It started as a joke between Joseph Wright and his wife Laura: “We should open up a restaurant.”
The couple enjoyed cooking together in the kitchen and thought the meals they prepared for their two daughters would be food someone might pay to eat.
“One day I was standing in the kitchen and made a hamburger. And I decided to build a little trailer and get started,” Joseph Wright said. “I built the trailer from scratch.
Wright bought the frame and assembled his mobile food trailer one piece at a time on the weekends. It took about two years to finish the process of building, inspecting and getting ready to serve food to the public on wheels.
Wright dubbed his restaurant on wheels “Shuggy Roo’s” after his two daughters.
“Shuggy” is the family nickname for Erin, 14.
“When Erin was young, she’d always want sugar. She’d say ‘shuggy,’” Wright said.
The “Roo” nickname for Emily, 10, came from her watching hours of Winnie the Pooh. She learned the nickname “Emmy the Roo,” that was shortened to just Roo.
“So, we just decided, ‘Hey, it’s going to be Shuggy Roo’s,’” Wright said.
Meals on wheels
The difference between a pushcart and a mobile food truck comes down to what they’re allowed to sell. Push carts can only sell hot dogs or related items like sausages or bratwurst. The cart has to be built to National Sanitation Foundation standards, said James “Doc” Thompson, program supervisor of the Gaston County Health Department’s environmental health division that oversees the county’s food establishments.
A properly permitted pushcart will be gray. Pushcarts are also supposed to carry a copy of their permit and health grade. Anyone can ask to see that paperwork.
Mobile food carts are like restaurants on wheels.
“The menu itself dictates the type of equipment you have to have on the mobile food unit,” Thompson said.
That means all the equipment has to be commercial equipment approved by the National Sanitation Foundation.
A person can operate a push cart or mobile food truck two ways. The first way is to have a permitted restaurant that’s inspected by the Health Department.
The second way is to connect with someone who has a restaurant, food stand or catering business who will allow the vendor to work out of his kitchen. It’s called being a commissary.
“Therein lies the biggest headache in our business with mobile food units,” Thompson said.
Once a person gets a permit, the vendor can operate anywhere in the state. Vendors are supposed to let both the Gaston County Health Department and the health department of the county they’re going to do business in know they’re coming.
The Health Department inspects pushcarts twice a year. Mobile food trucks are inspected three times a year, once every four months. A mobile food truck can lose its permit if it isn’t inspected for three consecutive quarters.
Some mobile food vendors will work the system by getting an inspection sometime between January and April, working in other counties from May through November and come back in December to get inspected again.
Thompson’s inspectors haven’t been able to track down three of the 10 pushcarts in the county. Of the 16 permitted mobile food carts, inspectors haven’t been able to locate six vendors.
Since the state food code changed last year, mobile food vendors receive grade cards and go through the same type of inspection that a bricks and mortar restaurant would experience.
Making it work
Shuggy Roo’s has been open a little more than a month.
“It’s been a real challenge because everybody knows who R.O.’s (Bar-B-Que) is, but nobody knows who Shuggy Roo’s is,” Wright said. “Getting people to give us a shot is really, really hard.”
Shuggy Roo’s menu includes a variety ranging from Salisbury steak to chicken wraps and most everything in between. They serve breakfast sandwiches and plan to offer soups when the weather gets cooler.
“People say, ‘Oh, that’s a lot of stuff, but that’s everything we eat at home,” Wright said.
Wright’s sister, Nikki Wright, operates the truck during the day. Joseph finishes works as a service technician, then heads over to the truck to finish out the day cooking. He used to be the youth pastor at Life of Faith Fellowship Church in Gastonia, so he enjoys chatting with customers.
The business has a Facebook page, operated by Shuggy, aka Erin. She lists where the restaurant will be each day and words of thanks to customers. Shuggy Roo’s has worked out a deal with Times Oil stations to set up in their lots.
Wright still plans to build a brick-and-mortar restaurant, but a mobile food truck made more financial sense now. Unlike a restaurant, the food truck can move to find customers.
“We just want to do good home cooking that people enjoy,” Wright said. “We want to reach everybody.”
You can reach Amanda Memrick at 704-869-1839 and twitter.com/AmandaMemrick.
Mobile food in Gaston County
This is the number of pushcarts and mobile food trucks in Gaston County for the past five years. The figures are based on a fiscal year, so the years run from July 1 to June 30 and include January through July of the following year.
Where to find Shuggy Roo’s:
Tuesday and Thursday: Times Turn Around at corner of New Hope Road and Lowell Bethesda Road, Gastonia
Wednesday and Friday: BP station at Union Road and Robinwood Road, Gastonia
Saturday: Times Turn Around station at the corner of Wilkinson and Park Street, Belmont
Pushcarts2008 – 16
2009 – 22
2010 – 21
2011 – 14
Mobile food trucks
2008 – 14
2011 – 9
Source: Gaston County Health Department