We often think of the food truck business as the epitome of a team effort. But every once in a while, someone comes onto the scene and proves to us that it only takes one powerhouse person to run a successful business and make the hearts and stomachs of their customers full of love.
This month, as part of our Vendor Spotlight series, we are highlighting one of our favorite partners, Arthurene Smith. She calls us after a long day from her car—a testament to the hustle it takes to make her food truck as good as it is. After topping best-of lists all across Houston for some time, she shared some of her most valuable advice with us for how she gets it all done, even when it’s a one-woman show.
“I started the Lunch Bag because I was working with mentally disabled folks, which can be really hard,” Arthurene explains. “Because you’re eating in the office a lot, I started bringing lunch to try and lift up the spirits of others.” From there, Arthurene began a de facto catering business.
Then came the magical, serendipitous moment. Smith heard about an illusive decommissioned barbeque truck. She just knew she had to have it—originally for the purpose of catering, which she says makes up for about 30% of her business today.
“I hadn’t even considered that I could just use the food truck the way we use food trucks now—I guess it was kind of taco trucks that started this whole thing. But anyways, this was 2009!”
When it comes to the menu and style of her cooking, Arthurene never had one doubt about how to do things the right way. Growing up in West Columbia, Texas, there was no shortage of great culinary role models to pick up the basics from.
“I actually learned along the way from watching my mom and her mom. My grandfather and uncle were amazing cooks too—they cooked the kind of food you’d get in a place that wasn’t considered a restaurant then—maybe more of a beer joint with food in it! Of course, this is not to say anything bad about my father. He was a minister, but still, my favorite place to be was always in the kitchen. My mom had 7 kids to worry about, so she kind of shooed us out of there a lot.”
The kitchen was a mythical place for a young Arthurene to glimpse at and dream about. Because of the quasi-religious relationship she developed with the way people acted when they had good food, she knew she had to make it herself. In a season of life when she was downtrodden by caring for those who struggled so much, she began to crave the things that got people laughing, talking, and crowding around jukeboxes the way she so fondly remembered.
“I remember my mom would cook salmon patties and blackberry dumplins. It was always supposed to be something quick, but I never felt like anything was missing. My grandmother made the kind of fish, pork chops, and burgers that had all the neighbors coming over, following the smell. She was truly so good at bringing people together.”
Then came the perfect storm. Arthurene morphed her successful catering business into a restaurant with a business partner. The partnership ended up dissolving, and her catering business was gone. It was time to get back on the horse, but this time, by herself, a process she said was daunting at first, but became less so when she remembered how much business knowledge she had accrued in her first career.
She started with taste: “If you don’t know where to begin, it’s so easy. Just start with the things you like—maybe put a little twist on them so that they’re up more people’s alley than just you.”
The truck’s menu began with fishcakes just like the ones she grew up eating, except this time, she added a little kick. Nowadays, the menu changes frequently depending on what Ms. Smith is enjoying. Creating the menu was the easy part—Arthurene will passionately tell you that the hardest part is just having the courage to get started.
“On my first day, I barely knew how to work the grill on the truck.”
“On my first day, I barely knew how to work the grill on the truck. The wonderful guy who built out the truck kept telling me that I was taking way too long; that it was time to get out there. It’s the most important advice I can give—just get out there. People will come. People always want to eat.”
Then, the first fateful customer came and got a burger outside the apartment buildings she deliberately targeted. She saw the same customer a couple of days later by the truck and asked, “what’d you think?” The customer replied that she knew that this burger was good for one reason alone. She ate half of it hot and wanted the other half cold even later. Arthurene knew she was off to a good start.
From there, it was just about word of mouth. Arthurene recalls how she would sit in the corner of the truck, working her way through stacks of books. For her, the strangest, most difficult part was patience: waiting and hoping for someone to find her. She parked where there weren’t restaurants, but instead tons of apartment buildings full of hungry people.
Like clockwork, the waiting game gave way to fiercely loyal customers. The burger is legendary, made freshly from a secret beef mix. The newly added jerk chicken tacos are the perfect craveable mix of flavors and juiciness. If there are chicken tenders on the menu one day, they aren’t frozen. Arthurene is cutting them up because she knows how good it feels to eat something fresh.
That’s the thing about Houston, she says. “There’s a taste for everyone. This business is amazing because I get to be all over the place. Sure, I love going to a restaurant, but food trucks are a way to connect with the entire city,” she adds.
“When else do you get to tell the chef to their face to ‘put some love in it?’ I just adore that.”
And she continues to support newcomers to the Houston food scene. “I’m here. If you have a question, call me. It’s so important to have people and support systems who are honest and who you can call for their opinion. I want to pay it forward. I want to be a cornerstone.” Be sure to stay tuned for her evolving dessert menu, which she is currently developing.
Author: This interview was conducted and edited by Greta Gooding.