Success is the result of perfection, hard work, learning from failure, loyalty, and persistence.
— Colin Powell
Staying on the road to achievement often demands everything former Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke of in his definition of success. As chefs, best friends and business partners, Jamie Barnes and Greg Williams relied on all of them to start their own business in Charlotte, North Carolina.
“For me personally, I was getting burnt out in the restaurant industry,” says Jamie Barnes, co-owner of What The Fries food truck. “I was getting burnt out on the hours and doing food I didn’t have a passion for anymore.” The feeling was mutual for co-owner Greg Williams. He roomed with Barnes when they took culinary classes together at Johnson & Wales University. “Jamie called me up and told me this idea for a food truck. I was all for it because I had been working in restaurants as well and kind of got burnt out working for other people,” Williams says.
Persistence Pays Off
In August, What The Fries celebrated its fifth year in business. The concept the two friends launched in 2015 has made their food truck one of the most popular in the Charlotte area. “We saw a little void in the food truck scene here in Charlotte. It was nothing like what we were trying to do. That just made us want to keep trying for it,” says Barnes.
The chefs refused to abandon their food truck dream even when they were eliminated in the final tryouts for Food Network’s “Great Food Truck Race” in 2014. They did not want to let their culinary talents and ideas for a loaded fries menu go to waste. “I just felt like we had something,” says Williams. “We did a lot of stuff for restaurants, so why not keep it going for ourselves.”
That they kept it going is almost miraculous. The challenges piled up when the new owners of What The Fries bought a 1986 FedEx vehicle and turned it into a food truck. “In the beginning, it was really, really rough,” Williams says. He and Barnes had no clue what it would take to keep an old truck on the road. “We had so many problems with the truck at first, from the transmission going out to a blown radiator. We had the motor rebuilt. Flat tires had us sitting on the side of the road.”
The business partners remained persistent through those setbacks and the stress of getting permits, managing food costs and setting up for service at different locations. “We just always had that give out but don’t give up attitude. Sometimes with this business, it really drains you. We had that willingness to keep going,” Williams says.
The arrival of the coronavirus pandemic earlier this year added new stresses. The two entrepreneurs changed their food truck operation to pre-orders with no walk-ups to support social distancing and minimize cash exchanges. Williams and Barnes also started looking for other locations to set up once office buildings began closing. A television news report on people supporting local businesses got them fired up about rolling into neighborhoods for pre-order service. “A lot of people took to it. It’s easy. You just walk out of your house, go to the truck and go back in. A lot of people like that availability of us being right there,” says Barnes.
What The Fries sales have nearly tripled. The two best friends are busier than ever. “We’ve been getting a lot of buzz around the city and a lot of reposts. I think we’ve gotten about 8,000 new followers in the last few months,” Williams says. Barnes describes the demand for neighborhood appearances as a domino effect. “We kind of caught that wave once people started sharing pictures. One neighborhood will share photos of the great food and another neighborhood will hear about it.”
The food truck’s growing popularity makes it impossible to fill orders with two people. It takes three or four people to keep up. “One ticket could have maybe 15 orders on it, and that’s not even an exaggeration. And then they have all these different modifications on the orders, so you have to take your time,” Barnes says.
He and his partner credit their dedication to making almost everything from scratch for attracting loyal customers. “We take an extra step with everything,” says Barnes. “We make the seasoning for our fries and even the steps we take to make our fries. Greg cuts them every morning in the process of getting them ready for service.”
It takes about 200 pounds of potatoes to fill the day’s orders for freshly made french fries that are blanched in the fryer, cooled and fried again to make them soft on the inside and crispy outside. The food truck’s tater tots are homemade, and the two chefs build on flavor by whipping up their own sauces. “We work really hard, and so it’s always good that people do notice that,” Barnes adds.
The most crowd-pleasing items on the What The Fries menu include the chicken sandwich, the lobster mac and cheese, and the steak and shrimp hibachi fries. The partners brainstorm together on coming up with new menu items from their experiences with cooking a variety of cuisines, from American to Asian to Mediterranean. “We try to do things that people aren’t doing. We’re always trying to be creative in our ideas,” Williams says.
A pop-up anniversary celebration in August demonstrated how many customers crave the food truck’s burgers and fries. There was a line waiting before they even started serving the limited menu. “I think it’s just the name we’ve built up. When people come to us, they know they are going to get something that is different, well thought out, and with a good taste and flavor to it,” says Williams. The high demand usually means a wait to taste the food truck’s loaded fries and other specialties. “That goes to show that there is something about our food that people are willing to wait for it. That’s another thing about getting a brick and mortar. It will give us more space,” Barnes says.
Brick and Mortar Challenge
Barnes and Williams have begun the search for a brick and mortar location. It’s proven to be another challenge that will take persistence. “It’s hard for us to get landlords to respect us enough to get us into a spot. We’ve tried countless places,” says Barnes. The possibility that race might be a factor has occurred to them. “I think it could have something to do with it,” Williams says. “I know I’ve seen a lot of different people getting restaurants. They don’t have half as much credibility as we have, and they are getting restaurants.”
Local food critics and competition judges are recognizing the quality of the food from What The Fries. Charlotte Magazine said the food truck has the best loaded fries in the city. Williams and Barnes won 2nd place overall in North Carolina’s Food Truck State Championship in 2018. They also had an opportunity to cook at the James Beard House last September as founding members of Soul Food Sessions. “It was definitely unexpected. Not many Black chefs come through there, so it was big for us,” says Barnes.
The What The Fries co-owners have received support and advice from other Soul Sessions members, including restaurateurs Subrina and Greg Collier. The group hosts a pop-up dinner series to promote African Americans in the food and beverage professions. “We just try to take any advice anyone gives us and put it into motion. It sounds like it’s just a waiting game, waiting for somebody to trust us,” Barnes says.
Bigger Dreams on the Burner
The plan to open a What The Fries restaurant might get more support when Barnes and Williams appear in “Food Truck Rumble CLT.” The show will air this fall on WCCB-TV, the CW affiliate in Charlotte. In the meantime, the best friends are working on expanding what is already a family business. Greg’s sister, Kaila Williams, is the operations manager. Jamie’s wife, Alicia Barnes, is the administrative director.
The chefs credit everyone’s laid-back, go-with-the-flow attitudes for their harmony in working together. “We don’t let the pressure get to us. We all just have good chemistry,” Williams says. Barnes adds that the years of friendship make it easier to settle any differences. “I’ve known him long enough that if something is not going right with what we are doing, we try to get on the same page.”
The partnership could lead to the expansion of their food truck vision in the future. The dream for multiple brick and mortar locations in different cities is simmering on the back burner for now. Barnes and Williams might even consider more food trucks if they can find the right people to run them. “We’re hoping to get some people on the team with as much drive as we have. We don’t want the quality to go down on the food truck since we’ve built such a big name for it,” says Williams.
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Brick and mortar restaurants along with more food trucks could generate enough income for the two chefs to build a legacy for their children. Barnes and his wife have a 9-year-old daughter and a 6-year-old son. Williams is single and has a 2-year-old daughter. Both chefs know they will need the same hard work, perseverance, learning and loyalty it took for one food truck to succeed in making other dreams a reality. “It just takes a while sometimes for it to come. If you really want to do it, you’ve got to stick with it,” says Barnes. No one knows that better than Williams, his best friend. “Believe in what you have and don’t give up!”