Behind the Food Truck: Big Will's Backyard Flames

Posted on 02/26/2021 by Tammie Nolte, Big Fat Writer

Big Will Pettiford started small with a $1500 hot dog cart in September 2019. He has grown his business to include a food truck and that growth happened during the pandemic. Big Will’s Backyard Flames is located in Greensboro, North Carolina selling backyard cuisine and cookout food. FoodTruckBooking went behind the food truck to get Big Will’s backstory, vision, and his advice on how to get started.


    Big Will: I am Will Pettiford. I go by Big Will and I'm the owner of Big Will's Famous Hot Dogs Backyard Flames. We started as a hot dog cart on September 2, 2019. And I just wanted to start, because it was hard to raise money for my non-profit called Voices of the Struggle. It's the African-American gang prevention program for African-American boys, adolescent age.

    It was kind of hard for us to get grant money and to find locations, and to also be a resource to these kids when trouble hit. I started a hot dog cart just to earn extra money. I wasn't trying to do this full time, I just wanted to earn an extra couple thousand dollars a month or so, if I could.

    I was running it, doing well, then COVID hit. And so that kind of stopped me from going into my job. So I said, ‘Well, I have this investment, I might as well just go ahead and put my all into it.’

    That was around March of 2020. By July, we won Triad's Best Hot Dog. I knew I had a solid product. And so I just kind of just ran with that marketing at that point. And we just raised the numbers to get the finances for the truck in November 2020.


    Big Will: I'm in North Carolina where the governor put us on a state of emergency where you had to be inside from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. unless you were an essential worker. Since we were a provider of food and hot meals, we were considered essential. I had my food cart set up at the hospital and we were essential for the nurses and health care workers.

    It turned out great for us because a lot of these places were closed. McDonald's who was usually open 24 hours, was closing at 9 or 10 o'clock. And I was open from 6 in the evening to midnight. We had police officers, first responders, nurses, everybody coming to eat. They didn't have time to leave the hospital to run and get something.

    So I was a good fit for them. I would try to get there about 5:15, 5:30 to get setup, by 6 o'clock I was ready to roll. It was cold. I was out there, but I had to do it because I knew I had a bigger vision.


    Big Will: Well, my bigger vision is I still motivate the youth. That's my first mission before all things. I tell people the food truck is cool, it pays, it's my life. But I made an oath with God years ago that I would always stand by our youth that grew up like me. And so, that's what I am doing.

    My bigger vision is also to get a building so these kids can have a place to go. That building can have an actual restaurant so these kids and these families have a place to eat. Plus kitchen staff, where you can come in, eat, lounge, talk, watch the game, or whatever it may be.

    But I can also see that on the days when we're not open to the public, we can invite our kids in. A place where they can come and learn and just get advice. To have our own location and get recognized in the community, around the state, or around the world, and also be like a second home.


    Big Will: First of all, I grew up in an impoverished area in a small town. I got hooked up with gang activity very early. In 2008, I was hit with 19 felony charges for robbery. That kind of just altered my whole career. I had grinded my whole life to get out of my home town to be an NFL football player. And I knew I had to get a football scholarship.

    I had setup my dreams from middle school. I knew from middle school that I had to go to varsity in the 9th grade. Because if you made varsity in 9th grade, that would attract college scouts. So I did that. I got the college scouts, I got the scholarship.

    Then two months after I graduated, I went and did something stupid. I lost my focus. And I kind of... I wouldn't say ruined my life, but at the time, I ruined everything that I had worked for. And so, for two years I was waiting on a trial facing 22 years in prison.

    My childhood mentor came to my side, he offered me legal advice, he gave me money for an attorney, he did fundraisers, he did everything to help me from going to prison. When I got out of court in 2011, he just said, "Mr. Pettiford, what are you going to do with your life now?"

    I said, "I don't know, sir. Maybe I'll start a mentoring program for black boys that grew up like me." And that's exactly what I did.

    Finding a job was tough. It was hard. I finally was able to get into the school system as a Behavior Specialist making about 1,600 dollars a month. I wasn't really making any money. But I just knew that that was a part of the consequences of my actions. So that's how I got started.


    Big Will: When I first was getting it rolling, I had the cart. I was just going to get the kids to come make hot dogs and sell them. But this was considered funny to them, to be selling hot dogs from a cart, like I was a New Yorker or something. They thought it was funny. Eventually, once they saw that this wasn't a joke, I was really bringing in some money, then their perspective started to change.


    Big Will: I would say nobody should jump out that big, that fast. No way. Because you haven't built the clientele. You haven't started a brand. People don't know. They don't know.
    So me, I started small. I started with a hot dog cart.

    When I first started, I just wanted to sell hot dogs and baked beans, because I'm in the south, and that's what we like. But then I found out that you can't sell baked beans on a hot dog cart. You only can sell hot dogs and sausages.

    Sausages are looked down upon by the health department because they want you to have a grill. And my cart was cheap. I didn't have a grill. So I was boiling the sausage dogs, then I would steam them. And then I would throw them in this pan to put some brown on them.

    It was a lot. But I started with a 1,500 dollar investment, and I had 500 dollars, went and bought a lot of hot dogs, buns, my chili supply, and I got rolling.

    In my first week, I almost made $4000 at a college homecoming. Then setting up outside of a hospital, I was making $4000 in a week. I wasn't even making that in two months at my previous job in education.

    My advice is to never jump in that big. You're going to have people that tell you to go all in or nothing. That doesn't make sense to me. You have to build a following first. You get this 100,000 dollar food truck that you set up, nobody's going to know who you are, nobody's going to know what you're doing, nobody can speak on your reputation. So why even jump that big?

    Get you a following, get going, and then grow into the next. When you're born, you don't just take off running. You got to go through the baby steps. You got to grow. And that's what you got to do with the food business. You have to grow. You got to grow your clientele.

    You can't just jump out there with a $100,000 truck and think you're just going to make a $100,000 dollars right back. That's just not how it works.


    Big Will: Oh man, when I got the truck, it was a big adjustment. It was a huge adjustment. I couldn't get organized, I couldn't get things together. I'm like, ‘I don't understand how I go from a hot dog cart to a food truck.’ And now I'm like, ‘What am I doing?’ It's like I was starting all over again. So I had to find my way again.

    My first week and a half was pretty rough. I was going to send the truck back and I was going to say, ‘No, I can't use it.’ I actually took the hot dog cart back out while I had the truck at the house because I was so discouraged.

    But luckily, I got it down. And now we got it rolling. We have burgers, and Philly cheese steaks, and French fries and stuff like that. The people love it. Every day, we have a line. Last Saturday, we went to a little festival. We had five vendors out there. I was the only truck that had a line of people.

    When I sold out, everybody else went to all the other trucks.I was there for a reason. People gravitate to good food. They gravitate to good energy.

    Next, we just want to continue to grow our brand and also get a hot dog cart back on the streets by the spring. It's cold right now (Februrary). The cart is cold and I don't want anybody standing in the cold. I want to have both of them running on two different sides of town. And hopefully we can get a building in the next year or two.


    Big Will: I think you have to be well-rounded. You got to be the cook. You have to be the energy. You have to be the smile, the face. If something's wrong, you have to take care of it. You just can't let it sweep under the rug. You got to address it.

    You have to let people know where you're going to be located. So you become a marketing guy. If you got staff, you got to tell them how you want it cooked, how you want it to look.

    My biggest thing is the presentation and the taste. I need it to taste just as good as it looks. I don't need you just throwing my food together. I need it to look a certain way because everybody's going to use their camera to take a picture.

    I need it to look perfect, just like it does on these McDonald's commercials. But you know, when you go to McDonald's, it doesn't look like that. But I need mine to look exactly the way it looks in the pictures.

    When you're jumping into this business, you’ve got to really be serious. You might have staff that think that you're tough and that you're doing too much, but that's fine. If they don't like it, they can hit the road. Because at the end of the day, this is your mission. You got to stand behind this.

    When you get a bad review, it's not on the staff. It's on you. It's going to come down on you. So you got to be able to tackle it at all angles. You got to be the enforcer when you have to be. You can't be soft, you can't be timid in this business or you're not going to make it. You got to be the energy, the great energy.


    Big Will: We're located in Greensboro, North Carolina. We sell backyard cuisine. Cookout food. Hot dogs, sausages, hamburgers, fries. We do have Philly cheese steaks. We have Philly cheese steak fries. We have homemade lemonade.

    We don't have a huge menu, but it is versatile. You can put Philly cheese steak on your sausage dog and on your hot dog, and stuff like that. Yeah, so that's about it.

    Big Will on Facebook December 29,2020: I had $70 to my name when I launched this stand. My whole entire life was a struggle, a struggle to survive at the bottom. So this was easy because I couldn’t go any lower. The only way was up.

    To those of you wanting to start something remember you can’t skip steps, ride the waves, enjoys the highs, learn during the lows, it’s gonna be many lows, don’t quit. You may see this truck now and may think Big Will got it going on, but this truck would’ve been a waste of time if I had skipped the first stage.

  • Behind the Food Truck: Big Will's Backyard Flames
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