Bread and cheese always go with wine, and beer and pretzels are an iconic pairing, but many of the nearly 100 vineyards and breweries in Loudoun County, Virginia, have recognized the value of offering real food at their tastings.
Rather than mess with installing commercial kitchens and all the hassles that would entail, these operations are taking a page from the pop-up retailer concept and turning to food trucks to provide a variety of fare for hungry customers, encouraging them to stay for another drink or bottle of wine rather than leave in search of sustenance.
“Food trucks have great followings on their own,” said Chris Burns, president of Old Ox Brewery in Ashburn, which maintains a rotating schedule of food trucks. “Many people come to the brewery for the first time because they’re interested in a specific food truck. They have helped us expand our audience, and people tend to stay longer when they have a food option available. That’s certainly helpful for us.”
“Food is an important part of any tasting room experience,” Burns said. “The problem is you don’t want me cooking your food. That’s not my expertise. My experience is brewing beer. I had a problem to solve and started to look at all the great food trucks in the area. They presented a great solution. They allow us to have food available without taking on the extra management, overhead and the headache of starting a restaurant.”
Burns said the brewery draws as many as 500 patrons on Saturdays and 150 to 250 on weekdays. He said he works with dozens of vendors, engaging about a dozen trucks a month and making sure that if a food truck comes on a week night, it gets a Saturday date down the line.
“We found our customers really like a variety of different foods. We’ve had great success from wood-fired pizza, kabobs, burgers, barbecue and burritos,” Burns said, declining to disclose his favorite “because all of my other food trucks would be mad at me. They’re all delicious.”
Emily Powers, tasting room manager at 8 Chains North Winery in Waterford, had a similar take.
“We originally started a couple of years ago for our LoCo [Loudoun County] Friday nights. We had them every other Friday. It allowed us to stay open until 9 p.m. It’s a nice way to have people come out at the dinner hour and enjoy our wine,” she said.
Brandy Walker, event manager at Sunset Hills Vineyard in Purcellville, which sees crowds ranging from 75 to 500 people, engages food trucks for special events like Mother’s Day, fundraisers and ticketed events.
“We want to make sure it’s something that complements the wine. Sometimes we have a theme. Like on Father’s Day, sometimes we’ll do a barbecue or country-western. Sometimes it’ll be seasonal fare in the fall. It’s kind of tricky finding the right fit,” she said. “They’re a nice addition for people who haven’t packed a picnic.”
Smiling Tummy Thai and Artemi Kitchen are two of the vendors that work with 8 Chains North.
Ron Papazian and his wife Bustaba, of Smiling Tummy Thai, serve about 10 wineries and breweries and are trying to figure out how to work in several others that have been in contact. The pair were partners in several restaurants but decided last year they wanted to go out on their own, opening Smiling Tummy Thai because of the increased freedom and reduced overhead involved in running a food truck.
“We offer a product superior to anything you can get in a restaurant,” said Papazian, who does a little of the cooking but who defers to his wife as the chef.
“My wife’s Thai. The restaurants we were involved in were Thai restaurants,” he said. “She wanted to educate people about Thai food. A lot of people have one dish they like and don’t explore or try anything else. We want people to experience more of the variety in Thai cooking.”
Papazian said they usually offer four or five entries and seven or eight appetizers, depending on how many people they expect to serve, and they do their actual cooking on site, fresh to order.
Artemi Kitchen, meanwhile, isn’t actually a food truck. Owner Artemi Sen is a personal chef and sort of fell into the idea of providing fare at vineyards as she was shopping for ingredients to bring to her clients.
“I talked to the wineries and said, ‘I want to come and bring my food,’ ” she said. Her menu includes Mediterranean-style salads, hummus and kabobs.
Sen, who started this part of her business in May, not only brings the food, usually enough to feed 100 to 150 people, but also brings the tables, chairs and barbecue for cooking the kabobs. The salads and hummus are prepared in her commercial kitchen.
“My food is not burgers and fries. People like the idea,” she said.
Two Smooth Dudes didn’t originally plan to service the vineyard/brewery circuit, either. In fact, said Max Bawarski, who works with Sunset Hills, he and his partner planned on targeting the lunch crowd with smoothies when they started their operation three years ago— hence the name— but that didn’t really work out.
“We realized pretty quickly we needed a unique menu,” said Bawarski, who plans to add a second truck next year, and now focuses on the vineyard and brewery market.
Two Smooth Dudes offers a variety of gourmet tots, including Buffalo chicken and crab. On the healthier side, the menu features wraps and salad, including quinoa, spinach and Buffalo chicken.
“It’s a pretty hot market right now,” said Bawarski, who describes himself as a serial entrepreneur. “It seemed to make sense to jump in. Besides, it’s a fun endeavor.”