Meet the Dreamers that pivoted from music and photography to food and serving their community - all the while recovering from losing their food truck in a fire.
By Sally Smithwick, Managing Editor
Photos by Laura Schneider
This isn’t just a story about creative, resilient Americans that found a rainbow in a storm, it’s a story about the power of community, service, collaboration, alliances, and local food. It seems cheap to call these "trends," but as food may be the most powerful way for humans to find common ground, the emerging importance of these values is shaping modern consumers and their food choices — what they eat and what businesses they support.
This week our series takes us to Nashville, TN, where two musicians and a photographer pivoted their way through the pandemic with Dreamers Food Truck. Forget all the obvious personality traits of Nashville you’ve heard about, like honky tonk music and bachelorette parties on Broadway, because there’s something bigger and more unique about the pulse of this city — a city that was pummeled by an EF-3 tornado on March 3, 2020 and then immediately crippled by the COVID crisis, pulling the livelihood rug out from under so many residents that have built careers in the music industry. Just across the river from downtown, the East Nashville neighborhood has built a reputation on supporting musicians, artists, writers, photographers, designers, food makers, baristas, butchers, breweries, and all the innovative elements of entrepreneurship. They also invest their business and personal values in helping their community. This is where Dreamers was founded.
In 2020, Doug and Telisha Williams, the married couple that make up the critically acclaimed Americana duo, Wild Ponies, hosts of the radio show Whiskey Wednesday, and community activists that have written songs like “Love is Not a Sin” to stand up for the LGBTQ+ community, joined forces with Laura Schneider, portrait + lifestyle photographer, whose work often focuses on the documenting of communities, small businesses, artists, and matters of social justice. This trio could very well be the poster children for building a food business with ethics. But their journey hasn’t been easy. After raising money to start Dreamers, a food truck serving up allergen-friendly, healthy pizza and bowls, last November, a freak accident caused a devastating fire in their food truck.
Not the first of many challenges, they began rebuilding and came up with another business model for “Soupscriptions.” The intention was to offer weekly soups for pick-up or delivery every Monday throughout the winter months, but what was meant to be a stop gap became a stepping stone.
“We had no more than mentioned the upcoming Soupscription pivot across our social media channels when requests poured in from supporters from all around the world asking if they could sponsor meals for folks in Nashville in lieu of being able to travel during the pandemic themselves," Schneider says. "They wanted to see us rebuild, so they dreamed up something bigger than we had dared to, and just like that, the Pay It Forward program was born, and we were on our way."
Dreamers partnered with Laurie Green, local hero and head of Southern Alliance for People and Animal Welfare (SAFPAW), an organization that serves the homeless community, to deliver over 100 meals a week to food insecure Nashvillians. After rebuilding their truck, they continued the Pay It Forward option as an add on for customers at the window. "It continues to be our most popular menu item," Telisha Williams shares. "Our faith in humanity is constantly being restored." Now in addition to special events, pop-ups, and farmers markets, they continue to use their food truck for a monthly Day of Service, providing sponsored meals to those in need.
Doug Williams’ mother, he says, is a talented chef and food writer, and the Dreamers team has certainly spent time working in restaurants, but aside from that, the food business was brand new to them and involved tracking down permit procedures, learning about local and state regulations, and ultimately led them to joining Citizen Kitchens, a commissary for new food businesses to grow without all the high costs of commercial equipment and business support. Within that community, after their truck burned down, is where the Dreamers found themselves cooking and packaging up soups every week and where they worked with fellow food startups to feed the first responders for three days following the Christmas 2020 morning bombing in Nashville.
“We all pitch in and loan equipment, watch out for each other, use our friends' products as ingredients in our stuff or collaborate to try and create things together,” says Doug Williams about the community at Citizens Kitchen. “We were so blown away by all the other folks there that Laura was inspired to do this massive photo project called The Citizens of Citizen Kitchens."
And that value for community alliances plays into their support for local food as they prioritize keeping money in their community, saying that although they still have to shop with larger stores and brands, they are buying ingredients whenever possible from their neighbors.
The latest challenge for Dreamers is another story in its early stages. As of now, the SBA grant they were recently approved for has been rescinded. Under the American Rescue Plan Act, the SBA launched the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, which prioritized applications from small businesses owned and controlled by women, veterans, and socially and economically disadvantaged individuals for the first 21 days of the program. A conservative, non-profit organization, American First Legal, filed three lawsuits on the basis that this discriminated against white men. They won, and 2,965 already approved priority businesses, including Dreamers, received notice that their grants will no longer be funded.
However the story plays out, Dreamers continues to rise above the challenges, and now as the world opens up, the music industry recovers, and the band gets back on the road, they are hiring employees and transitioning the day-to-day into other hands. How does years of working as touring musicians and artists compare to running a food business?
“I’d say it’s pretty similar the way we’re doing it. We look at each booking like a show. There’s all the prep, getting ready, driving there, turning the oven on is like the soundcheck with a little lull afterwards, and then at go time it is ON, and you kind of throw yourself into it until it’s over. Time disappears. It’s a lot of fun. Both music and food are really creative endeavors as well, and they are both ways - if you’re doing it right - to serve others.” says Doug Williams.
Their advice to anyone starting a new food business is simply, “Make friends. Meet the community players and figure out how to work with them and serve them. Pay your dues when you can, and stay humble.”
Stay tuned for next week's installment of this exciting new series. We have some fantastic new food businesses to tell you about.
Did you miss last week's story from this new series? Read about a recording engineer in Hollywood and his pivot into Edna Jane's Barbecue.