CHARLESTON, SC – The culinary scene is driving in a new direction, and not just in Charleston. Treated to a never-ending stream of rodeos and roving food parties, the nation’s hipsters can’t get enough rotis, barbecue sandwiches, gourmet donuts, and Korean tacos, from L.A. to Brooklyn. People are willing to forgo cloth napkins and uniformed servers for improvised outdoor food courts and even, in the case of Hello My Name is BBQ, picnic tables at a West Ashley scooter shop.
“When I read about these trucks and how they operated, it just seems like really inexpensively you can put it out there and do all your marketing for free, no overhead really except for the cost of the truck, for the most part, and insurance and stuff,” says Cody Burg, a real estate broker who operates the Hello truck with his wife Ryner. They found their vehicle last summer on Craigslist, a DHEC-approved 1993 Grumman Olson that North Charleston’s Pollo Tropical had used as a taco truck. Cody spent an entire day repainting it. It cost less than $10,000, it’s all paid for, and it’s all theirs.
The couple sets up most weekdays in the parking lot of Lowcountry Scooter on Savannah Highway. The Burgs didn’t know shop owner Carl Hall before they stopped in and asked to share his space. Initially, they wanted to park in his lot for a week. It’s been almost a year now.
On a typical afternoon, the Burgs say the truck averages about 30 customers, half of those regulars. This day in late May, however, is different. The temperature has been steadily rising, and people don’t quite know yet how to settle into the summer. As a result, it’s been an unusually slow week for the barbecue truck.
Soon after opening at 11 a.m. on a Wednesday, Hello gets its first surge of customers. Cody’s got the early shift, and he prepares orders for a couple of diners. He tosses a portion of pork, braised in Holy City Brewing beer, onto the grill, where it sizzles for a few minutes. “We thought about doing tacos,” he says. “I’ve got this silly mustache, so I thought barbecue. It’s a Southern thing. We’re from here. We grew up here.”
The grill is propane; everything else — the warming drawer and the refrigerator — is electric. They have to plug into an outlet wherever they’re parked, or they can use a generator in other situations. To keep things cool, or as cool as you can in a food truck, Cody tinkered with an A/C unit and attached it to the bottom of the vehicle. Air flows into the mobile kitchen through a silver spout near the grill, but you can’t really feel it unless you’re directly in front of it, and then you’re usually standing over the hot grill. Plus it frequently trips the breaker, upsetting the scooter guys inside. Cody hasn’t gotten the hang of it quite yet, and after two failures, he gives up on having A/C today.
The meat, once it’s sufficiently heated, gets placed inside a golden brioche bun or into a pair of soft taco shells. Depending on what the customer wants, Cody loads the order up with blue cheese, pimento, jalapeños, or pickled onions. Today they can choose from a side of mac and cheese, macaroni salad, or pink slices of watermelon. Customers also get to pick their sauce. This isn’t like a chain where the same four trusty bottles of mustard-based and vinegar-based are displayed on every table. You’ll find traditional styles, but they’ve also done green and bold pepper jelly, watermelon jalapeño, honey and fig, chipotle chocolate, and moonshine pepper jelly.
Because of a special gizmo that attaches to smartphones, Hello can take credit or debit cards. “You’ve got to take cards,” Cody insists. He hands his device to the paying customer and gets them to sign the touchscreen.
Philip Cohen, a local stand-up comedian, is one of a few extra hands that the Burgs employ. He bikes in for the day from downtown and shows up around 11:30 a.m. He gets paid in tips and food, and sometimes cigarettes. He’s known Ryner since he was little. She shows up herself a minute later bearing a bag of ice and the Burgs’ 4-year-old son Cassius, who’s done with school for the year and probably weighs less than the ice does. Hello is entirely a mom-and-pop business, except mom’s got a pink streak in her hair and pop has an enviable mustache. Their older daughter helped them come up with the business’ name.
“Other than the money, it’s pretty much the best job,” Cohen says as he preps, adding some purple cabbage to the day’s cole slaw. His resumé includes time at upscale kitchens downtown, and he says his new environment is more genuine and comfortable and familial than the world of Charleston fine dining.
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