The Can Opener | 205 S Gregson Street | @thecanopenerdurham (on Instagram)
In a world of increasingly contrived reality TV show premises—even falling in love, one of the most dramatic things a person can do, seems to no longer provide enough basis for entertainment unless contestants are blindfolded, naked, or quarantined—there’s something to be said about the lasting success of The Great Food Truck Race.
Now in its 16th season, The Food Network show features competitors attempting to perform the day-to-day operations of a food truck owner. It’s a premise that works without manufactured drama because food trucks involve grind, and as longtime Durham food trucker Joe Choi notes, mobile eateries “come with a catch-22.”
“The beauty of food trucks is the freedom to go wherever you want,” says Choi, who launched a Korean barbecue food truck, Bulkogi, in 2009. “But on the other end of that, you’re working under unpredictable conditions. Beyond your food, your location, and your aesthetics, you really don’t have much control.”
That’s part of the reason why Choi will soon be parking his Bulkogi truck for good.
Well, one of his Bulkogi trucks. He has three. Two will remain mobile around town—but one is set to be permanently stationed at the Can Opener, downtown Durham food truck park that Choi is launching this winter alongside his business partner, Bo Kwon; Ernest Harris, owner of the Knightdale-based barbecue food truck Chick-N-Que; and Gus Megaloudis, of the Durham-based Greek street food truck Gussy’s.
A indoor-outdoor concept slated to open at the intersection of South Gregson and West Pettigrew Streets, the Can Opener will include a semicircle of five food trucks—Bulkogi, Chick-N-Que, and Gussy’s, with spots for two others that will change up day by day—as well as a bar, harbored inside the old American Postal Workers Union building, with coffee, wine, and 30 beers on tap.
The space will seat around 350 people, with indoor tables, a covered outdoor dining area near the trucks, and a rooftop patio. A line of trees buffers the site from nearby train tracks. In winter months, when branches are bare, rooftop diners will have a prime vantage point of the business’s namesake: the “can opener” bridge at Durham’s Norfolk Southern–Gregson Street Overpass, nicknamed thusly for its tendency to rip the aluminum tops off of trucks that collide with its low beam. The bridge, for example, has claimed the hoods of Choi’s trucks on at least five occasions.
For Choi, who has a brick-and-mortar Bulkogi location at Boxyard RTP and also co-owns the Durham restaurant Namu, the Can Opener is a sort of culmination of his existing businesses. Namu, a sprawling restaurant off 15-501, plays host to both a coffee bar and a beer hall. Boxyard RTP, nestled within the Research Triangle Park, contains a hodgepodge of food and beverage spots housed in shipping containers. Both concepts are echoed in the Can Opener, an unorthodox space with lots of moving parts.
For Harris and Megaloudis, the Can Opener marks a more significant shift. Harris, who has multiple Chick-N-Que trucks but no brick-and-mortar location, will now be able to tell customers exactly when and where to find him. Megaloudis, who has a brick-and-mortar Gussy’s location in South Durham but only one truck, will no longer be on wheels.
After more than 10 years of showing up at gigs to find that a site doesn’t have hookups for power or water, Megaloudis says, or that an event’s schedule has changed, he’s ready to trade mobility for stability.
Choi, Harris, and Megaloudis became friends in the early 2010s. Back then, the Triangle’s food truck community was smaller and more close-knit, which meant that if disaster struck, owners weren’t on their own. Once, for instance, when a Bulkogi truck’s generator broke down, a nearby food truck sawed off its generator and gave it to Choi.
Now that food trucks are a dime a dozen, the scene has become more competitive in the way the rest of the restaurant industry is, the owners say—which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but, in recent years, has pushed them toward creating a communal space. The Can Opener will join the ranks of other Durham spots working to foster human connection after years of pandemic-induced isolation, like Boxyard, the Durham Food Hall, and Common Market.
The Can Opener is still under construction, so its owners are reluctant to specify a projected launch date, though they’re aiming to open late this year. They envision the space as a breakfast and lunch spot for downtown employees (a breakfast food truck will be on-site each day starting at 6:30 a.m.), as well as a lively gathering place for families and a venue for weddings, live music, and other events.
The Can Opener, Harris envisions, will be “a return to that quaint, family-type feel—a return to that camaraderie.”
Support independent local journalism.
Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.