What’s new in food: Food Connection introduces Fran the mobile meals truck

KEEP ON TRUCKIN': Marisha MacMorran, left, Food Connection executive director, and Flori Pate, the organization’s founder and community engagement leader, show off the nonprofit's new mobile meals truck, Fran. Photo by Daria Uporsky

Flori Pate, Food Connection’s founder and current leader of community engagement, wants the communities it serves to be on a first-name basis with the nonprofit’s newest venture, a mobile meals truck. “An anonymous donor gave us $55,000 to help commission the truck, and his only request was we name it Fran,” Pate explains with a laugh.

So, painted on both sides of the colorful truck is the name, though the script is discreet compared with the bold block letters announcing, “For the People” and “For the Planet.”

Pate designed the truck, which was built out and wrapped by Food Trucks South of Marietta, Ga. “It went from my 16-inch screen to a 24-foot truck, which is huge,” she says of the process. “It has seven refrigerator units, sinks and enough counter space to pack 70 individual meals at a time.”

The idea for the truck was born out of the pandemic pivot Food Connection made in 2020, when it began packaging individual heat-and-eat meals for distribution during the shutdowns. “We saw there was such a need for that, and when someone in a brainstorming session last summer suggested a food truck, we jumped on it,” notes Pate.

Original Food Connection launch partner, Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church, houses the truck. And on Wednesdays, the food truck opens its service window and distributes prepared meals to families picking up their children enrolled in the Youth Transforming Lives program at Grace. Meanwhile, on Saturdays, Fran rolls out to 105 Whitson Ave., Swannanoa, for drive-thru distribution from 11 a.m. until the food is gone.

“We can’t wait to go more places,” says Pate. “We have the truck; we just need more resources to grow our distribution.”

For more information and to donate, visit avl.mx/bue.

Trial run

Four chefs, eight dishes and a mess of yard-long beans await attendees at Utopian Seed Project’s Trial to Table: A Summer Celebration on Saturday, Aug. 13, 5:30-8:30 p.m. Unlike past events, the upcoming gathering does not have a theme, notes Chris Smith, founder and executive director of the Utopian Seed Project.

“Basically, we want [chefs] to be inspired by the concept of biodiversity in the food system, use things straight from our trials or crops inspired by trials and all different parts of the plant,” he says of the event, which takes place at The Boathouse on the Smoky Park Supper Club property.

Accepting the challenge to prepare two small plates each, one of which must be vegetarian, are chefs Caro Gutiérrez Paz of Ayni51 Peruvian pop-ups; Rakim Gaines, executive chef of Capella on 9; Chestnut and Corner Kitchen pastry chef Mallory Foster; and chef Steve Goff, who recently purchased and will be reopening Tastee Diner.

A tasting of nine varieties of yard-long beans will also be held, with feedback encouraged.

The event’s $50 ticket includes beverages from Botanist & Barrel and Burial Beer Co. Smith, the author of the 2020 James Beard Award-winning book, The Whole Okra: A Celebration from Seed to Stem, sweetens the pot and reveals, “Because it’s me, The Hop will serve okra ice cream.”

The Boathouse is at 350 Riverside Drive. For tickets, visit avl.mx/bu6.

Learn Burmese

Yunanda Wilson says that growing up in South Florida, her family — immigrants in 1999 from Yangon, Myanmar (formerly Burma) — worked long hours. “The one time I knew we’d be together was for meals, and my mother made traditional Burmese food.”

Most Americans are likely unfamiliar with Burmese cuisine, but Wilson, a 2021 A-B Tech culinary program graduate, is excited to change that, one aThoke Lay pop-up at a time.

After testing recipes at home, she connected with High Climate Tea, which hosted Wilson’s first four pop-ups earlier this year. “I was happy and surprised at the enthusiasm,” she says.

Wilson explains that because Myanmar is such a large Asian country and shares borders with many others, the food has influences from China, India, Pakistan and Laos. Two dishes specific to Burmese cuisine are lahpet thoke, a fermented tea leaf salad, and mohinga, a catfish stew/soup.

On Monday, Aug. 29, Wilson will prepare her most ambitious pop-up to date — a five-course meal in partnership with Citizen Vinyl’s Turntable Suppers series. If past pop-ups are any indicator, it will likely sell out quickly, but she is talking with chef Michelle Bailey of Smoky Park Supper Club about presenting there as well.

Wilson says she has tweaked her original idea of opening a food trailer and is instead now seeking a “small, charming building” for a brick-and-mortar. “My mom is ready to move up here and help, so I’ve got staff!”

For more information on aThoke Lay and Wilson’s pop-up schedule, visit avl.mx/buk.

It’s only natural

When Emily and Jon Svendsen opened Madison Natural Foods store in Marshall in 2012, they had two toddler sons and a lease on about 1,500 square feet of the stone building that had once been an American Motors. A decade later, they have three children and more than double the retail space in the building they now own. On Friday, Aug. 12, they will mark their 10th anniversary with a daylong celebration.

The couple met working in a natural foods store in their native Ohio and moved to Marshall 15 years ago; Emily worked for French Broad Food Co-op before opening Madison Natural Foods. “There really wasn’t a fully natural foods business here,” she says. “We grew our inventory gradually and organically the first eight years, based on our experience and customer requests. But we were really running out of space.”

Two years ago, they reclaimed the building’s warehouse section, which they had previously been renting out. The couple renovated it to suit their planned growth, which included installing a small kitchen.

Though they do have some diner-style tables and chairs, there is no table service. “It is strictly grab-and-go, “says Emily. “We have salads, sandwiches and wraps in the case in the front which also has cheeses, hummus and things like that. People can take what they want to a table, take it home or take it on a picnic.”

Madison Natural Foods carries local products like breads and baked goods from City Bakery, Annie’s Bakery and The Rhu, as well as plant-based salmon by Faux Lox Foods, whole chickens from Fiddler’s Green Farm and frozen bake-at-home pizzas by The Sweet Monkey. Velvet Morning Farms is one of their primary produce vendors.

Madison Natural Foods will mark the decade of growth with 10% off all day, free samples from the kitchen and a raffle for reusable bags filled with groceries. Also from 3-6 p.m., vendors will display their wares in the building’s back area.

“Marshall has grown quite a bit, so that made us believe it was a good time to grow the business,” Emily says. “Plus, our oldest, Milo, loves working here, and hopefully the other two will as well. Kids love to ‘play store.’ Ours get to do it for real.”

Madison Natural Foods is at 101 N. Main St., Marshall. For more information, visit avl.mx/bu7.

Growth spurt

Chai Pani’s downtown Asheville location has always dealt with long waits due to its limited seating and widespread popularity. But, when it was named Outstanding Restaurant in the 2022 James Beard Awards in June, the okra fries hit the fan.

“We were thrilled but immediately found ourselves in a kitchen crisis,” admits Charlotte Stack, chief operating officer of Chai Pani Restaurant Group. “We had to figure something out.”

Owners Molly and Meherwan Irani made the reluctant decision to close Nani’s Piri Piri Chicken in the Grove Arcade, which the Chai Pani Restaurant Group opened amid the pandemic. The former Nani’s kitchen now operates as the prep kitchen for Chai Pani.

“That was life changing,” Stack says. “We also hope to be able to resume takeout soon.”

Meanwhile, the front of the space has been converted into a pop-up retail space. Shelves are stacked with Spicewalla’s 250-plus tinned spices and blends, as well as other products like Poppy Handcrafted Popcorn’s Chai Masala, cookies, beverages, imported pantry items and Indian chips (though sadly not Nani’s Piri Piri chips).

Ultimately, the current prep kitchen and Spicewalla pop-up will relocate to Wall Street when renovations are completed on the space below Chai Pani’s downtown location. Once the move occurs, the storefront in the Grove Arcade will become Chai Pani Restaurant Group’s next undisclosed venture.

“It will definitely be Indian street food,” says Stack. “The plan is to keep it casual and grab-and-go, something more accessible to our downtown businesses and workers who want to grab a quick lunch.”

Spicewalla pop-up is at 1 Page Ave., Suite 147. For more information, visit avl.mx/bu9. Chai Pani is at 22 Battery Park Ave. For more, visit avl.mx/bu8.


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About Kay West
Kay West began her writing career in NYC, then was a freelance journalist in Nashville for more than 30 years, including contributing writer for the Nashville Scene, Nashville correspondent for People magazine, author of five books and mother of two happily launched grown-up kids. In 2019 she moved to Asheville and continued writing (minus Red Carpet coverage) with a focus on food, farming and hospitality. She is a die-hard NY Yankees fan.

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One thought on “What’s new in food: Food Connection introduces Fran the mobile meals truck

  1. Hendo Hendo

    Food Connection is an absolute gem in our city, doing great things for people that need and deserve a great meal. Nice work, y’all!

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