When Ariel D. Smith, a 4th year doctoral student in American Studies, arrived at Vanderbilt Peabody College, she hadn't made many connections with anyone yet. Her salvation came through food trucks.
“I went to Centennial Park,” Smith said, “and there were food trucks all around the park, and I’m like ‘Oh, this is great!’ and I started eating all the different foods, I started meeting people. They were friendly, and they opened up to me.”
Smith began to realize the ways the food brought people together, and since then, she’s launched the Food Truck Scholar Podcast. The podcast, where she discusses individual stories of those in the food truck industry, now has over 19,000 listeners in 60 countries, according to her LinkedIn.
“I really wanted to highlight the stories of food truckers, especially to center the voices of black food truckers. The podcast features people of all different backgrounds, but I’m unapologetic about the fact that we’re centering black voices because those are the voices in the food industry that go unheard or ignored,” Smith said.
The idea to take a closer look at the food truck industry came after Smith noticed an increase in the amount of black-owned food trucks popping up in her hometown of Birmingham. At the time, Smith was struggling with what to write about for a midterm paper and was told by her professor to simply write about a question that was on her mind.
“For me, the question I had in my mind at the moment was, ‘What was up with the increase in black-owned food trucks back home in Birmingham?,’” Smith said. “I was curious to know if there was any connection between the food trucks and gentrification.”
After some initial research, Smith found some patterns.
“People are turning to the food truck because of a barrier to entry, lower startup costs across the board, across races and ethnicities,” she said, ”but African Americans do experience higher rates of loan discrimination than other ethnicities, making the food truck a more viable option.”
Smith decided to pursue the study of the food truck industry professionally, combining her interests in entrepreneurship, business and education to create a unique career for herself. In addition to running her podcast entirely on her own, Smith is also a scholar in residence for the Black Cultural Center and has taught classes at Purdue about entrepreneurship and her journey with her studies.
Most recently, she’s been having a lot of conversation with guests on her podcast about how COVID-19 has affected their business.
“[COVID-19] did give food trucks a very hard hit, but those who have been able to pivot, have pivoted and they’re doing well,” she said.
One of the food truck owners who has been able to pivot is Matt Bestich, founder and chef of the Guac Box. Smith interviewed Bestich for her podcast the day Purdue announced they would be closing the campus for the rest of the semester.
“A week later, it was just chaos,” Bestich said.
He’d spent three months booking events at festivals, school and hospitals, and suddenly all his plans through October disappeared. So Bestich had to start getting creative.
He started driving around to neighborhoods instead of the highly-trafficked areas like Chauncey Square or Memorial Mall. The Guac Box also got an online ordering system so people could limit their contact with others.
“It caught on real quick, people really enjoyed it,” Bestich said. “Some (neighborhoods are) better than others, but most of the time it was great for us, just cause we’re not competing with anybody (and) we know how much food to bring.”
Smith and Bestich are planning on redoing the episode they recorded in light of the hurdles that the pandemic has brought on.
Smith said that when she thinks back on the past two seasons of the Food Truck Scholar Podcast, she is reminded of those who have made her feel encouraged.
After Smith interviewed Dianna Beasley, owner of Ms. Beasley’s Catering, Beasley called Smith to express how much the podcast meant to her.
“She said, ‘You have no idea how much we need your show, because with your show here, we’re able to listen in and hear what people all across the country are doing,’” Smith said.
Deundre Zachery, the owner of Ragin Cajun, left his position as vice president of a large bank where he was making six figures to open his food truck. Smith recalled his explanation of his decision and what it meant to her.
“He said, ‘You know, I’d go back and make six figures if I thought that was all I was worth.’ That was a lesson to identify, like, how you place value on something? How do you calculate your net worth?” Smith said. “Perhaps if all we’re doing is calculating our net worth based upon what’s in our bank account and not what’s in our heart account, what’s in our intellectual account, maybe we’re underestimating ourselves.”
Smith says hearing these stories are what keep her going.
“Those things make me feel good, it makes me know that what I’m doing isn’t just something that pleases my ego, it’s not something that gets attention for me, it’s something that actually is useful to the people that I want to support.”