|Logo was reflective stickers applied at a truck stop in Kansas.|
Posted on April 26, 2012
|The truck as it appeared to me online. No kitchen inside.|
Taking the Plunge.
Posted on May 8, 2012
I bought a food truck on the internet. What had been a dream for the past three years was about to become reality. I clicked send on a deposit to someone I had never met, 1500 miles away in Denver. Why? Because I can generally tell within five minutes of talking to someone if they are genuine. And because I needed to lock in my dream, to commit.
I’ve been writing a blog about food in Pittsburgh as well as Tweeting about it too. I have had my hand in a few restaurants over the years, owning one a decade ago, helping to open a few, and working in others off and on as a line cook or prep cook. I never went to culinary school–but I grew up cooking and have worked under a handful of talented cooks, chefs and managers. My favorite job was vending burritos from a food cart through my college years. This was 20 years ago, before they were racing around the country on a reality TV show.
I spent countless hours in that metal box on wheels (and a much smaller, grungier brown predecessor to it) cooking ground beef and refried beans, rolling up someone’s lunch, take home dinner, or helping a whole bunch of drunks fill the void and soak up alcohol with cheap, savory food. I always wanted it to be more authentic food, like the tacos I’d eaten in Mexico City or San Diego. I thought of ways to do it better–to drive TO the people. I graduated in 1993. I loved that job and missed it so much. For a long time I felt disconnected because I was not making food for people and talking to them out on the street. I devised ways to go back and start my own operation, but years pass and dreams grow dim, and other things just happen.
So here I am, 28,000 feet above Colorado, looking out the window wondering what it is I have just done. I have committed to something, which if you know me, you know is rare in my life. First and foremost I committed to driving this damned truck 1,500 miles back to Pittsburgh on my own. No big deal. I have an iPhone a credit card and a whole bunch of coffee. I’ve started to document this process via social media. Already at 700 followers on Twitter–I have a large group of people really excited about my idea. My identity was simply “PghFoodTruck,” as is the original title of this blog. When asked what cuisine I’d be doing, I simply said “good food.” I hadn’t made my mind up yet, but I figured spending a week inside of this truck by myself would give me some ideas.
No sooner than wheels touch down in Denver, this guy is on the phone with me. Michael owns a trucking company whose specialty is running other peoples’ show trucks, whether for trade shows or concerts. Among other things, he is the exclusive transporter for several national music acts. He’s the guy I talked to, the guy I trusted, the guy I sent money to without knowing. He has a driver with a pickup truck waiting to drive me back to his shop.
|The idea takes shape.|
Riding West toward Denver, I see the Rocky Mountains for the first time in a couple of years. I am thinking about how nice it would be to spend the night with friends in Boulder along the Front Range, maybe drive to Estes Park for breakfast. The driver is talking to me about the truck, and what a great deal it is. He’s giving me tips about how to drive it and what to look out for. He’s talking with another driver he picked up, explaining the company’s policy of letting drivers have time for their family needs. Even though this may be the biggest gamble I ever make, I feel absolutely assured that this is right.
I mosey up to the truck and plant my bags down. I walk around it, taking pictures and literally kicking the tires. Michael unlocks the doors and takes me inside. He shows me all the features–the plumbing, the cooling, the heating, the structurals. We walk around the outside and open the vending window; we unfurl the awning, we start the generator. He leaves me alone with the truck to take care of other business. I have a certified check which emptied my bank account, folded in my hand. But I’m not worried. I found the truck I need. And across the lot, I see a food truck roll past into a street full of warehouses. It’s a taco truck.
Going Home, Part 1.
Posted on May 11, 2012
After all the business was done buying the truck, I hopped in and drove cautiously out of the lot onto I-70 heading East. I’d driven large trucks before, but this was different. It’s precisely the size of a UPS delivery truck, and rocks and sways. You sit up high; your head is about eight feet above the ground, and you feel the swaying more. It feels like being on a sailboat, especially with a crosswind.
I timed it perfectly–to hit rush hour traffic leaving Denver! Really it doesn’t matter. If you have 1,500 miles ahead of you, you’re bound to hit some rush hour, sometime, somewhere. The interstate spread out to a four maybe five lanes in places, then narrowed with construction sites and barrels. But I’m used to that, being from Pittsburgh. I soon realized that although my truck can do 65MPH+, it’s probably best that I go no more than 55. Ii didn’t lift up onto two wheels going around a bend, but it may’ve come close at one point.
If you’ve driven cross-country, you know there’s not much of anything between Denver and, say…Dayton, OH. The front range of the Rocky Mountains only starts at Denver–everything East is mainly farmland. If this post is boring, I’m sorry–I’m just relating how boring this stretch was. While flying over, you see the squares and circles of the bread basket of our country. Driving through it, you just see the same horizon for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of miles. Thankfully, I had barely enough internet signal on my iPhone to stream a hometown radio station, WYEP 91.3, to keep me awake and entertained.
The cool thing about this truck is that you can park just about anywhere you want and go to sleep in the back. Now I don’t intend on doing that when it’s set up as a kitchen, but for now it’s okay. I drove until exhaustion and decided to call it a day around midnight. Somewhere just across the Kansas border I pulled over at a rest stop and did just that. I woke up, sore and contorted, laying on a thin piece of foam, sweating profusely and completely disoriented. It was sunrise, and it was already hot and humid! I hobbled out of the truck and snapped the two shots above within a few minutes of each other. I walked the perimeter of the rest stop for an hour, trying to maintain my health on this adventure.As I said before, I hadn’t yet committed to a cuisine, per se, but believed that the idea would come to me clearly while I drove back. I had ideas, but mobile food is not like a restaurant–you can’t just pick anything. You need to be able to make your food in a small space with limited resources, and you must do it relatively quickly and cheaply. I’m a huge fan of tacos. I was craving tacos. This was influencing my thinking, in Kansas, at 9AM, with nothing to eat. I mean, look at my options:
Things Are Happening.
Posted on May 17, 2012
Let’s take a break from the “driving back to Pittsburgh” series of posts. We had a nice article written about us in the Tribune-Review today (May 25)!This may be the first entry you’ve read. We are a taco truck opening soon in Pittsburgh, PA. When I refer to we, I’m sometimes talking about myself and the truck. Sometimes I mean ‘we” including you. We are going to have a good time cooking, serving and eating tacos in Pittsburgh.Initially, we set the open date for September 15, 2012.The way things have been going (great), it looks like we’ll be beating that date by several weeks.
Here are some of the great developments going on with Pgh Taco Truck:§ We paid the taxes on the truck, applied for title transfer, got a PA license plate and passed our vehicle inspection. Totally legal and legit! (This process only cost several thousand dollars!)
§ We are in dialog with the Health Department to receive inspection and certification of our mobile kitchen as a workspace. Once we have this, we’re good to go. Good to make tacos.
§ We contacted Pittsburgh City Councilman Bill Peduto and his office has been assisting us in the finding resources we need to open and operate in the city.
§ We have most of the kitchen equipment in place or on order. Installation shouldn’t be very difficult.
§ We have 4 solar panels on order. They will keep the truck’s refrigeration, plumbing, lighting and ventilation running off the grid 24/7. This is huge. Sort of a big initial investment, but will save us so much time and expense as we operate.
§ We will be participating in the Mattress Factory’s Urban Garden Party on June 15th with several other restaurants.§ We will be providing locally-roasted Mexican coffee and snacks for Alpha Lab‘s Open Coffee” event in July. (Date TBA)
§ We will be vending tacos in The Coffee Buddha‘s parking lot, which is in the North Hills on Rt. 19.
§ We will be visiting different businesses’ parking lots for lunch and dinner visits, most of which will be open to the general public.
§ There is some interest from one of the city’s top chefs in opening up a mobile food court on weekends.§ Our menu is being developed, and the results are quite tasty. We will be partnering with local purveyors and farmers to bring you fresh, quality food.
§ A couple people have inquired about having us cater events including a wedding reception and a company picnic.
§ Social media has been kind to us: we have over 500 likes on Facebook, and over 1,000 followers on Twitter. If you’d like to talk to us about any of the things above, you can email: james@pghtacotruck dot com. Thank you, everyone, for your support!
Posted on June 12, 2012
Thanks for your support. It’s been touching to know how much people in Pittsburgh can get behind an idea that they like. Opening a food truck in this town has been a dream of mine for a long time, and now it’s happening. There is no shortage of folks willing to lend a hand, or even more, to help me make this happen.Last Saturday, we set up a smoothie and lemondade stand at the Taste of Beechview festival, organized by Crested Duck Charcuterie. You may have had some of their tasty meats at the Pittsburgh Public Market–they have since opened a full deli/restaurant/butcher shop in Beechview (and are still operating at the Pgh Public Market Fri-Sun.)
We came with our friends from Casa Rasta and had a blast! It was a sunny day, and people were definitely thirsty. We were squeezing fresh and icy lemonade and limeade sweetened with organic cane sugar. We had two blenders running smoothies, and the clear favorite was strawberry-mango, which will be part of our normal menu on the truck. Again, we thank you for stopping by and introducing yourselves to us, and we look forward to serving you delicious food from the truck, very very soon.
We will be catering food at the Mattress Factory’s Urban Garden Party this Friday (June 15th), along with 29 other restaurants. Tickets to this event can still be purchased fromShow Clix. Two days later, we will be vending tacos, smoothies and lemonade at their Community Garden Party from 12PM-5PM. Admission to the Sunday event is free, and everyone is welcome to come. Though we won’t technically be making food in the truck, the truck will be there.
Next Monday I’m driving the truck back West to Indiana where Custom Concessions will be installing our full commercial kitchen. We found them completely by random, and they turned out to be really great people. Guess what? Bruster’s Ice Cream just bought half of the company, so this is kind of a local affair. It feels good to know that the money spent on this project will be circulating at least somewhat locally. The truck will be living in Indiana for several weeks while it gets fitted up. I’m not sure how I’m getting back to Pittsburgh, from Middlebury, IN, but it will probably involve a Greyhound bus.
And there are t-shirts coming from Common Wealth Press in the South Side. They are a great locally-owned business, and I highly recommend contacting them if you need to make t-shirts for an event.Cheers!-James
They Like It!
Posted on June 18, 2012
I chose to start making food for a living again. I know my food is good; sometimes even great. But until someone takes that first bite and likes it, you just never know. When you serve food for the public, it must be great all the time. There’s a big difference between making a meal at home for someone else, and, say 300 people in the course of 4 hours.This past Friday, we did just that. The response was entirely positive! We served over 300 tacos; each one custom-made on the spot, to patient patrons of the Mattress Factory’s Annual Urban Garden Party. We were there with a lot of other restaurants that I love, including Highland Park’s E Squared and Cure in Lawrenceville. Kate Romane and Justin Severino are two of my favorite chefs in Pittsburgh, and to think that I would ever appear with them at an event is humbling.
I spent 8 hours preparing food at a friend’s restaurant, late at night after his kitchen was empty. I didn’t have the time to taste much–and the recipes and spicing were guided simply by experience. I did not have proportions–I had intuition. I couldn’t even taste the final result–all items were to be cooked at the event. I wanted to bring the street food experience to the Garden Party–you see and smell the food cooking in front of you, you wait in line for the food you want, you step up and point to what you want and pick your toppings. The cook hands you your food and thanks you. Repeat 300 times.Anna with Table Magazine published a nice review, mentioning us, as well as our friends at Tupelo Honey Teas and Dozen Bake Shop.
The tacos we served:
Organic ground beef with tomato and Hatch chilis.
Chicken with sweet Thai chili sauce.
Roasted garlic ground beef with Italian gnocchi.
Potato and lentil curry.
Pork marinated in cream and jalapeno.
Chicken verde (cilantro, tomatillo, Vidalia onion, jalapeno and Anaheim chilis).
Toppings: red onion pickled in lime juice and sea salt, guacamole, roasted tomatillo salsa, roasted tomato salsa, chopped cilantro, lime wedges.
Not quite traditional; not quite groundbreaking. The feedback was extremely positive. People were patient, gracious and appreciative. I spent the next whole day cleaning up, doing dishes in various locations, and spent another 8 hours prepping for another event on Sunday, also at the Mattress Factory–their Community Garden Party, something geared more toward families.
We were accompanied by our new friends Ray and Ryan, with Ray’s cool ice cream truck. I ran late–was hoping to get there by ten AM; actually arriving at 11:45, just before people were expecting food. Sweating bullets and under the threat of rain, I set up with a grill and vending station in front of the truck. (The truck is getting its kitchen soon.) My girlfriend Becky sat in the truck and squeezed limes and lemons for our drinks, alternately handing me things I needed like a nurse in an operating room. I bribed a guy named Greg with free tacos to help me set up the grill, which came straight out of the box from Costco. Greg saved me a good half hour of fussing, and without his help I would’ve been really frustrated.
As soon as they were ready, we started serving tacos under the big tent of the Mattress Factory. People were enthusiastic and many came back for seconds. A few folks drifted in from the neighborhood, having smelled the food cooking down the block. I later got some Tweets asking for us to return to the Northside by AGH, as “we only have hot dog joints here.” Frankly (no pun intended) I would love to, but the current City of Pittsburgh vending laws (I will post later) are incredibly restrictive and in my humble opinion, need to be changed.
We made a bunch of tacos, lots of limeade and lemonade and Mexican sodas on this hot day under the tent. The menu:
Flank steak with balsamic caramelized onions and Vermont cheddar cheese.
Pork loin marinated in citrus and jalapeno with mango and pickled onion.
Adobo chicken breast with pico de gallo.
Spicy organic ground beef with tomato and Hatch chili.
Vegan potato and lentil curry.
All the feedback was exceptionally positive.
I spent several hours cleaning up my mess on the side of Jacksonia Street, children swooping past on bicycles. I gave a gallon of lemonade to a neighbor of the museum who watched me clean from her stoop. I nursed a wound on my hand that I’d kept wrapped in paper towel and multiple layers of vinyl gloves. (Yes, one handed taco-making.) I drove home and fell asleep instantly.
This is a lot of work. But it’s worth it.
Tomorrow I drive the truck to Indiana to get its kitchen installed. I ride a Greyhound home. In a month I return to get the truck back.
(Big thanks to my friend Hoon and girlfriend Becky for helping me out on these two events.)
Inspiration and Perserverance
Posted on August 2, 2012
|My friends Hoon and Matt, the team behind Fukuda. More inspiration.|
It’s been roughly three months since I embarked on this project, of starting my food truck. If you’re new to the story, I am very close to opening for business–just two weeks away (August 15th). After a few rather anticipated delays, the truck’s kitchen installation will be finished shortly and I’ll be off on a Greyhound Bus to Indiana to retrieve it.
I’ve been to a number of events to share my tacos with people and the support is overwhelming. People are excited and it reinforces my belief that I’m on the right track for a successful business. I’m not sure why, but recently I’ve had a lot of self-doubt. Call it a funk, or a bout of second-guessing, but it’s been a struggle. Due to a few delays, I was unable to make it to an event I really wanted to participate in. I worry about things that are out of my reach, spend too much time contemplating problems that have yet to arise. I wonder if I’m too old to start this business; too out of shape to handle all the work. I worry that despite all the support, Pittsburgh may not be the right place to start a food truck.For almost three years, I really examined the Pittsburgh area food scene, both through my blog and via Twitter. I wasn’t consciously aware of it, but I was doing research for the type of restaurant I wanted to open. I had always had one foot in the food business since selling my first restaurant; catering parties and dinners, preparing a week of food for clients in their homes, teaching cooking lessons and almost opening a small cafe again. But there was a reluctance–both doubt that I was good enough, and doubt that I had it in me to work as hard as it takes to devote oneself to a restaurant. I met so many chefs, so many other food bloggers and people who share my fascination of food.I can repeat the mantra “have fun, make tacos” as often as I want, but it doesn’t take away the aching of my joints at the end of a 12 hour day. There’s the constant smell of dishwater that ends up on your clothes and rubbed into your body. And the cleaning up–man does that suck. Having to say no to an invitation because your prime hours for making money are the ones when everyone else is out having fun. All the pains and inconveniences of working in food were what kept me from returning full time.
|Mrs. Kwon at the Golden Pig in Cecil|
I can remember one meal which was the turning point for me. I had heard of the Golden Pig, a small Korean restaurant in Cecil, outside of Bridgeville. Like most restaurants I want to visit, I wait to go with someone I know will also enjoy it. On a solitary drive South of the city, I realized how close I was, and pulled off at the next exit to try the Golden Pig by myself.
It’s a small place, maybe a dozen seats, and I got there at 2:30, a time when a lot of places close between meals. Mrs. Kwon, the owner, greeted me with a smile and a handshake and set me up with a menu and chopsticks at her counter. I was lucky; for the next hour and a half, Mrs. Kwon gave me a tour of her menu and a brief history of how her restaurant came to be. She had retired from a computer job in Seoul, and her son beckoned her to move to Pittsburgh to be closer to his family. She moved to the small town of Cecil, and again her son suggested to open a restaurant. As I sat listening and eating, half a dozen people came in for carryout. A cop, a musician, some people from the office park twenty minutes away. (She gave me a small sampling of each of their dishes after they left.) Mrs. Kwon confided her inspiration: “these people give me the energy to do this.” Indeed, Cecil loves her food, and she has standing room only many nights of the week.
I suppose those words have stayed with me as I’ve stumbled through this process. At some point, the need to share my passion for food pushed me into doing all of this. I had just the basics of a business plan–but so much of it was a gamble. But what could be a bigger gamble than opening a Korean restaurant on your own in a small town in Western PA? When I wonder if everything will work out, I will think of Mrs. Kwon cutting vegetables for each dish she prepares in her small kitchen, smiling and brimming with energy. When you take care of people, they take care of you.
How Now is Soon?
Posted on December 17, 2012
Q: What is the Pgh Taco Truck and where do you sell food?A: We are not an urban myth like the Tacocopter. The Pgh Taco Truck is real and will be serving delicious food soon in Pittsburgh. The truck was a dream that brewed in the mind of one person for many years. It’s taken a lot of work and patience to bring into reality.
The dream is almost ready to be tasted. We’ll partner with Pittsburgh-area businesses to find locations from which to vend. We will Tweet about it here, and you can follow our exploits on Facebook.
So, how now is soon? We’re shooting for 1/1/13. Really.
Thank you: Pittsburgh, Franktuary, The Coffee Buddha, Bar Marco, Fukuda, Marty's Market, The Shiloh Grill, Councilman Bill Peduto, and hundreds of followers.