Justin Miller has two taco tattoos – one on his lip and the other on his leg – so it’s only fitting that he now sells Mexican fare from a “taco bike.”
Miller, a 35-year-old entrepreneur, saw the rise of food trucks in Raleigh and figured there were other mobile opportunities to sell food.
“What is the city lacking?” Miller asked. “Tacos.”
But El Taco Cartel has had its share of trouble getting off the ground, and it’s the second time Miller has run up against local government rules through his business ventures.
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About five years ago, Miller co-founded the company that runs WedPics, which allows wedding guests to upload photos to a mobile app. He was running the business out of his Raleigh home, but a city inspector told him he was violating zoning rules and had 30 days to close up shop or be fined.
When Miller posted his dilemma on social media, he found plenty of supporters – and new investors. He now runs WedPics out of HQ Raleigh, a co-working space on South Harrington Street.
As for El Taco Cartel, Wake County inspectors initially didn’t know how to classify it. Was it a food truck? Eventually, they decided it was a pushcart.
Then there was another problem: The initial design violated a state law that prohibits any food other than hot dogs from being “prepared, handled, or served from a pushcart.”
Miller and his business partner, Lily Ballance, had planned to prepare tacos from the bicycle-cart hybrid. The original design had rotating skewers to cook the meat.
To comply with the law, and to pass Wake County’s health inspections, they had to start all over again. Now the tacos are prepared in the kitchen at Five Star Restaurant on Hargett Street.
The final iteration of the bike weighs 200 pounds – about 100 pounds less than the original design. It has several burners to keep the tacos warm and also features a cooler and storage compartment.
“When we went in, we had no idea what we were doing,” Miller said. “It was a total failure, and we learned a tremendous amount. ... The more people who said we couldn’t do it, the more determined we became.”
By the time El Taco Cartel made its debut in Raleigh on National Tequila Day on July 24, Miller and Ballance had spent more than $10,000 on the project.
They set up in front of William & Company and sold more than 200 tacos in two hours.
Recently, El Taco Cartel got the OK from the city to sell tacos on the 500 block of Fayetteville Street. Eventually, the goal is to set up near businesses during the day to catch the lunch crowd and near bars at night for those looking for post-libation snacks.
“When people are on their way home, they can grab something,” said Ballance, 35.
Taco carts and trucks are common on the streets of bigger cities, including New York, Los Angeles and Oklahoma City.
Raleigh has its share of mobile food options, including downtown hot dog vendors and food truck rodeos. In August, the city launched a six-month pilot program in which food trucks can set up on some downtown streets.
Coffeeshaw, an offshoot of Raleigh Rickshaw, travels around downtown selling coffee. The three-wheeled structure houses a full-service coffee and espresso machine behind a bike.
El Taco Cartel is the city’s first taco-selling contraption.
Miller’s early business interests weren’t in food service. After graduating from N.C. State University in 2003 with a bachelor’s degree in graphic design, he worked as an art director and account executive at IBM for seven years.
Miller said he learned valuable skills, including how to manage a business, but he “did not like working for corporate America.”
“I wanted to strike out on my own, even if I failed,” he said.
The idea for a photo-sharing app came to him during a concert at Cat’s Cradle in Chapel Hill. People were snapping photos and taking videos with their cellphones.
Miller wondered: What if the concert-goers could upload their memories to a central location where everyone could see them, regardless of whether they were connected through social media?
The answer was Deja Mi, an app primarily used by businesses to share content, and later WedPics.
Good food, mobile
About three years ago, Miller and Ballance started talking about mobile food opportunities downtown.
Miller, a self-described “taco connoisseur,” said he brought enthusiasm and resources, while Ballance brought restaurant background and industry expertise.
Ballance grew up in Mexico City, where she said taco bikes are popular with late-night crowds. They serve cheap food that is readily available.
Wondering what was the next step after food trucks, the duo brainstormed a three-wheeled bike that could easily navigate Raleigh’s streets.
“We want (to produce) good food that can be mobile,” said Ballance, who has owned several restaurants and bars.
El Taco Cartel serves authentic “Mexico City-style” street tacos, topped with onions, cilantro and salsa. Typical American toppings, like lettuce and sour cream, are nowhere to be found.
Miller is still tweaking the menu, but he said it will always include at least one vegetarian and one meat option for $4 a pop.
Although he raises nine chickens in his backyard, he doesn’t eat meat products.
“I want to appeal to people who may follow certain diets, like vegan or vegetarian,” Miller said.
Supporting new ideas
Miller and Ballance hope their venture will inspire other business owners. Miller in particular has worked to help foster a climate of entrepreneurship in the Triangle.
In 2013, he participated in a brainstorming session at the Raleigh Innovation Summit, where business leaders weighed in on how to improve the city’s startup scene. Miller recommended giving startups the opportunity to partner with local universities through an internship program.
“Raleigh is a city of innovation,” he said, adding that El Taco Cartel is a new way to serve food. “We hope this paves the way for others.”
The city has made strides in supporting unique entrepreneurial efforts, said Raleigh City Council member Mary-Ann Baldwin. But there’s still work to do.
“The fact that Justin’s taco bike has been in the works for over a year is a sign that our ordinances haven’t kept up with new ideas and technologies,” Baldwin said.
She’s confident the city will continue to adapt.
“Hopefully the permitting process will make it easier,” Baldwin said.
Madison Iszler: 919-836-4952; @madisoniszler