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Popular mobile eatery NOLI bounces back after devastating spring fire

Contributed Photo • The interior of Jason Howze’s NOLI Food Truck was gutted by a blaze that broke out on May 23. Finding a couple retiring from the catering business allowed Howze to purchase their truck and get back in business.

By Richard Rourk

If people were missing their favorites from the NOLI Food Truck, rest assured that the popular mobile eatery is back in business after a fire back in May temporarily brought the business to a stop.

The owner of  the NOLI Food Truck helped trailblaze a path for food trucks in the region back in 2014. The popular eatery has weathered menus changes, business model shifts and even a global pandemic. But the May fire really struck a blow to the food truck pioneer.

“We had a fire that broke out on the afternoon of May 23,” explained owner Jason Howze said. “It was a Sunday, so no one was at the truck when it happened. Any other time we probably would’ve been able to get it extinguished.” 

Howze explained that the devastating fire started from a short in one of the truck’s appliances. 

“The fire marshal said the fire started from a short in one of our refrigerator motors,” Howze said. “The truck was a total loss.”

Howze noted that the blaze got so hot inside that the aluminum sheeting on the walls and ceiling melted.

“There were big pools of aluminum melted onto the floor,” Howze said. “Definitely not our best Sunday.”

For Howze, quitting the business was never an option.

“It never crossed my mind to quit,” he declared. “You know, we’ve been doing this for seven years now. It’s not something we do on the weekends or decided to do as a side hobby. This is how I make my living.”

Howze is a veteran of the service industry. 

“The first job I had in the service industry was bartending in 2009,” Howze said. “My grandfather taught me how to cook and to be innovative with food from the time I was old enough to hold a kitchen knife, so I had the cooking foundation, but I didn’t have experience in the service part of the industry. 

“I loved it from the start, and I knew pretty early on in that job that I wanted to make a career out of it,” he added.

The biggest hurdle for Howze in coming back after the fire was finding another truck. It’s a hurdle that Howze cleared through sheer good fortune.

“Every mobile unit manufacturer in the country was between a six to 12 month build time on getting us a new truck,” Howze said. “It was just luck of the draw that we found the one we did. We purchased it from a couple in Raleigh who had moved and weren’t going to continue their catering business. If we hadn’t come across that truck, we probably still wouldn’t be operating.”

Howze and company are excited to be back doing what they do best –  give the people what they want.

“When customers come to Noli, we want them to experience something bold with flavors that pop,” Howze said. “Make no mistake; this is street food. We’re not out here trying to win Michelin stars. There’s limitations with how you present your product from a food truck. 

“It’s plain and simple,” he elaborated. “If your food doesn’t taste amazing, you won’t make it long in this industry. That’s why there’s such a high turnover of mobile units in this area. I think people that get into the food truck business are a little bit naive about the work it takes to be successful.”

NOLI Food Truck is known for several signature dishes. 

“Our most requested menu items are the oak smoked pork shoulder with Carolina style sauce and our fried shrimp tacos with honey/caper remoulade,” Howze said. 

“We constantly work new items on and off the menu, but those are staples that we always try to have.”

For the past couple years, the only local grower Howze has utilized has been Scott Farms. The NOLI Food Truck’s home base is in the parking lot at Scott’s Market in Unicoi.  

“Obviously we work closely with them day in and day, out,” he said. “We see how they run their farm and the care they put into their produce. I don’t know of another farm around here that puts out that kind of quality, and that’s why they’ve been around for over 60 years.”

Although NOLI Food Truck is back up and “slinging the fire,” as Howze puts it, they are still facing the same struggles as other restaurants. 

“The food service industry is in a very volatile state right now,” Howze said. “We’re still dealing with residual effects from the pandemic, supply shortages, drastic cost increases for raw product, etc.

“At some point, it will either stabilize or collapse,” Howze predicted. “There’s no two ways around that. We’ve seen a nearly 50 percent increase in the cost of bulk chicken prices in 15 months and every item we use on the truck has seen an unusual spike in cost since early 2020.

“It’s been a real battle to balance how and when you pass that cost onto your customer,” Howze continued. “Right now we’re at the point where if an item we source is just too high, we simply don’t buy it and look for other things we can create until the cost hits a sustainable number.”

Although the business does not have an official website, NOLI Food Truck is easy to find through social media. 

“We’re probably one of the few businesses with a following our size that doesn’t have an actual website,” Howze said. “We rely on social media for broadcasting our schedule, menu and everything else newsworthy for our business.

“We were the first business in this region to use social media the way we do,” he added. “So far, it’s worked well and hopefully will continue to do so. If you want to know what’s happening at Noli, follow us on Instagram or Facebook.”