It’s a bitingly cold day today, much like it was two years ago when I met James Rich. That’s what happens when you meet someone in January, I suppose. It was probably a strange time to launch a new venture back in 2013, especially a mobile food truck when the market was just in its nascent stages here in Pittsburgh.
The sounds of Dave Matthews Band are playing over the speakers. James started his day, as he does most of them, by doing his shopping at 7 a.m to get ready for an 11:30 a.m. ‘windows up’ open. I’m at the PGH Taco Truck’s home base of Coffee Buddha on Perry Highway in Ross Township. I wish James congratulations on his 2nd anniversary of being in business. “Thanks! It’s been a wild ride so far,” he tells me in his laid back, relaxed way of speaking. His easygoing, affable nature has endeared him to the hearts and stomachs of many a customer so far. His customer base is rabid and devoted to his delicious selections. One time last year, I was at Coffee Buddha and a regular customer came jogging up behind me. He ordered a couple of tacos, chatted with James for a few minutes, and went back to jogging…back to the South Side…where he jogged from just to get two tacos. Oh yeah, it was raining at the time, too.
So what is it that has made James so successful to this point? “I try to be myself, and I spend a lot of time talking to people about my business. But ultimately, the food is going to speak for itself.” He also utilizes Twitter to maximum effect. At the time of this writing, PGH Taco Truck has over 13,000 followers, more than double the next highest amount for a Pittsburgh-based food truck that I could find.
“Social media has been a key part of the truck’s success,” said James, as he served a Carne Asada taco. “When you look at the actual name of the truck, ‘PGHTacoTruck’, it is simply the Twitter handle for the business. It’s no coincidence, as I spent a solid two years observing social media and its impact on business prior to opening my own. I built that following person by person for over two years before the truck was even on the streets serving tacos. When you’re on a shoestring budget, social media marketing, if you’re willing to put in the time and effort, can have a huge return on investment. I try to provide interesting content, links, some humor, and promote other local businesses with my social media. You can’t just use it as a free billboard. You must maintain the relationship with your followers to keep them interested in what you have to say.”
The typical menu at the PGH Taco Truck will have at least six different tacos, with at least one of them a vegetarian-friendly option. But for me, the best ‘core’ taco that James makes is his Korean Flank Steak with Kimchi taco. Where did he get the idea for his fusion Korean-Mexican delight?
“We don’t make any money on that taco either, since the price of steak is fairly high, and making kimchi is an extensive practice. Sometimes I cheat and get a couple gallons of kimchi from the Golden Pig,” admitted James. “I was aware of that specific taco’s popularity on the West Coast with Roy Choi’s Kogi BBQ; you could say that was the taco that singlehandedly created the gourmet food truck scene in Los Angeles. I was always both a fan of tacos and of Korean food, but had never tried that taco anywhere. Prior to opening the truck, I hosted a taco party at my house where people brought ingredients and this was one of my contributions and it was a hit. I guess that’s really what solidified my direction toward making tacos in the truck.”
The menu does rotate daily, of course, with an occasional treat for the dedicated Twitter follower in the form of an 0ff-menu taco that you need to request specially.
“Providing off-menu specials keeps me and the loyal customer from getting bored. There are things I want to experiment with, or taste, but maybe they’re not practical on a day to day basis because of the cost or availability of the ingredients, like antelope, wild boar, or lobster. Since expanding the menu almost three-fold since opening, there is more prep work to be done which has limited my off-menu selections, but several of them have become a mainstay.”
During Mayor Peduto’s campaign, he was putting out some very pro-food truck vibes, in terms of trying to reform the current laws that restrict where they can operate within the City. According to James, though, “there have been no official changes in the very restrictive mobile vendor ordinance in the city’s books. I’ve heard rumors, I’ve been approached by groups wanting to promote the change, but ultimately nothing has changed. However, I can say that we have never been kicked out of a location.”
One of the proposals for the re-development of the Strip District Produce Terminal would involve converting the loading docks into bays for mobile food trucks to park. In essence, this would create a ‘food pod’ similar to what is prevalent in cities like Portland, Oregon. James sort of blanched when I posited this idea to him. “It’d be interesting to see, but ultimately I like mobile food to be mobile. I like to change the view from my window from day to day.”
The trick to being mobile and wanting to operate in the target-rich environment of the city is that you have to have a willing co-participant. “We try to pick our spots without being too intrusive to the local business community,” said James. “In every case of vending within the city, I’m either on private property, or I’ve been invited by the local business community to set up shop. The response to food trucks has been tremendous by both residents and business owners alike. I’d also have to attribute that to the fact that all of the food trucks in Pittsburgh are run by responsible and friendly people who share these ideals.”
Whether it’s the generally inherent friendly nature of Pittsburghers, it has seemed to me like the chefs in Pittsburgh’s food scene have a sense of brotherhood and desire to help each other, when possible. James agreed with that statement. “As they say, the rising tide raises all the ships. Pittsburgh’s food scene has been steadily gaining acclaim and reach as the demographics of the city change and we get more visitors each year. Many of the chefs have previously worked with one another so there’s that built-in camaraderie and, sometimes, rivalry! I think that like any other profession, people tend to socialize and share ideas outside of work. Bar Marco’s No Menu Monday series which invites chefs from other restaurants into their kitchen to cook a one-off dinner, often for a charitable cause, has really fostered the spirit of cooperation in Pittsburgh.”
Two years in to it and James Rich still has the same goals as his opening day. “Just to take it a day at a time and see if I could make good food that people would be willing to come back for. My goal hasn’t really changed, though the scope of the work has gotten bigger with catering events, festivals and a huge demand for our presence,” he said.
The future is the future and predicting it is a fool’s errand, I suppose. For James, he had thoughts of a second truck, but had some “false starts” in his terms. The nature of a chef is to be perpetually restless and James is no different. “I get bored easily, but I’ve also matured and become more disciplined since opening the truck. I think that all of the jobs I’ve had prior have given me the tools that I needed to open and maintain my own business. Being your own boss is not as easy as it seems, but ultimately it is the most rewarding form of work. Down the road I can’t rule out the idea of opening a restaurant.”
One would think that with his burgeoning client base and expertise with food flavor pairings, there would be a line to both fund his venture and on opening night to sample whatever new venture he tried.
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