In case you haven't looked at a newspaper or driven down Meeting Street recently, you may not realize that many people are in need, especially when it comes to getting three meals a day. We have hundreds of children on free or reduced lunch, 100-plus underfed homeless people were recently cleared out of the so-called Tent City, and a food desert stretches from downtown all the way up to Remount Road. Charleston's problems are bigger than any nonprofit can remedy and yet many groups and people attempt to give back. The latest of these are food trucks.
Cory Burke's bright green Roti Rolls trucks (there are two now, with one in Atlanta) are best known for dishing out zany combinations like the Thurman Merman — braised pork, kimchi, and mac 'n' cheese — but the team behind the beloved rotis is now offering the community something else, free lunch for those in need. "We heard about this other restaurant doing it," says Burke's partner, Suzanne Dieter. Basically, any diner who orders at Roti Rolls can choose to pay it forward by buying themselves a roti as well as one for someone else.
"We put their name on a sticky note and stick it onto the truck, then when someone comes up who needs a lunch, they can just say they need a pay-it-forward meal," says Corey. There's no stigma or awkwardness, just one person paying for half the cost of a meal for another person. Roti Rolls pays the other half. And the business partners say the plan has been wildly successful. Twenty some homeless people regularly visited the truck for free rotis during the farmers market season.
Now Roti Rolls is taking their altruism further by launching Food Underground, a dinner series with a double mission: support the needy and bring those who have less to the table.
"With Food Underground, your ticket will buy you dinner and a ticket for someone else to attend," explains Burke. The first Food Underground event is slated for March 25 and will support Germaine Jenkins' Fresh Future Farm, an urban farm and store serving Chicora-Cherokee's food desert. Gullah Chef Benjamin "BJ" Dennis and Burke will collaborate on a regional menu that serves local crabs and blueberries from Blue Pearl Farms, vegetables from Joseph Fields Farm, and pork sausage from Holy City Hogs. Each ticket will subsidize a meal for residents that Jenkins invites from Chicora-Cherokee.
The March Food Underground event is just the start. Burke and Dieter have plans for other events this spring, possibly a dinner with the remaining Tent City members. They say they came up with that idea after the city instituted its anti-panhandling ordinance. "That law directly affects food trucks," says Burke.
The ordinance says, "No person shall knowingly distribute any items to, receive any item from, or exchange any item with the occupant of any motor vehicle when the vehicle is located in a lane of travel on the roadway."
Burke says that while food trucks could be cited, no one is preventing them from handing out lunch if they're parked on the side of the road. Instead, the law was crafted to prevent people from begging for cash at some of the city's busiest intersections, the same people Roti Rolls serves free lunch to with its Pay It Forward project.
And that, he says, is what Food Underground is all about — creating awareness while sharing a meal.
Meanwhile, a whole band of food trucks have gotten together to give back. Dashi, Food Box, Ye Ole Fashioned, Just Eat This, Boogie's Bar-Be-Que, Cast Iron, Mudd Pie Girl, Food Baby, With Cream, Towin' the Dough, KayLea Cakes & Cupcakes, Pacha Mama, Bac'n Me Crazy, Plato, Farmer's Wife, EMS Food Truck, and popsicle stand King of Pops are throwing rodeos to donate to various causes.
Sean Connor of Towin' the Dough says he and his business partner Vince Laviano came up with the idea.
"It spawned after three of the other trucks saw a need," he says. The owners of Boogie's Barbecue knew a person who was struggling with several bouts of cancer. Knowing the friend could use some money to help cover medical expenses, the trucks decided to team up and donate 15 percent of sales at a Sun. Feb. 28 rodeo in Carolina Bay neighborhood.
"We raised $1,000 for him," says Connor.
Now the group, who have named themselves Food Trucks for a Cause, are planning other philanthropic rodeos. Later this month, a few of the trucks are headed to Folly and will be raising money to help a two-year old boy with autism get a watchdog. Then, on April 16, they'll be at Cane Bay Elementary's spring carnival, and proceeds will go to the school.
Connor, who is a school counselor by day, and Laviano, who's an English teacher, say the desire to help stems from the assistance they've received.
"The reason we got our truck is my business partner's stepfather passed away," explains Connor. It's actually an odd story, he says. "We asked Vince's Mom, who inherited a truckload of money when Fred passed away, if we could have a loan. She immediately said 'No. Absolutely not.' But she goes to a medium the next day for a friend of hers. She was there for support and the medium was like, 'I have somebody here' and it was Fred. Fred tells the medium who tells Vince's mom to go ahead with the transaction. He's like 'I have confidence in Vince.' So his Mom called back the next day and said 'I'm going to give you the money.'"
Connor believes, regardless of how good fortune arrives — naturally or supernaturally — everyone should give back, adding, "I think a lot of food trucks have had a helping hand a long the way, and they want to do that for others."
To contact Food Trucks for a Cause, visit foodtrucksforacause.com.