Luis Irizarry knew one thing for sure when he retired from the Army in 2006: he was done taking orders. Irizarry always had an entrepreneurial bent, opening a restaurant in the late 1990s when he was stationed in Virginia and a home improvement business when he transitioned out of the Army years later. Now, the serial entrepreneur and his wife Edna have their hands full with several thriving foodbased businesses.
Born in Puerto Rico and raised in New Jersey, Luis has always loved cooking. “A lot of Spanish dishes, I learned from my mom,” Irizarry said. “That was a big part of the menu at my first restaurant.”
Straight out of the Army, Luis opened a business doing home repairs and flipping houses. While it was rewarding being his own boss, he eventually decided it wasn’t a good fit. “I got tired of that,” he said. “Then, I went to school. I already knew how to cook, but I wanted to learn more and to brush up. I went to Fayetteville Technical Community College and got a culinary degree, hotel management degree and business degree.”
Now he gives back, returning to FTCC and local high schools to share his story with students. Sharing his passion with young people and teaching them about the food business is one of his favorite things to do. Often, he takes on local students as interns and employees, teaching them the food service business.
With a catering business, a food truck and a food truck commissary based out of Hope Mills and now, running the kitchen at downtown Fayetteville’s Lake Gaston Brewery, Luis and Edna have their hands full. The pair is committed to bringing delicious food to the community.
“Elite Catering is a full-service catering company,” said Luis. “We come to your location, serve, take care of your guests and clean up. You don’t have to worry about anything. Just come hungry.”
Luis also noted that staying flexible is a big part of being successful. For example, what is now the Elite Catering food truck was originally the truck Luis used in his home improvement business.
“Once I started the catering business, I would use it to transport things to and from parties,” Luis said. “But when we decided to convert it to a food truck, I would go on Craigslist and buy used equipment as I could and as I needed it. I don’t owe anyone, and I own all of my equipment outright. That has given me a lot of freedom when it comes to growing my businesses.”
Another priority for Luis with the catering food truck has been keeping the menu flexible. “I didn’t want people to see my truck and say, ‘Oh, there goes the taco truck.’ Or, ‘There goes the rib truck,’” said Luis. “I like to keep my options open and adjust the menu to what I think will work for the occasion and location.”
When Luis decided to open his food truck in 2007, he was on the hunt for a commissary – a place to prep food and clean his truck – and he had a hard time finding one. “Food trucks weren’t popular here yet, so I had a hard time finding a commissary,” he said. “But when the opportunity came up to help other food trucks, it was easy to say yes. I wanted to give back because no one gave me a chance. So, when someone comes to me, I like to help them. I currently have three food trucks and a hotdog cart that we are a commissary for.”
In addition to the Hope Mills food truck commissary, Luis owns a building in Hope Mills that he plans to reopen as a café at some point. Right now, though, he said the catering business, food truck and food truck commissary are plenty in addition to the Lake Gaston Brewing Co. venture.
“We have a new menu coming after Valentine’s Day,” said Luis. The menu reflects not only Luis’ Puerto Rican cooking background that includes dishes he learned from his mom; it has items like cauliflower bites, buffalo shrimp, lamb sliders, brats, gourmet burgers and more.
“It’s a passion for me and Edna,” Luis said. “We don’t think in terms of dollars. We consider every event and how we can make it a good experience for the guests and our customers. We don’t cut corners, and we love people.”