Food truck pioneer serving up big plans for the future
By Mike Danahey
Lexington Chamber shareholder Karen Erinfolami is a pioneer and a survivor.
She is the force behind Karen’s Kitchen & Catering, which, in 2009, provided the Midlands with one of its first food trucks. And in late 2020, she beat a host of health issues brought on by COVID-19.
Entering the restaurant business came out of Erinfolami’s love for cooking and feeding her extended family at holiday gatherings, where over 100 people could be expected to attend.
“Cooking good food just came naturally,” Erinfolami said.
In 2006, with help from her husband, John, she opened Carolina Country Cookin’. Three years later they paid cash for a food truck they found in Atlanta.
“I wanted to bring food to the people,” Erinfolami said.
What helped get Karen’s Kitchen rolling along was a brother-in-law who allowed the mobile kitchen to vend from parking lots of gas stations he owned.
Not that there weren’t obstacles. Being a minority business owner made it tougher, and Erinfolami said in the early days of the operation, municipalities were wary of allowing food trucks and weren’t sure about how to license or otherwise oversee them.
Erinfolami said when she applied for her first food truck business license, she was initially turned down. She contacted a friend, who put in a word for her, and had the license the next day.
There were “a lot of nos” at the beginning, including finding places willing to let the truck set up shop. Erinfolami said she refused to give up, and that through perseverance and by serving good food, the business built up a reputation and a clientele.
“People were excited that we brought lunch to them, just like their momma used to make,” she said.
Erinfolami said she has prepared a range of dishes, from barbecue to Chinese. Her specialty is soul food, particularly her fried chicken and cornbread.
“I love meeting all sorts of people like you do in this business. And I love getting their feedback on my food, and the compliments,” she said of what she likes about running the company.
Things went well enough that the couple bought a U-Haul van in 2012 to convert into another food truck. They closed the restaurant in 2013 to concentrate on the two trucks and on catering.
The trucks have traveled the Midlands area, and Erinfolami considers Lexington, Columbia and West Columbia her main market.
There have been road trips, too, including frequent visits to Atlanta and Charlotte, and even a stop once in a small town in Tennessee, Erinfolami said.
Over the years, the food truck trend has only gotten bigger and bigger, including trucks being part of Soda City Market, Columbia’s weekly Main Street event. In November 2022, Lexington amended its Mobile Food Vendor Ordinance, “to make it easier for food trucks and the businesses that use them to operate within Town limits and to help the Town remain competitive from an Economic Development standpoint,” said Laurin Barnes, Lexington’s communication manager.
Businesses are now allowed to apply for a yearlong permit that would allow any food truck to operate on the grounds, whereas before, a limited number of food trucks per year could each apply separately through a special use permit.
Nowadays, Erinfolami said she sees a diversity among owners and types of cuisine offered -- and her services requested at a broad range of functions.
“For catering we’ve seen people wanting food trucks there instead of table service,” Erinfolami said.
That includes at weddings, birthday parties, graduations and even memorial services, she said.
Typically, the food truck side of the business is busiest during summer, with catering busiest during the holiday-filled fourth quarter of the year.
The business is known for giving back to the community through donations to organizations that include the Salvation Army Children’s Coat and Shoe Drive. Erinfolami, a Rotarian, also has given out meals to public safety and healthcare workers and feeds the homeless.
Her offering of free Thanksgiving dinner, though, was canceled once, in 2020, while Erinfolami battled COVID-19. Her condition was so serious that she was hospitalized and breathing with the aid of a ventilator. Friends, family and even strangers provided moral as well as financial support through those times, Erinfolami said.
“It’s just the love of God and God’s grace and mercy that kept me alive,” she told Fox 57 (WACH) in a November 2021 interview.
Once recovered, Erinfolami became an advocate for people getting vaccinated against the coronavirus and of taking it seriously. Her business also weathered the pandemic -- so much so that Erinfolami said she will be adding another food truck to her fleet within six months and has other plans in the works, too.
“Stay tuned for those,” she said.