The truck stops here

North Main lot for mobile food vendors picks up speed

Marianah Hidayat spoons Tahi chili on lunch customer Jermaine Geter’s order at her food cart, Mariana’s Authentic Cuisine, at Cha Cha’s Food Truck Corral on North Main Avenue. Enlarge photo

SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald

Marianah Hidayat spoons Tahi chili on lunch customer Jermaine Geter’s order at her food cart, Mariana’s Authentic Cuisine, at Cha Cha’s Food Truck Corral on North Main Avenue.

She may have been the “Bean Queen” in her former life, but Durango entrepreneur Charlotte Rynott has traded in her tiara for a lasso. She’s rounding up food vendors for Cha Cha’s Food Truck Corral, 3478 N. Main Ave.

With a trolley stop in her front yard, a river in the back and more than a dozen condos of La Campanella in between, the one-third-acre food court eventually will be home to up to seven summer food vendors.

Less than 3 weeks old, Cha Cha’s is becoming an outdoor restaurant family marked by shaded picnic tables, screened Porta-Johns and a sea of limestone, parted by pots of herbs and marigolds.

“I’ve finally got a home,” Jocelyn Skill of Skillfully Decadent said, throwing her arms wide like a proud first-time homeowner visualizing a backyard playground for her only child.

Skill purchased a self-contained, bakery-fitted food truck two years ago. She rolls her sweets wagon to community special events and catering venues, offering tarts, scones, cupcakes, croissants, cookies and all things decadent that can be passed through a service window. Less than a month ago, Skill took the trophy for the “Best Dessert” category at Taste of Durango. That day, she sold out of the winning dessert – hazelnut chocolate crème brûlée.

Skill is grateful to fellow foodie Rynott, who once was in Skill’s shoes, cradling her own specialty foods business, Cajun Zydeco Gourmet Pickling. It was that venture that earned Rynott the name “Bean Queen.”

Nine years later, Rynott sold the homemade, dilly-green bean-for-Bloody Marys business, but not until she had expanded its offerings to include pickled cherry tomatoes, okra, pickled Vidalia onions and elephant garlic seed pods.

“Our product from Louisiana landed in every bar and restaurant from Texas to Florida … It was highly successful,” Rynott said.

“I took it from grade school to college,” Rynott said of the business she nurtured from scratch.

“We did everything by hand … it almost killed me,” she said.

Flash forward through several additional entrepreneurial and managerial stints, including managing a dude ranch in Wickenburg, Ariz., and heading up tourism marketing in Lafayette, La. An interior decorator with a flair for business, Rynott eventually landed in Durango with her husband, Tim Rynott, an independent oil and gas industry consultant.

In March, while she was building out the incomplete La Campanella commercial condos, Rynott noticed the steady stream of North Main Avenue morning traffic pulling into Durango Joes’ coffee kiosk across the street.

Around the same time, the city of Durango notified Rynott that she needed to put in sidewalk improvements, as required by the city and the Colorado Department of Transportation.

The vintage motels on North Main had few dining options within walking distance, Rynott also observed, so she began to investigate how she could put the commercial tract parcel of La Campanella’s planned development to a use that would meet the need, she said.

“I became aware of the plight of the food vendors needing a place for a permanent base of operation,” Rynott said.

When she approached the city, planners told her what would be required, including permission from La Campanella’s home owners’ association, which put the matter to a vote.

“The city was overjoyed. They said ‘You could be the answer to the prayers of these people,’” she said.

The city was referencing the two to three calls it gets every week during summer months from food truck owners and vendors curious about Durango’s rules about mobile food operations, said Nicole Killian, planning manager for the city of Durango.

Rynott applied for and was granted a special-use permit for a six-month operation for up to seven food vendors. The vendors must be inspected by and receive permits from fire safety and health inspectors, Killian said, but the special-use permit goes to the property owner, who is required to hold a business license.

While the code regarding food trucks is “kind of vague,” Killian said, new code rewrites will offer an opportunity to revisit this emerging, potentially popular use.

Planner Craig Roser echoed Killian, emphasizing that no historical data is available for food truck or seasonal food vendors, but Rynott was willing to take her chances with the food truck corral on a trial basis.

“We’re not even sure if this is going to fly or if it’s a good idea,” Roser said, but added that Serious Texas Bar-B-Q, a bricks and mortar Durango restaurant that has multiple locations, got its start as a food vendor.

Rynott said she wants five more food trucks to be in place by July 4, joining Skillfully Decadent and Mariana’s Authentic Cuisine, a food truck featuring fresh Asian and Indonesian food.

Rynott purchased a food truck herself, eager to add Cajun offerings, including gumbo, jambalaya and shrimp po boys to the limited selection currently available for the corral’s “soft but yummy opening,” she said.

Other plans include offering prepackaged tapas of fruit and cheese as a quick, walk-up treat for less than $10 that will tide people over while they consider where they might head for dinner, she said.

“I’ve been listening to what people want and what I want. I’m not taking away from the restaurants,” she said.

An ice cream vendor is in the final stages of negotiation, and roasted peanuts also could be on the horizon, Rynott said.

Vegan food truck owner Kathy Juracka, who recently launched “The Pod” at the La Plata County Fairgrounds Sunday flea market, may be joining the corral part time, Juracka said.

It was Juracka’s all-plant-based, popular beet burger made of brown rice, oats, flax seeds and seasoning that hooked Rynott, who extended an invitation to Juracka to join others at the food court, which is open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., seven days a week.

“Even people who hate beets love this one. But why hate beets? They look like jewels and taste like heaven,” Juracka said.

Juracka said she also intends to serve vegan, organic breakfast burritos made of scrambled tofu and green chiles in whole-wheat tortillas, curry veggie wraps, hummus-based treats and roasted corn on the cob.

“It’s so nice that I’m not the lone vegan anymore,” Juracka said of the many Durango folks who embrace an entirely plant-based diet, free of animal products and dairy.

Juracka said she decided to open a food truck so she could plant the seed for better and more nutritious eating.

“For me, it’s a happy by-product of being kind to animals,” she said.

Tulsa, Okla., transplants Mia and Kelly Kitchen, who call themselves “temporary residents,” were pleased to bask in the sun while waiting for their Indonesian food last Saturday.

“I think it’s awesome,” Kelly Kitchen said.

Tulsa, like Portland, Ore., Austin, Texas, and larger metropolitan cities, has similar food courts, many offering music and boasting a large following kept in the loop through social networking, Mia Kitchen said.

“We had Food Truck Wednesdays in Tulsa’s Guthrie Green Park, where 10 to 12 trucks might gather. Food trucks are becoming a big, popular thing. They’re really taking off,” she said.

“I guess it could be a different story when it’s blowing snow in your face, but you never know,” her husband, Kelly Kitchen, said.

City councilor Sweetie Marbury endorsed the food-truck court concept with a thumbs-up.

“I think it’s great. It fosters an entrepreneurial spirit. That’s a plus,” Marbury said.

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