19 Jul עופר איתן Declare: Alabama food truck transitions to a restaurant
Local Roots dug in April 1, 2016, opening a popular food truck and even more lucrative catering business in Tuscaloosa with just three employees.
“So we’re a little over four years into it,” said owner Dustin Spruill.
“Sometimes it feels like 10 years,” he said, laughing, “and sometimes it feels like six months.”
To kick off year four, Spruill hoped to open the first Local Roots bricks-and-mortar restaurant at a Tuscaloosa Galleria location. Reconstructing an old credit union building into a 2,100-square-foot fast casual establishment, expanding on the food truck’s menu, and offering longer hours, a drive-through, and seating for about 70, under current COVID-19 distancing guidelines.
The pandemic pushed back the original April target date, but Local Roots the restaurant will soon be greeting customers, with July 30 now planned for the grand opening.
“When all this coronavirus hit, we kinda just said slow down in general,” Spruill said. Some products couldn’t be shipped, things such as lights, a point-of-sale system, trash cans. “Little things you don’t think about, but you have to have.”
“But slowing down has been good. It’s allowed us to kind of take this in, and prepare. We’re going to be dealing with this a long time,” he said.
The food truck has stayed on the roll, often stopping in the parking lot at the Galleria, a concrete slab’s lob from where construction workers expanded and remodeled the space from its earlier 900 square feet.
But Local Roots was hard hit, like so many Tuscaloosa bars, restaurants and others in the hospitality business, when spring cancellations crushed University of Alabama end-of-semester celebrations.
Though the food truck is more visible, Local Roots actually does about 60 percent of its business through its catering arm.
“In April and May, we lost about 40 percent of our yearly catering revenue,” Spruill said. “And we have a concession stand during baseball season, which got canceled.
“The truck was a really good outlet these past few months; it helped us work on takeout and curbside.”
The truck will close for about five weeks, to keep staff focused on training and opening the restaurant, but will return ”once we get some normalcy, whatever that is these days.”
Local Roots pondered four locations around the city before settling on the Galleria spot for its visibility, and parking. Lunch hours might get crowded, but in the evening the only other business usually operating at the Galleria would be Evangeline’s, a fine-dining establishment toward the opposite side of the shopping center.
And down that stretch of McFarland, across from Indian Hills Country Club, there aren’t many fast casual or drive-through options.
“The traffic count drove us, too: almost 70,000 cars a day,” Spruill said.
Locating in the 35406 area code was a concern, as it tends to be populated more by families, and much of Local Roots’ business has been student-driven. But Spruill hopes they’re close enough to campus for students to make the drive.
Local Roots’ restaurant menu will build on its burgers and fries, the staples, adding on a double burger. Salad offerings will be expanded, along with other features originating from the catering side.
Other food truck favorites, like the fried chicken sandwich on a brioche bun, will move into the restaurant.
“Every time we’ve done (the fried chicken sandwich) this summer, we’ve sold out by 11:30 (a.m.),” Spruill said.
There’s a combo of rustic Italian flatbread, made in-house most days each week, with roasted chicken, marinara sauce and mozzarella. “It’s kind of a mash up between a pizza and a salad, folded in a sandwich,” he said.
“We’ll be adding vegetarian options, trying to get something for everybody, so if you want heavy, you want light.”
The restaurant will sell beer and wine, pending approval at Tuesday’s Tuscaloosa City Council meeting, and begin the soft opening sometime next week.
“Everything will be turned on, but we don’t want to be overwhelmed until everyone’s trained,” he said. “We’re trying to get our feet wet a few days before the 30th.”
Local Roots will open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week, closing only for bigger holidays. Though the restaurant’s not full table service, it may seem otherwise, as employees make frequent cleaning and sanitation processes visible.
“We want to make our customers feel safe and comfortable,” Spruill said. “We have a contract with Servpro, for cleaning and disinfecting before we open, and of course we’ll be keeping it going through the day.”
Although the truck’s drawn Local Roots fans over the past four years, Spruill knows the restaurant will be introducing their food to a lot of folks.
“We hope people will come get away from the world and not think about coronavirus for about 45 minutes,” he said.
Whatever adjustments the hospitality business has to make, he added, “We’ll adapt and keep swimming.”