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.
"Did you just say 'other than the money?'" Ryner asks from outside the truck, where she's updating the menu board.
"Yeah," he laughs, chopping up cabbage. "I'm a little sassy, but that's good. It's a food truck. That's what we call it, whenever we do something with character, we just go 'food truck.'" He sings the last two words, like you would the beginning of the Wayne's World theme song.
Ryner has a food-and-bev background, but one restricted to the front of house. "My love of cooking just came from hanging out with my mom in the kitchen," she says. "That's where most of our time was together. She worked all the time, she was a single mom, so that was the only time I really got to spend a lot of time one-on-one with her."
Her mom's trick was to take whatever was in the pantry and make do, so that's what Ryner does every day. She doesn't use recipes — she mixes everything together until it tastes right. She's never cooked on this scale before. "I just do it, and either we don't have enough or we have too much. It's a food truck."
"Food truck," Cody sings from somewhere nearby.
"Food truck," she chants back.
Ryner doesn't want to own a real, sit-down restaurant, where she'd have to deal with dozens of menu choices and overhead and all that other stuff. She'd rather be able to control and change her menu easily and be different every day. A real restaurant has to carry lots of items, but the truck can do variations on the same ideas: It's just barbecue and then a bunch of things put on top of it, as Cody says. Their menu-board options — sandwiches, tacos, sometimes meatloaf — stay the same for the most part, with the pork and barbecued bacon (as well as fakin' bacon) serving as their protein bases. The sides are switched out constantly, a tactic that lets Ryner experiment without complicating the main draws. "Macaroni and cheese is always a staple, and it's always a different kind of mac and cheese," she says, taking respite from the heat at one of the picnic tables in the much cooler shade. She learned the hard way to always have mac and cheese. Customers get mad when it's not available.
The thing about food trucks is you can't cook raw food in them. Hello will make small batches of cole slaw during the day, to ensure crunchiness, but that's about it. In the case of barbecue, this isn't too much of a hassle considering it's an 18-hour process to produce the pork. Hello works out of their base kitchen at the Wolftrack Inn on Highway 61, where Ryner used to bartend. They're also not allowed to keep the truck at the scooter shop; they've got to leave at the end of their shifts and clean the thing out.
Amazingly, working together in close quarters every day, which Ryner admits could be a make-or-break situation for any marriage, has gone much better for the husband-and-wife team than she imagined. And with Cody handling the business side of things and Ryner on top of the food, their positions rarely clash. "We have our moments, but he and I both understand that when we're in here, it's work. So we expect from each other what we would from any employee."
"I'm the ice cream in their ice cream sandwich of love," Cohen interjects.
When not serving at the scooter store, which they do from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and sometimes a night shift there too, you can find Hello around the area, vending at events from downtown to North Charleston to Daniel Island. Their Facebook page and Twitter feed are regularly updated with their location, in typical social media fashion. While on the road, the truck's gotten a couple of bonks, once their own fault and once the result of another driver. "It took some getting used to, and I don't have the greatest brakes in the world, or shocks. So it's kind of like sailing a ship," Cody says. "You're bouncing around side to side all the time. The refrigerator dances around — I need to strap that thing down better. I use these pirate ship analogies so I can say 'cole slaw's aft.'" The truck takes a bit of tinkering, and luckily Cody's pretty handy. As the afternoon winds down, he decides to work on the brakes, and the next time we see him his hands are covered in oil.
If the Burgs are not in the food truck, they're doing work for the food truck. And it doesn't end when they leave the Lowcountry Scooter parking lot and finish up at the Wolftrack. It doesn't even end when they put the kids to bed for the night. They'll pull out their schedules and answer e-mails and make phone calls, until it's time to sleep and wake up and start all over again. And they usually do at least one special event a weekend.
Ryner is satisfied getting through every day, but Cody thinks about the future. The selling point of their logo is that you can fill in the blank with anything, and that's just what he plans to do. He sees multiple trucks with other types of cuisine, plus bottling and distributing their sauces and putting their logo on T-shirts and coffee mugs. "I don't want to be 50 years old, sitting on the side of the road, sweating in a truck, like I see some guys," he says. He wants to run the brand as far as it will go.
"I only watch it improve every day," Ryner adds. "Even if we only get one new customer a day, that's one new customer and they always like us and we always see them come back. And that's the biggest compliment anybody can give me, is when you come back a second time and a third time and a fourth time."
Currently, there are no laws in Charleston regarding food trucks, whether for or against them. There are restrictions against peddlers and transient businesses (Hello is officially classified as a restaurant). Special exceptions are made in downtown Charleston as long as you can fit into one of the small yellow boxes on the street, which explains the hot dog carts and the Italian ice girls that pop up once the heat hits. These businesses must also bid on these spaces, and there are only so many to go around.
Hello belongs to the Charleston Food Truck Federation, which currently includes five other businesses besides themselves. The federation has been to a city council meeting, and they hope to continue keeping the local government aware of their unique situation. Ryner believes they stand a much greater chance creating new laws than changing existing ones.
Until then, Hello My Name is BBQ will continue to be an option for people with limited time for lunch, who want food that doesn't come from a drive-thru, a good meal that doesn't require sitting down for an hour and tipping a server (though in Hello's case, you should throw a buck in the jar for Cohen's sake). And they won't be offended if you go back to your air-conditioned car to eat their 'cue.