Two Puerto Rican Food Trucks Add Flavor to Downtown’s Mix of New Restaurants

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Toriano and Serena Fredericks at their food truck, Boricua Soul
The success of Boricua Soul’s first pop-up at American Tobacco influenced Toriano and Serena Fredericks’ decision to seek a space there.

By Elizabeth Holmes | Photography by Beth Mann

Serena Fredericks’ eyes lit up when her husband, Toriano Fredericks, opened the door to their new restaurant, Boricua Soul, on a hot July afternoon.

“Wow,” she gasped. “Holy cow.”

It was her first time seeing the space in the Crowe Building at American Tobacco Campus (ATC) since the start of a remodeling plan to create open-air seating, a bar area and a large kitchen. The kitchen’s wide counter space and multiple stoves are quite the upgrade from their widely popular food truck, named as one of our readers’ favorite food trucks in our June/July issue. They expect to open in the next few months.

Boricua Soul is one of more than 50 food trucks that call the Bull City home, according to Discover Durham, and is one of almost 10 trucks or stands that have expanded into brick-and-mortar restaurants within the past five years. Opening a restaurant in a competitive market like Durham can be a daunting task, with leases often ranging from $25 to $32 per square foot, according to Downtown Durham Inc. The startup costs are steep, too, ranging from $175,000 to $750,000 nationwide according to a survey of some 350 restaurant owners by the restaurant advocacy group RestaurantOwner.com.

But the benefits can often outweigh the risks for enterprising entrepreneurs, especially when starting with the kind of fan base that popular food trucks can cultivate.

The new location, Serena says, “allows us to step out of the box a bit – the food truck being the big ole box – and do things different.” She adds: “There’s all these ways we keep pushing our comfort zone and making the box get a little bigger.”

Serena takes orders during a busy lunch rush at the American Tobacco Campus.

Get Your Motor Runnin’

Boricua Soul, which specializes in a fusion of Southern comfort food and Puerto Rican “celebration” cuisine, sprung from the couple’s love of cooking and Toriano’s desire to change occupations.

“For years, I’ve played and toyed with the idea of a food truck,” Toriano says. “And Serena, as usual, thought it was kind of crazy.”

“Not kind of,” Serena says. “Very.”

“People shouldn’t be thinking about that when they’re married with a mortgage and bills and a kid,” she adds, motioning to her 7-year-old son, Devin.

Toriano had worked for years on privately owned container ships and oil tankers, spending significant time away from his family. When he was away, he says, he brainstormed about opening a food truck – his “exit plan.”

Neither he nor Serena had any professional culinary experience, but Toriano had savings and access to a used food truck through a brother-in-law. In 2015, he purchased the truck for $8,000, spent $60,000 outfitting its interior and raised about $20,000 through a Kickstarter campaign. Family members helped the Fredericks prepare meals to save them labor costs.

Although the truck operated only while Toriano was home every other 30 days, Boricua quickly gained popularity, making frequent appearances at Research Triangle Park offices, Hi-Wire Brewing at Golden Belt and ATC.

A pernil platter featuring Boricua’s Puerto Rican-style slow-roasted and pulled pork
A pernil platter featuring Boricua’s Puerto Rican-style slow-roasted and pulled pork, mac and cheese, and arroz con gandules, with a sweet empanada for dessert.

“We’ve made friends with our customers,” Serena says. “We have people that started as customers that [now] come to Devin’s birthday party.”

Making Moves

In 2018, Serena put in an application for Boricua Soul to be considered to fill the new PopUp @ American Tobacco space in the Diamond View III building at 359 Blackwell St. Organized by ATC, the idea is to get local entrepreneurs operating out of an on-site space for a month, and then another business moves in for the next month, and so on. Boricua Soul was named the second tenant to fill the space for the month of September last year. Not only was the pop-up a success for the Fredericks (customers had to wait 40 minutes for their food during the soft opening), it sparked the couple’s interest in obtaining their own space. After the pop-up period ended, they remained in contact with John Morris, the general manager of ATC, to discuss the future.

“It feels like you’ve scaled a mountain,” Serena says. “I told him, ‘You’re going to have to take me out of here like a tick. We’re having fun.’”

In mid-April, they signed a lease to their new space on the campus, a year to the day that Toriano left the shipping life – and its benefits – to work on the truck full time. They expect their food truck fans to enjoy this next phase of their journey, and they also plan to add an outdoor patio and small platform stage.

Spanglish, at 104 City Hall Plaza, had a similar path to expansion.

Doel Gonzalez moved to North Carolina from Puerto Rico in 2008 and later met Antonio Rodriguez, another native Puerto Rican, while in grad school at N.C. State. The two often cooked Puerto Rican food for each other, their wives, Gretchen Grajales and Elizabeth Gutierrez, and their friends, who suggested they start their own restaurant.

Spanglish owners Antonio Rodriguez, Elizabeth Gutierrez, Gretchen Grajales and Doel Gonzalez
Spanglish owners Antonio Rodriguez, Elizabeth Gutierrez, Gretchen Grajales and Doel Gonzalez. Photo by Zach Stamey of Focus Media

“A food truck was a lower bar of entry than a restaurant,” Doel says. “We thought, ‘We cook good food, but we don’t know anything about the business.’”

Like the Fredericks, they started a Kickstarter campaign and used their savings to buy a used food truck and outfit it to their liking. They spent about $50,000 to get started. They, too, wanted to build a brand that represented their Puerto Rican ties, using traditional recipes and guidance from their grandmothers.

The Spanglish truck opened in 2016 and served as frequently as possible in Raleigh, where the crew ran Pressed, a sandwich shop. Their success from the food truck and Pressed helped provide funds for a Durham location. “Pressed was an opportunity,” Doel says. “Spanglish is the passion.”

A Place to Call Home

Both the Spanglish crew and the Fredericks family say they decided to set up shop in Durham because of its sense of community. The Fredericks moved to Durham in 2010, and when they started their food truck, they rarely traveled outside Durham.

“It’s really where we had put down our roots,” Toriano says. “It’s where we live, it’s where our friends are. It’s our community. We love this city, and we love serving our friends and neighbors.

“Financially, we’re not rolling in dough. We barely pay ourselves.”

He adds: “It’s a mix of what we’ve saved and trying to put money back into making this work.”

Since starting their business, the Fredericks say they noticed how ATC was becoming more diverse and community-driven in its array of shops and restaurants.

“We envisioned having somewhat of a community space, having a place where you can see your neighbor, where you can see a person making coffee or a local artist, maybe hear poetry or music,” Toriano says. “Maybe American Tobacco saw that we can kind of create a vibe here.”

Spanglish’s Ropa Vieja Bowl with steamed white rice, pink beans, roasted corn and sliced avocado. Photo by Elizabeth Gutierrez

Boricua Soul and Spanglish still operate as food trucks in the area, but they both hail the benefits of expansion. The first, as one may expect, is more physical space to cook and experiment with their dishes. The Boricua food truck has one four-burner stove and one refrigerator. The Spanglish food truck has only the essentials.

“Now we can always look to try something new, and if that doesn’t work, we can try something else because there’s so much flexibility, so many more possibilities,” Serena says.

Like Boricua, Spanglish sold only crowd favorites to minimize waste and cook more efficiently. Now they have a full breakfast, lunch and dinner menu. Boricua will also host an expanded menu and will be allowed to sell alcoholic beverages on-site.

The Fredericks and the original Spanglish crew also wanted to build a more consistent schedule for themselves and their customers. Neither food truck had a set schedule and often catered to the same crowds at festivals or breweries. 

“If your truck’s not running, if it’s not on the street, then nobody’s finding out that you exist,” Doel says. “Whereas at a location like in downtown, people walk by, and they’ll walk in and have our food. Now we have gained a new person who otherwise wouldn’t have known we existed.”

The Spanglish crew served from the truck each afternoon and often worked long into the night preparing meals for the next day.

“It was a sacrifice,” Doel says.

Spanglish and Boricua have branched out of being solely family operated – Spanglish has 12 employees, and Boricua is hiring line cooks and additional hands to help serve on the truck. Though rents and payroll have driven up operating costs, both groups of owners say they expect, and look forward to, strong returns on their investments.

“There are so many cool things that I’m excited to take advantage of,” Serena says. And, she adds, she plans to “work my butt off to be successful.”

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