Purdue University Ph.D. Student is The Food Truck Scholar
Ariel D. Smith is a Black woman on a mission to live her best life. In 2017, she enrolled at Purdue University, in West Lafayette, Indiana, to pursue her Ph.D. in American Studies. The Birmingham, Alabama native sounds like a proud mother when she talks about her southern roots. As soon as she speaks, her accent transports you deep into the south. “Alabama all day,” she says, as if she works for the state’s tourism board.
Blacks make up less than four percent of the nearly 57,000 people in West Lafayette. The city is 65 miles northwest of the state capital in Indianapolis and 113 miles southeast of Chicago. In contrast, Birmingham is Alabama’s second-largest city, after Huntsville, with over 206,000 residents. It is where Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” advocating for civil rights through nonviolent means, on April 16, 1963. Blacks are 70 percent of the city’s population.
Ariel, a 29-year old Millennial, knew she had to make the most of her time in Indiana. To adjust, she adapted to local customs, including adding to her lexicon the term “Boiler Up” (similar to Go Purdue or Cheer Up), an expression created by former football coach Joe Tiller and his wife, Arnett Tiller. Football looms big in the city. In fact, the venerable Ross-Ade Stadium, home of the Purdue Boilermakers football team, can squeeze in nearly 60,000 screaming fans on a Saturday afternoon.
When Ariel is not studying, she does her best to experience the culture—as long as it doesn’t involve Purdue football games. She prefers to save her precious dollars and avoid large crowds when possible.
But as much as Ariel has tried to adjust to life in the Midwest, her love of southern cuisine torments her daily. She misses Birmingham’s loaded fries; Big Daddy BBQ brisket; Aww Shucks’ creamy lemon-pepper. fire-roasted corn; Granny’s Fish ’N Grits—"where the girts are so good, it will make you hit somebody” and Naughty But Nice Kettle Corn Co.’s lemon-ice flavor popcorn.
From her perspective, Midwestern food lacks flavorful seasonings. To get her fix, she orders sauces and seasonings from Big Daddy BBQ that transport her taste buds back to Birmingham. She loves to sprinkle “sauce like a boss” seasoning on her favorite foods along with Big Daddy Bomb BBQ sauce, a sweet tangy sauce with some spicy heat. As Dwayne “Big Daddy” Thompson says, “It’s good on everything.”
I gave y'all twenty-something of the best years of my life and y’all do this when I leave.
The food scene in West Lafayette is expanding in 2022. “We are just getting a Popeyes [Louisiana Kitchen],” says Ariel. With over 2,700 locations, Popeyes serves “a unique New Orleans style menu featuring spicy chicken, chicken tenders, fried shrimp and other regional items.”
Ariel is at Purdue to pursue her education, not the food. But she couldn’t help but notice the photographs on Instagram and Facebook of food trucks in Birmingham and the “decadent plates” of food. She wondered to herself, “When did food trucks become a thing in Birmingham?” She was jealous because “none of that stuff” was near her. “I gave y'all twenty-something of the best years of my life and y’all do this when I leave,” says Ariel.
Her love of food and education would comingle in the classroom. Ariel became curious why food trucks had arrived in Birmingham. She thought gentrification could be one reason. One day, her professor in her first-semester seminar class asked how the class was doing on their mid-term papers. The class grew silent. To get the students moving, the professor gave the assignment to write an 8- to 10-page paper on whatever question popped into their minds.
Ariel knew her question: “What’s up with these Black-owned food trucks in Birmingham?” She would write a paper on food trucks, and to her surprise, she earned an “A” grade. She thought to herself, “Let me see if I can eat my way to a Ph.D.” Little did she know that assignment would be like putting barbeque sauce on brisket.
Ariel’s dissertation is focused on African American entrepreneurs’ experiences and their involvement in the mobile food industry. The U.S. food truck industry is estimated to be $1.16 billion, according to Zippia, and there are over 35,500 food trucks. Overall, the U.S. fast-food industry was $296 billion in 2021.
No one earns a Ph.D. without research. Ariel was up for the challenge, immersing herself in the culture and lives of food truck operators. She says, “I would get in my car and take student loan money or whatever I had and I would drive to different food truck festivals. Sometimes I had research money. But a lot of times it was just money I had out of pocket.”
At one point, she was working three jobs, close to 7 days a week—often so she could afford to travel. “I wanted people to know I’m not just studying food trucks. I am committed to knowing more about you. I’m committed to trying your food. I’m committed to supporting you however I can.”
Eating food and learning about food trucks is not one of life’s great sacrifices, but it does require commitment. Ariel was all in. “If that means I have to drive from Indiana to Birmingham (a 7-hour and 47-minute drive south) and get there at 2:30 in the morning,” Arial says, “take a nap, get up, drive to Atlanta (a 2-hour and 6-minute drive east) so I can be at Black restaurant week at the food truck park, spend all day in Atlanta traffic, spend all day at the food truck park, leave there at about 9:30 at night, drive back to Birmingham so I can sleep, drive back to Indiana to get ready for class, I’ve done that.”
I wanted to give back to the food truck industry.” I didn’t want to be that person that many academics have been in the past.
Ariel was learning much on the road and developing relationships with food truck owners. She put her master’s degree earned at Vanderbilt University in Nashville —where she loves The Beignet Bar—to work by teaching food truck owners to help themselves. When asked what led her to start The Food Truck Scholar, Ariel says, “Your girl was hungry!”
“I knew that food trucks in general, but especially Black-and brown-owned food trucks, they don’t get the attention and the media recognition that they need and deserve, and so I created The Food Truck Scholar for that. Anyone can be on the show. I’m always going to have representation of Black and brown folks.”
The Food Truck Scholar was started in 2018. Given the cost to operate any business, Ariel knew there was a need for education on the fly. Later, she would go on to launch a YouTube channel, followed by Instagram Live, and in 2019, she created The Food Truck Podcast, “where food, business and stories collide,” producing over 102 episodes.
“I wanted to give back to the food truck industry.” I didn’t want to be that person that many academics have been in the past. We have a stigma that [when] we go into these spaces, especially Black and brown communities, we extract what we can from them, and they don’t get anything back. I didn’t want to be that person.”
On social media, operating a food truck may look glamorous, but it’s backbreaking work in difficult conditions. Workers are often confined to cramped spaces where temperatures can reach 100 degrees inside. To add more stress, customers can get angry if their food takes longer than a few minutes. With the cost for everything increasing due to inflation, it’s a tough business.
Ariel is there for her food truckers, from providing information, to comfort, to launching GoFundMe campaigns for struggling operators. She quotes a Bible verse, “’Silver and gold have I none, but such as I have, I give to thee’ (Acts 3:6). I don’t have everything, but what I do have, I’m going to give that to you.” If you’re willing to invest in yourself, Ariel wants to see you win.
“We talk a lot about people who are not successful or people who have growth opportunities; they may not be perfect; they have areas to grow. You can do two things. You can criticize them and say ‘They don’t have this, they don’t have that’ or ‘they don’t know this’ or you can sit down and say, ‘Hey, I realize you’re lacking this, or this is an area of improvement for you. I’m either going to help you with this or I’m going to provide you with the resource so that you can get that help and succeed.’”
More Than Book Knowledge
Food, education and money (whether having or lacking) were some of the memories that come to her mind when Ariel reminisces about growing up in Birmingham. The oldest of three children, she has a younger sister and brother. She was raised by her great aunt, grandmother, uncle, and great-grandmother. Her great-grandmother is 95 years old—and Ariel calls her every morning.
When she was younger, she would watch family members cook. She was always trying foods and sodas. It’s no surprise that she is involved with the restaurant industry. “If a restaurant came out with a new item, I had to try it,” Ariel states proudly.
In Birmingham, A.H. Parker High School was the very first school for Blacks. While she didn’t go there, most of her family members did. The Food Truck Scholar’s logo pays homage to the purple color of A.H Parker High School and a nod to her great-grandmother.
You may have a line out of the door, but if you’re not pricing your food properly, you should probably cry when you see that line because every time someone orders from your menu, you’re losing money.
Fast forward and food trucks are never far from her mind. The biggest misconception about the food truck industry, according to Ariel, is that people are going to make money overnight. “There’s no business that is sustainable and legit, that you just pull up, and you have 6 figures overnight.” People don’t understand the net (what you earn after expenses).
Ariel says not to expect success overnight and prepare for sustainability by understanding your cost structure. “You may have a line out of the door, but if you’re not pricing your food properly, you should probably cry when you see that line because every time someone orders from your menu, you’re losing money.”
She realized that a lot more people were listening to her podcast than she thought. There were questions that were going unanswered or they were not understanding the answers. She wanted to make the information clear, concise and informative in a way people would understand.
She couldn’t physically answer everyone’s questions, so she wrote the book “Before You Launch Your Food Truck: 8 Questions Every Aspiring Food Trucker Should Ask” in November 2021. The book was the culmination of meeting hundreds of food truckers across the country over the past five years. “So many people started DMing me, saying can you give me a list of food truck builders, can you give me this, can you give me that,” Ariel said.
Lean into It
There’s more to Ariel than food. She likes to watch Netflix and to go for walks in parks. She admires Oprah, Jo-Issa Rae Diop aka Issa Rae, and Lisa Nichols. The outer Ariel smiles often, is happy, funny, and good-natured, but her inner self is conflicted with how the world sees her and the self-doubts that she has. For those reasons, Issa Rae captures her essence.
“Being an awkward Black girl speaks to my soul. She leans into it, not away from it,” referring to Issa Rae. Ariel states, “I leaned away from it for a long part of my life, not feeling like I fit in. Issa Rae is a woman who leans into it, makes it work for her and has built a whole empire about how she is an awkward Black girl. She creates what she wants and you can just deal with.” Ariel is emphatic when she says, “I love every bit of that.”
I’m always going to be in a space where I can amplify other voices beyond mine.
There are some bad days when she questions her involvement with The Food Truck Scholar. Ariel is able to release her self-doubt by saying, “It’s bigger than me. This has value that I don’t always see and that numbers don’t always record, but it’s there.”
A television show, paid travel, and producing more books could be on her agenda after completing her Ph.D. “I see myself traveling. I see myself continuing to create more content, whether it’s books or courses, video, TV shows. But it won’t be just The Food Truck Scholar.”
Currently, she helps clients with podcasting, building their YouTube channels, and helping them build courses. She is launching a lifestyle brand called RE/DREAMR, with the mission of “inspiring people to dream again.” She plans to hit the road in March for a six-city tour for the Food and Business Summit Tour that she will moderate.
“I’m always going to be in a space where I can amplify other voices beyond mine. I can educate in some capacity and inspire you to win and be your best self. “It’s important to see the people around you win, but it first starts with you.”
“For the first time, I’m really putting in a conscious effort to build up myself, while I build up other people. And I would encourage everybody to do that.”
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Anthony Price is an entrepreneur, writer and publisher of Mini Books, concise & inspiring stories for people who are curious about the world.