Nelesha Dale’s future changed with her son’s elementary school project. As he set about the assignment to create his own “I have a dream” speech, Dale expected him to write about the cars, careers, or houses he would have when he grew up.
But he had a different idea in mind – one that would ultimately lead to the start of his mother’s now thriving food truck, The Dirty Red.
“I have a dream that my mom would go back to school,” Dale’s son wrote.
“Why not your daddy? Why do I have to be the one to go back to school?” Dale recalls asking him. At the time, she was working as a secretary at a local hospital. But after contemplating her son’s words, Dale decided to go to culinary school, and the rest is history.
Dale began testing recipes and serving to her earliest customers from pop-up tents in 2013, and she officially debuted The Dirty Red food truck in 2017. Like many culinary start-ups, she worked long hours to prepare food and expand her customer base, calling businesses to see if she could set up shop outside their office or cater any events. Friends, family and neighbors offered to help her shuck corn, set up her tent, and promote her new business on Facebook.
Before long, people were lining up to try her food, and she was able to hire people to help her. She still gets up before dawn to start making pound cakes, but she has no trouble finding customers.
There’s no doubt Dale has put in hard work to make The Dirty Red successful, but she is quick to name a laundry list of people who have helped her get to where she is today. Friends from high school, family members and community leaders have all pitched in to support her on her entrepreneurial journey.
“My sister-in-law’s been there from the beginning,” Dale said. “And I tell everybody you need somebody in your corner that will help you, that’s not necessarily on your payroll. I have another friend I went to high school with, and she’s good with PR. I pay her with a sandwich every now and then. And, of course, my husband. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him.”
These days, The Dirty Red truck takes Dale all over Birmingham. She has a cult following of customers, and she’s constantly answering the phone to let people know what and where she’s cooking that day.
As a longtime resident of the Woodlawn community, Dale is emphatic that she’s here to stay. She met her high school sweetheart who would later become her husband at Woodlawn High School. She made some of her first food sales at Woodlawn Street Market. She still participates in every market, now as more of a destination vendor than a start-up. When asked about Woodlawn’s growth over the years, Dale uses the market as a representation of the community’s ability to unite.
“I’m gonna use an example. Exhibit A. WSM started in a parking lot. It was totally different…it was me, my sister-in-law, and another guy. Now it’s grown to like sixty-eight people in the market. I tell people, especially in the food truck business, any business, despise not small beginnings; that’s my spiritual quote…Now we’ve gone full-fledged,” says Dale.
Empathetic and strong, Dale inspires and even mentors Woodlawn Street Market vendors and engages market visitors. Especially the neighborhood kids, who happen to be big fans of Dirty Red’s savory menu, love to run up and give her a hug, which she welcomes with open arms.
Dale wants to continue her legacy by encouraging more Woodlawn residents, especially her granddaughters, achieve their goals – whether pursuing a degree or uncovering the formula for her secret seasoning (just kidding; she’s not giving that out).
What’s next? Dale is planning to invest in another food truck and corn roaster so that she can meet more demand. You can keep up to date on the location of her truck and what’s on the menu on her Facebook page and Instagram!