, okay. So one of the most famous dishes in Savannah is shrimp and grits and what I’ve been messing around with is the idea of grits in itself. When you cook grits and cool them on a sheet, they’ll congeal and you have a patty almost. So my idea is to create a shrimp patty by mincing shrimp. With the two together, it’s like a shrimp and grit burger.
Photo by Mackensey Alexander