February 8, 2021
Photo: Jalen Marlowe
This time a year ago, everyone seemed to have a couple well-laid plans hanging on the shelf, but the pandemic has prompted a shift in focus on just what our priorities are, both individually and globally. For one Charlotte artist and his manager, Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdowns brought to a screeching halt their newly signed record label deal, but created a new opportunity with one of the city’s hottest food trucks, Romeo’s Vegan Burgers.
Hip-hop artist Monty Faulkner (aka Tigo B) and his manager Lamont Heath refer to their partnership as brotherly with a tight, trusting bond formed in early adulthood after Faulkner moved to Greensboro, NC from Raleigh. “Sometimes you meet people and you know you can let your guard down and live your life, be you, around them. That’s a brother. We never let business come before the relationship,” Heath said.
For Faulkner, the whirlwind time between 2007 and 2010 afforded him regional radio plays, and collaborations with artists like Waka Flocka Flame, Ricco Barrina, and Charlotte’s own Deniro Farrar, just to name a few. But the music and the lifestyle that accompanied it wasn’t always intentional and Faulkner found himself lost in the shuffle. “I was more trying to fit what was going on (around me), and stayed in that little niche. Especially in that time as a young Black man, you feel like you got to do what’s going on; the street shit, the guns, the drugs feed all of that– that’s what’s cool, that’s what’s selling, that’s what I was into. So that’s the type of music I was doing,” he said.
In the chaos, Faulkner says he had a spiritual revelation and quit everything, including music, to focus on finding answers to unlock his infinite, cosmically bequeathed gifts. Faulkner dug deeper and came across John Chang– a Chi Kung Master who specialized in internal martial arts and energies. Faulkner toured Chinese monasteries, learned meditations, and tapped into frequencies using repeated mantras and chants– influences which he carried into his sophomore effort in the music industry.
“After I had my awakening, I just realized (the drugs, streets, etc) wasn’t all I had going on in life. I allowed parts of myself to open to a spiritual transition. I began listening to mantras and thought it was so dope how people could be singing to God like that,” he said. “It didn’t sound like when an artist sings, it sounded like they didn’t care what anybody thought– the energy of the music was just that they wanted God to hear them– and that was so powerful.
Heath, who had spent ten years running a car dealership, a bar, a nightclub, and a pizza shop, became Faulkner’s manager in 2013. With clear minds and unified manifestations, Faulkner’s guided return to Tigo B rose steadily, gaining traction in the Southeast radio market. This ultimately landed a signed contract with Universal Music in March of 2020, just before a global pandemic pressed pause on life as we all once recognized it.
Faulkner recalled the cancelled tour, album, and plan. “I turned to [Heath] and said, the whole entertainment industry, music industry is now at a standstill, we’ve got to do something. Without community, music comes to a halt. Whether you’re at a funeral or a picnic, there’s always music– but without those gatherings, what happens to the music? We hopped into the food industry, because it was the one thing that remained,” he said.
Heath and Faulkner have both been vegan about five years, and shared an interest in food, often bypassing nightlife temptations in search of their next best meal. In addition to music, they had toyed around with the idea of a vegan restaurant, but the lockdown caused by Covid-19’s rapid spread opened up a more mobile and immediate opportunity. The two spent the first few months of 2020’s quarantine testing ingredient and recipe quality with their bubble of family members, people they knew would give honest opinions of the classic American menu of burgers, fries and milkshakes. “We noticed in our travels that one, vegan food has this hippie earthy vibe all the time in the branding and two, vegan food can really be hit or miss. But, most people who aren’t vegan, think that all vegan food pretty much just tastes bad,” Faulkner said. “Most of our customers aren’t vegan, they’re people who just want a good meal. There’s only two types of food: good food and bad food.”
Romeo’s doesn’t post a location or time schedule. They’re completely new to the restaurant industry, having only been open for just over a month, and there’s a mystique to the spontaneity. Droves of people show up before any social media announcements even happen, whether they’re just driving by, or got word that the truck may be setting up. There’s a natural hype surrounding anything elusive, and it reminds Faulkner of the album release buildup cycle versus the surprise single-drop artists do in the music industry. “Everything we did with this business (Romeo’s) came from the music industry. The way we market it, the way we branded it comes from insight gathered from the music industry and a spiritual background especially in terms of manifestation. We got all this together in six months, it happened because we wanted it to happen,” said Faulkner.
Faulkner and Heath understand the value of good branding. The truck is matte black featuring a mural by North Carolina artist Joey Allen, that gives way to a ‘90s-style Saturday morning cartoon rabbit (that’s Romeo by the way), and a bright burger with a massive carrot as the “meat” signifying the plant-based goods inside. Romeo, and the choice of a simplistic but bold color scheme and classic menu are all a way of expressing how the experience is friendly, familiar, and accessible. They also noted Charlotte’s Chef Akil and Paris Courtney of Ve-Go food truck for embracing that mentality as well. “Vegan food can be a cool thing and we want people to see that it can be ‘cool.’ It doesn’t have to just be lettuce or some earthy, hippie thing. It can be for people to enjoy,” said Heath.
A socially distant and masked line forms pretty much as soon as the truck turns its ignition off, and folks typically have about a 30-45 minute wait ahead of them. Just because Romeo’s is on wheels, doesn’t mean it’s fast food. Working in a food truck doesn’t allow much room for error, and between the equipment in the truck, the staff, plus the space it takes to actually prepare the food– the two know it’s difficult to keep up with the ever-popular demand in such a limited area. “I think that’s one of the things that has made us so popular is that the food itself tastes good so we don’t want to sacrifice any quality, but if we had a larger operation, it’d be a lot easier to get things moving,” Faulkner said.
While they appreciate the flexible nature of the food truck during Covid-19, a full brick-and-mortar restaurant is still their intention, with sights set somewhere in South End, since that’s where the truck got its start. When the world opens back up, as is the saying, the pair will continue Romeo’s as they navigate their music careers.
If anything, Faulkner and Heath’s story is a reminder that the best way to ruin plans is to have a plan at all. The linear ladder of success is a mirage, and works better if you let go of your preconceived terms. Romeo’s not only brings an impressive, nostalgic beat to veganism, they do it with the knowing trust of one another, no matter what the next day unearths.