Memphis pop-up food vendors fry under the radar

Rico Fields, 28-year-old musician and amateur restaurateur, knows the difference between a hustler and a salesman.

“The hustler doesn’t last long,” he said.

Fields would know, as he’s played both roles. “I did dumb things that young people do,” he said. His new startup, Rico’s Soul Rolls, is an attempt at educating himself.

“I’m developing a five-year plan now. It only started to get successful in the last six months."

Fields was drawn to egg rolls while tinkering with family recipes.

“I was really just messing around with stuff my mom used to do back in the day,” he said. “She used to make these beef and broccoli egg rolls. Sometime she’d put cheese in them, sometimes she’d put jalapenos in them.”

Fields’s own spin on these family recipes is what founded Rico’s Soul Rolls.

“People hear soul roll and they automatically go to soul food. Me, I say you can put whatever into it." The beef, broccoli, and cheese and rolls remain the most popular, but Fields serves BBQ rolls, red beans and rice rolls, even cheesecake rolls.

“At the time, I had food stamps. So I could really experiment all the way to hell with it.”

His culture-clashing egg rolls were already a hit among his family and friends, but they were a surprise hit among strangers. “I made them for a party one time, and everyone went straight through them,” he said.  “Something in my head was like, I could sell this.”

Most Saturdays, you can find his portable fryer in the parking lot of the Hi-Tone Cafe in Crosstown. Concert goers wait along Cleveland Street for fresh, homemade egg rolls. 

Rico Fields serves up a soul roll order using a portable fryer.

Laurel Cannito, 25, had a similar lightbulb moment. Earlier this year, she started cooking vegan food at the Lamplighter Lounge at 1702 Madison Avenue, mostly to feed her friends. She hadn’t imagined her food would be the draw for anyone to the smoky dive, until she was told by a bar patron that they’d chosen her food for 1:30 a.m. sustenance over fast food.

Afterwards, she created a small menu, and Real Good Food was born.

“I have had people who come in and they flip out in such a good way about the stuff,” she said. There aren’t many affordable vegan and vegetarian friendly options past a certain hour in Memphis, and Cannito recognizes this.

“I wanna be your Taco Bell, you know?”

Both Rico’s Soul Rolls and Real Good Food feed underserved groups in the Memphis food industry, and maintain grassroots ideals in a ‘foodie’ culture that they say feels homogenous and is oftentimes unaffordable.

Fields and Cannito are both community-oriented. “I figured if I was gonna start somewhere, I should start with a place where there’s people that I know and love, and want to see eat healthy,” Cannito said. “I think there’s a big aspect of community around food that doesn’t happen as often as it should.”

Fields owes much of his early success to that community aspect. “This is strictly word of mouth,” he said. “I was born in Memphis and lived in Orange Mound. I’ve been in Midtown since 2003. I’ve got enough connections and relationships with people that when I started my business, people were excited.”

Rico Fields serves a line of hungry concert-goers during Soul Roll Saturdays at the Hi-Tone Cafe.

Neither of the proprietors have storefronts, food trucks or online ordering. If you want their food, you have to go to them.

They both borrow space from local businesses one to two nights a week. Fields takes, prepares, and ships food orders from his kitchen in his one bedroom apartment. Sometimes he sets up his fryer on-site Saturday nights at the Hi-Tone Cafe at 412 Cleveland Street. Cannito borrows the kitchen at the Lamplighter Lounge for their Thursday night karaoke. None of Real Good Food’s meals cost more than $8. Rico’s Soul Rolls will sell you 4 rolls for $5 or 4 dessert rolls for $7.

They’re both available for hire, not just catering -- they’ll come to your event and cook. 

“You see a lot of trends in restaurants, you know stuff like tapas,” Fields said. He believes his soul rolls are something that other restaurants won’t be able to emulate. “You can try, but no one’s going to want to build an entire business out of that. You’re gonna want a bar, or burgers, or whatever, but Rico’s Soul Rolls? That’s all I’m selling. That’s it,” he added.

Cannito’s inspiration comes from the lack of cheap, healthy late night food options in Memphis.

“That does seem like a niche that’s not filled late at night,” she said. "I personally get really frustrated when I can’t get healthy food late at night, because the only affordable things available are Taco Bell or CK’s.”

A quick Google search for “late night food Memphis” returns uniform results: nine of the top ten restaurants are variants of the burger-and-fries bar food model. The outlier is an Arby’s.

Cannito's signature menu item, the Hangover Helper, is a vegan sausage, egg, and cheese biscuit with organic tomato.

While Cannito and Fields are certainly business-minded when it comes to their cooking, neither of them actually hold business licenses.

In fact, running a food business from out one’s home or a non-restaurant location is a well documented trend, ranging from not so subtle how-to articles to signaling yet another industry threatened by start-ups. Think of the neighborhood candy lady, if she sold gourmet dishes in addition to SweeTarts.

Related: "Binghampton immigrants sell food to share their stories" 

Fields is positioning Rico’s Soul Rolls to be a steady source of income. He works full time and plays in a band, but it still wasn’t enough. “I like making money, I like making people happy, those are my big things. The Soul Rolls were really just a stroke of luck.”

“I want to break even, really,” Cannito said. For her, keeping Real Good Food prices low is more important than profit, and any money made goes back into the operation. “When I expand, that’s where I’m hoping to actually make some money. I’m looking to do other pop-ups.”

After the business license, food service permit costs, and Certificate of Use & Occupancy costs, they’re looking at $309 annually, assuming they’re not planning to sell alcohol. They could apply for a Minimal Activity License, which would exempt them from paying Tennessee business tax as their businesses don’t make more than $3,000 or less than $10,000 annually, which would add another $15 to that figure.

All in all, $324 to legitimize an operation doesn’t sound like much, but navigating that dense bureaucracy can feel crushing and pointless to someone that doesn’t have a physical location and may not make $324 in annual revenue, let alone profit.

The beef, broccoli and cheese rolls are Rico Fields' most popular item.

Between costs, restaurant failure rate statistics and lack of free time, it’s no surprise that some people choose to skip the formalities and go low key. However, Fields and Cannito have big plans for Rico’s Soul Rolls and Real Good Food that will most certainly require some paperwork moving forward.

Fields eventually wants his frozen soul roll sales to be the primary revenue source.

“My endgame is to get some of that Hot Pocket money. You know, put them in the frozen aisle at Kroger and let them sell themselves,” he said.

Cannito’s situation is slightly different; she wants to maintain a pop-up restaurant structure. Her goal is to sell healthy meat, vegetarian, and vegan options between 9 p.m. and 3 a.m., and at different places around the city.

“Since my thing is late night, I don’t want a restaurant that’s gonna sit around all day and not be used,” she said. “I don’t wanna waste that space. In doing the pop-ups, I’d find places that are closed at night, that I can breathe some life into by having this food options for people. Now that space isn’t wasted."

Because pop-up restaurants, from-home restaurants, and food trucks are a fairly recent phenomenon, legislation and regulations haven’t quite been able to match the speed at which the trend evolves, making the business model a sort of Wild West for would-be restaurateurs. They just have to make sure they don’t get nicked by the Sheriff.

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Read more articles by Wesley Morgan Paraham.

Wesley Morgan Paraham is a Memphis native and huge fan of the 901. He enjoys writing about music and art especially from local artists. He has freelanced as a graphic designer and videographer. He is currently attending the University of Memphis and seeking a degree in Public Relations. One day, he'll actually manage to find it.