In the food truck hustle, routine vehicle maintenance is part of the accepted cost of doing business — oil changes, tires, tune-ups, etc. They need to be dealt with quickly to keep the mobile kitchen moving and competitive.
But when the driver/chef himself requires some major body work, that’s more than a pair of jumper cables can fix.
That was the case for James Rich, proprietor of the popular PGH Taco Truck who underwent surgery last year for a hernia, keeping his fire-engine red truck off the road and his tacos out of the bellies of customers, who have developed into a local cult-following for his food.
“It was a slow recovery along with being burned out from working for so long without a break — a week became two weeks, became a month, became a season, became almost a year.”
After a layoff of nearly nine months off, he was back behind the wheel — and the grill — as of this week.
“I have great customers and friends; we did a low-key event in Lawrenceville and did a $1,000 day,” on his first day back he said.
“There’s a lot of moving parts — but sometimes when you’re off the parts get rusty — especially this moving part,” he said referring to himself.
The time off ended up being a time to regroup and to “get my soul back” as the 45-year-old chef, whose first food service job was running a burrito cart while at Ohio University in the early 1990s. In 2001 he opened Cafe du Jour on the South Side, before leaving that endeavor after a few months.
In 2012, he started the taco truck.
“It’s like any other restaurant except with a lot of bungee cords holding things down,” he laughed on Wednesday while prepping tortillas and browning meats.
Mr. Rich didn’t invent the notion of the food truck in Pittsburgh. For decades blue-collar lunch trucks peddled Salisbury steaks, hot soup and cigarettes at steel mills and construction sites. Asian and Indian food carts have sold their fare around the Pitt and Carnegie Mellon campuses to generations of Pittsburgh college students.
However, he was among the local forerunners of the modern food truck trend: quasi-gourmet grub on the go, using natural, local beef from Clarion Farms. He hit the roads, parking lots, farmers markets and special events of Pittsburgh when only a small handful of others were doing so. Now there are dozens of food trucks in operation around the metropolitan area.
“I think it’s awesome,” he said of the burgeoning mobile food community.
Built like an offensive tackle, Mr. Rich glides through the tight quarters of his solar-powered mobile kitchen.
“This is my place. I feel purpose here,``` and people seem to like it.”
PGH Taco Truck: http://www.pghtacotruck.com/; Twitter @PGHTacoTruck
Dan Gigler: email@example.com; Twitter @gigs412