Dawn Hall is a lot of things. She is a mother of two. An entrepreneur. A small business owner.
She is a do-er. She is a host and a server. A liaison and a planner. She says yes a lot. She definitely doesn’t quit.
Dawn Hall is a widow. She is 41. She owns Happy Belly Curbside Kitchen and coordinates about 60 other food trucks that rotationally attend six food truck rallies throughout Atlanta and its suburbs, including the new monthly Food Trucks N’ Forsyth at the Lanier Technical College Forsyth Conference Center.
At the May event (the second in Forsyth) she crossed the parking lot back and forth from the conference center staff to the green box truck that already had a line to the center of the 10-truck circle. The health inspector was supposed to be there at 3 p.m., but she didn’t arrive until 4. Hall had hoped the 5 o’clock start time would be smooth since she doubled the number of trucks to fight the long lines that themed the inaugural event in April.
Sometimes plans change. She knew that.
“All food trucks have to get a permit in each county every year,” she said. “It’s definitely more permitting than a brick-and-mortar restaurant. It’s a lot more to keep up with.”
Forsyth County hands out temporary permits, so each truck has to be inspected before every event.
So Hall not only runs her two Happy Belly trucks, about 12 employees and a commissary kitchen in Smyrna (food trucks are required to base out of a non-mobile kitchen) and lets about six other trucks work out of that kitchen. She also runs Fork in the Road, a food truck event planning company. She serves as a liaison between the event space (cities, counties, parks, businesses) and the food trucks, saving the host the hassle of contacting truck owners individually and saving the trucks the freelance-style stress of finding ways to be invited to these events.
“Everything is homemade”
Happy Belly’s success from the get-go led to the event planning aspect as naturally as the ingredients on its menu.
The ingredients are good, by the way. Really good.
“What guided us was just the way we ate. The way that I saw a need for. My husband is from Louisiana, and we talked about doing a Louisiana-themed truck but because we had hospitality experience of 15-plus years, 30 combined, we just looked at the market and we found a need,” Hall said. “The way we eat at home is clean eating. Organic, local, fresh, clean. So we just went with that, I guess.”
The husband-wife duo didn’t want to be another one-dimensional food truck trend. They didn’t want to only serve barbeque or tacos or southern comfort dishes. Not that the trucks that do that aren’t good, too. After all, they complete her Fork in the Road roster.
“We partnered with Big Green Egg, so we have one on the truck that we grill our proteins on. We grill our burgers, chicken, vegetables, our salmon,” she said. “We’re probably the most labor-intensive food truck in Atlanta … I could offer cheaper food or prepackaged food, which would be a lot easier for us. But that’s not my philosophy. Everything is homemade. The mac and cheese, we buy the pasta and the cheese and the heavy cream and we melt it all. That’s the way I like to feed my family, and that’s the way I feel people should eat.”
In the business of family
Hall got into the food truck game with her family, so it was only natural that the menu, the name, the business revolve around it, too.
Hall and her husband, Terry, moved to the area from Pittsburg in the fall of 2011. They met while both working in the private club business. Country clubs, weddings. The food truck trend was booming but hadn’t quite reached full steam in Atlanta yet.
They had to live with Hall’s parents in Cumming for six months while they got their business on its feet.
They created a business plan, a design, a logo, a menu, a name.
Their daughter, Mayer, who is 7, likes to take customers’ orders.
“She’s going to own it one day, she says,” Hall said. “She wants to be a veterinarian and own Happy Belly one day. We named the company after her because we used to always … whatever we’d eat we’d ask her, ‘Is your belly happy?’”
They got rolling in 2012, and by the end of the year were saying no to so much business that Terry said they needed to buy a second truck. And start Fork in the Road to create a coordinated effort to promote food truck events.
The business continued to grow and succeed. Even as we talk, her phone rings and buzzes multiple times. Her number is on the trucks, after all. She picks up the phone to decline a call with her right hand, on which she wears her wedding ring.
“A dynamic duo”
In fall 2013, Hall was due to have her second child, Henry, in a week.
Terry asked the doctor about a lingering cough he was worried to have around his newborn son.
“He was actually diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer when Henry was 7 days old,” Hall said. “He passed away when he was 6 months old. So Henry never knew his daddy. Awful. He died at the age of 40, healthy. He was a non-smoker. So it was a complete shock.”
For the first three months after his diagnosis, Terry worked 14-hour days on the truck. He was the chef, the manager. Hall ran the planning and sales side.
“The two of us were a dynamic duo,” she said.
Selling the truck hasn’t been an option.
“I have a full-time nanny, two children. I had to hire two other managers to help me run it that weren’t here when Terry was here. But I can’t do what he did because I have the family, and it’s just me. I have a lot of extra help,” he said. “I could be doing something a lot easier. My dad looks at me and he goes, ‘Why don’t you just get a normal job?’ I’m trying. I’m trying my best. It’s another baby. It’s a lot of different things. There’s a purpose behind it. No other food truck in Atlanta does what we do.”
A family-oriented, healthy food truck where “dad can get a burger and fries, mom can get a kale salad with salmon on top and kid can get mac and cheese.”
Hall loves what she does. Not just because it’s a successful business. Or because it’s her piece of Terry that remains. Or because she needs to support a family. It’s a little bit of everything.
“It’s sticking around longer than I thought”
Fork in the Road puts trucks in almost every major city in metro Atlanta, and Hall’s expansion mirrors how Atlanta grew.
“You have your city, and we came out from, say, to Roswell/Sandy Springs to Alpharetta and now Cumming,” she said.
They go to Marietta, to Kennesaw, to Smyrna, to Brookhaven and now even to Woodstock.
“It allowed us to have a place for our own company. If we can organize the event, it just helps us. Happy Belly is always at these events. And it creates events for food truck owners,” she said.
Happy Belly hasn’t stopped there.
Dawn Hall does a lot of things. She takes Happy Belly to food truck rallies. She organizes the rallies. She caters for weddings. Business outings. She can offer gluten free menus. She can serve catered food right from the truck or from a more traditional buffet-style setup.
“I thought it was a trend, but it’s sticking around longer than I thought. The Cherokee event is very busy. Just as busy as Forsyth because they haven’t had it in the past come up this way, so it’s still new to communities,” she said. “Catering will always be there. People need food. And people are so busy these days they don’t cook themselves anymore. We’ve catered a 1-year-old’s birthday party. You can’t pack up 50 people most times and go to a restaurant. You can, but it’s more limited. We can serve about 100 people an hour.”
She hopes her next step will be a brick-and-mortar café. Possibly in Forsyth. Depends on the location.
She has the word of mouth ready to open a restaurant and the proven menu. She wants the consistency of a kitchen without wheels so she can serve people year-round instead of seeing sales go down in winter.
“People ask me, ‘Where can we come get your food?’” she said. “But we may be out in Lawrenceville that day.”
Dawn Hall has a lot of things. Two children. The memory of her husband in two happy bellies. A food truck event planning business. A catering company. A determination.
Dawn Hall is a lot of things. A quitter is not one of them.