Forsyth County, NC: Taco Truck a Loner for Now; Regs Tough on Vendors

Journal Photo by Andrew Dye -- 04/18/12 -- Ian Lockey(right) and Jared Lee work in the new Taco Centric food truck on Wednesday, April 18, 2012 at Krankies Coffee in Winston-Salem, N.C. Taco Centric opened after about sixth months of permitting and processing and now serves lunch, dinner and late night meals around town. The truck will be working out of Krankies, Single Brothers, Caminos and other locations around town. The food truck's location and current menu can be found on twitter and facebook by searching for Taco Centric. W0422_sexton DYE

By Sexton | Journal Now

Journal Photo by Andrew Dye -- 04/18/12 -- Ian Lockey(right) and Jared Lee work in the new Taco Centric food truck on Wednesday, April 18, 2012 at Krankies Coffee in Winston-Salem, N.C. Taco Centric opened after about sixth months of permitting and processing and now serves lunch, dinner and late night meals around town. The truck will be working out of Krankies, Single Brothers, Caminos and other locations around town. The food truck's location and current menu can be found on twitter and facebook by searching for Taco Centric. W0422_sexton DYE

Toss meat, cheese and a vegetable or two in a shell. Add seasoning. Relatively inexpensive, easy to prepare and fun to eat, tacos are not that complicated.

Until somebody tries selling them out of a food truck. Then the humble taco gets infinitely more complicated.

A complicated – some might say burdensome – book of rules and regulations can make for a maddening and lengthy road for an aspiring small businessman.

“You know how you can tell who was the first pioneer?” asks Patrick Helmick, a co- owner of Winston-Salem’s first (and only) legal taco truck. “He’s the guy with all the arrows in his back.”

Interpreting the rules

Helmick has long admired the concept of the mobile food truck. Places such as Los Angeles and Austin, Texas, have long had them selling such fare as gourmet tacos, burgers and even grilled cheese sandwiches.

Closer to home, down Interstate 40, for years the trucks have been showing up in and around Durham and Wilmington, cities with burgeoning downtowns and growing appeal to the young professional crowd that the Camel City also covets.

“A group of us, for lack of a better description, travel to places and walk, talk, eat and drink,” Helmick said. “And we’d see these food trucks and think, ‘Why not Winston?'”

So more than a year ago, he and a partner dived in headfirst. They quickly found out that setting up a food truck isn’t as simple as it seems.

First thing he learned was that he was going to need more than just a truck with some cooking equipment. He’d have to have “commissary space” — a free-standing brick and mortar building with, among other things, storage space, fresh running water and a place to dispose of wastewater.

In other counties — Durham to name one — food truck owners can share that commissary space and expense.

“We all have the same state regulations,” said Marc Meyer, the general inspections supervisor in Durham. “But some places have tougher local zoning and regulation. Durham has a special downtown district that’s less rigorous (for food trucks) than other places in town.”

That’s not necessarily the case here, though. Forsyth County has a well-earned reputation for being tough in its interpretation and enforcement of state rules. Privately, restaurant owners say that it can be too tough. But they don’t dare say so out loud.

“We do try to be consistent and operate within that framework,” said Nathan Ward, Forsyth County’s food inspections chief. “It’s more telling people ‘No’ than ‘Yes’ outside the scope of what is allowed, and that can be tense.”

Establishing a culture

The truck run by Helmick, his partner Thomas Wilson and chef “Taco Whisperer” Jared Lee — Joaquin’s Curb Cuisine — has been up and running for a little more than a month now.

In the lunch hour, he sets up shop a lot of days at Krankies Coffee downtown. On weekend nights, they’ve started to venture out near the bars on Trade Street. And

(I’m nowhere near qualified to be a food critic and certainly no epicurean, but for $6 a plate of Korean barbecue, steak or chicken tacos with tangy sauces and surprises such as fresh pineapple and radishes is a bargain on wheels.)

“People really romanticize the idea of a mobile food operation,” Lee said. “It seems like a gypsy, vagabond way of life. You roll up, set up, do your business, sell what you sell and you’re gone … You’re your own master.”

I, for one, am happy to see the truck and hope it spawns others. It makes sense to inspect restaurants and food trucks – nobody wants an outbreak of salmonella or other dread disease.

But it also makes sense to find ways to streamline the process and make it easier for an entrepreneur. We have the one legal food truck; Durham has more than 30 permitted trucks with an amazing variety of food operating at any given time.

“Establishing a (food-truck) culture here for a new guy might have some adversity at first,” Helmick said, referring to all he’s learned. “But not for long.”