FORT MILL TOWNSHIP — Lunch is coming soon to a parking lot near Fort Mill, Rock Hill and Charlotte locals, thanks to Sal’s Roadside Eatery. In terms of lug nuts and wheels, it’s just an average food truck. But as the brightly colored panels resplendent with email, web and Twitter addresses show, it’s not just another taco truck.
Sal’s Roadside Eatery is the brainchild of German “Sal” Saldarriaga, a Fort Mill resident since 2006, but Queens, New York native.
He’s always cooked, sometimes in street festivals in the Big Apple, including many cuisines and even as a line cook. When he moved to South Carolina in 2006, he discovered barbecue, joined a team and started winning contests.
He came here on doctor’s orders, to get away from harsh winters. He had heart disease and eventually needed a heart transplant.
Saldarriaga said he actually figured out before the transplant that he needed to change and he buckled down and began exercising and eating healthy. His recovery went by in record time, helped by a new diet. He lost 85 pounds before the surgery. “I decided if I wanted to live a long life with my wife, I had to do it,” Saldarriaga said.
But he still loves to cook all his old favorites. This past year, he decided it was finally time to own his own restaurant. He thought he could prepare foods people would enjoy, he said.
“But the economy is not right, right now,” he said. So he decided a food truck could be the way to go.
He heard about ongoing discussions about taco trucks in Charlotte. He tapped his savings for $16,000 to buy a taco truck. He spent another $14,000 fixing it, an almost compete repair and overhaul on the inside and out. He put a gas motor/generator on the back and put in totally new wiring on the inside.
Instead of having a metallic finish, it is completely painted on the outside.
Inside, the truck has fluorescent lights, a fridge and a grill. Most days, most of the items on the menu are prepared hot, right there in the truck.
The menu changes from day to day.
On a recent Friday, he offered "Sal’s Signature Philly Cheesesteak," roast beef and cheddar, eggplant parmigiana, baked lasagna, a barbecue "Southern Chicken pita," a traditional gyro, and two kinds of empanadas, including a Hawaiian.
He was parked up at Spectrum Properties office park in Charlotte, just off South Boulevard near the light rail line.
He said the customers seemed a little bit down from the prior week, at the same location, but while the stream of customers pulling into the parking lot to go to his truck might have been slow, it was also steady.
Getting the word out
When he was going through his heart troubles, he started a blog about his efforts, and he guessed social media might be able to help him set himself apart.
"I don’t want to depend only on word of mouth," he said.
So there’s http://salsroadsideeatery.com, a full-featured website. It has a calendar that lists where he will be on any given day of operation. It has links to the day’s menu, and feedback forms. It also features an "About" button that tells his story and shows a picture of him and his wife.
He also has a Facebook page that can be "Liked," which he updates daily. He has a Twitter address, which he uses to send a link each day to the menu.
There’s also a Twitter address that puts out information each day about all the taco and food trucks in the area. He sends his menu link to that address and it posts it for all of Charlotte.
His Friday location has been good for him. It is a multi-building office/business park, and the property manager has set aside one parking lot just for taco trucks to come in each day of the week. The property manager sends a blast email to each building in the complex letting the businesses know who is coming and what’s on the menu.
On June 23, most of Saldarriaga’s customers cited the property manager’s notice as the reason they came out. But word is getting around.
One Charlotte woman said she had come the week before and fell in love with the Philly cheesesteak. She said that might become her regular, every couple of weeks, but that day, she was going to try the gyro.
Tricia Kosak said not only was she going to come back in a week or so, but she was telling her brother about it, and he was going to bring some of his co-workers for lunch from their job on nearby Yorkmount Road.
"I like to support local people," Kosak said.
Saldarriaga said he has one customer who comes and finds him two or three times a week, wherever he is parked. The man works at the INA Bearing plant in Fort Mill.
"You missed him," Saldarriaga said. "He just left."
According to Saldarriaga, a man drove from Ballantyne in the South Charlotte area to try it, and said he wanted Saldarriaga to come out there soon.
It’s not just in web addresses that he’s a little different from the average taco truck. He accepts credit and bank cars, and the card gets swiped through a small plug-in module on a smart phone.
"Good food," the side of his truck proclaims. "On the go."
About 90 percent of what he makes for the public, he can’t eat himself.
He’s a cook of course, and he has to sample while he prepares his menu.
"I won’t serve anything to anybody that I haven’t tasted," he said. "You can’t do that."
But he can’t dig in because of his heart condition.
Yet, there are a few things each day that are not just good, but good for you. The barbecue chicken pita, he said, is one.
He hopes to get the business going enough to have a little time to perhaps return to competitive barbecue. He enjoyed it when he did it.
But he also gets satisfaction knowing people enjoy what he prepares. He gets feedback, he says. There’s the word of mouth that is obviously getting around. While he’s only been at it a month, he’s got his repeat business.
And then there’s all the traffic on the web.
Saldarriaga hasn’t given up on owning his own restaurant. But right now, he wants to make sure this is working, and perhaps, if it works out well enough, get a second truck.
"We started with a cheaper truck, one that we could fix up the way we wanted, before we went with a new, top-of-the-line truck," he said.
He gave up a job at Advance Auto in Fort Mill to go at this fulltime.
"This is my livelihood now," he said.
How’s it going so far? With a New York shrug of his shoulders, he answers.
"Pretty good, I guess."