While residents and visitors have grown accustomed to the plethora of restaurants along the coast, a new option has cropped up offering tasty, high-quality food on the go. Clarke Merrell, owner and executive chef of Circa 81, Twisted Spoon and Beaufort Olive Oil Company, has added the Dank Burrito food truck to his veritable food empire.
Merrell grew up in the food industry. His parents owned DJ Shooters on Atlantic Beach and Merrell did anything he could to help out while he was younger, from busing tables to helping in the kitchen on slow days. When a fire burned down the restaurant in 1996, Merrell continued to work in other area restaurants throughout high school. After graduating from the Florida Culinary Institute in Palm Beach, Fla. and spending some time in Raleigh, Merrell returned to the Crystal Coast in 2008 to take over at DJ Shooters for his father. Two years later, he opened Circa 81. Since then, he has opened Twisted Spoon and his Beaufort Olive Oil Company has expanded to three locations. For Merrell, a food truck has always been on his mind.
“I’ve always been in the business. Something about a self-contained unit always intrigued me. I remember when I was 16 or 17, writing a business plan and proposing it to my dad for an ice cream truck. That Swiss Army Knife concept is really neat to me. I’ve always wanted a food truck, and it kind of comes out of necessity. When the food truck is in character, it will be for tacos and burritos, but I’ll be able to use it for catering and all kinds of stuff,” he said.
Then the search for the perfect food truck began. First Merrell looked into buying a fully equipped food truck and found that it would cost $50-60,000 for one to fit all his needs. Merrell’s brother owns a construction company, so they started to search for a truck that they could outfit together.
“I was looking for a step-van that I wanted, for probably over a year. There was a specific, to-the-t, type of truck that I wanted. I finally found it over in the Washington, DC area. So I drove up there in September and picked it up, and it kind of started from there,” he said.
Once the truck was his, Merrell and his brother gutted what was once a glass maintenance truck and turned it into the Dank Burrito food truck. Merrell said he was able to outfit the truck on his own for about half the cost of buying an established food truck. They had been working on the truck since September of last year, and got it permitted in April. Merrell’s original idea was always to do tacos and burritos.
“I love to eat tacos and burritos. It’s kind of one of my favorite types of food. Quick street food; real flavorful. Not necessarily a Mexican influence, but using the tortillas as the vehicle and then just putting in really flavorful protein and sauces or slaws, or what have you,” he continued.
The front of the Dank Burrito truck reads, “A Circa 81 Project.” Merrell said the truck is under the Circa 81 umbrella and that his goal was to introduce this type of food to the community. If it went well, he would possibly build a small taco shop somewhere. He also wanted to tie the two businesses together.
“We set a standard here at the restaurant of good food, good service. When people can correlate the two, they understand they’re not getting roach coach street meat. They know it’s good, it’s legit. We’re chefs, we cook, it’s an extension of us, but at the same time, it’s a different brand. It’s a two-way thing,” he added.
Merrell explained that creating a food truck is more of a low risk endeavor than a brick and mortar restaurant. He said when you invest in a truck with a certain concept and try it, if it doesn’t work, the owner can just change the concept and start over, or sell the truck and not lose any of the initial investment. With a restaurant, if the concept fails and you have to vacate that spot, all the investment is left behind at the initial building.
“The real idea is to see if people in this area want that kind of food. See if there’s a market. I think there is. People are going crazy about it. I’ve had people mad at me because I haven’t been out yet.”
Along with questions about when the truck is going to be out, Merrell also gets questions about the name, Dank Burrito. While some may suspect otherwise, Merrell says the name just suggest that he’s putting out really good food.
“It just means really good burritos. High quality burritos. Quality products, local fish, doing it right. We’re working with Heritage Farms and their pork, so kind of a superior product translates to better food,” he said.
The Dank Burrito doesn’t have a set schedule right now. One reason that’s the case is because Merrell is still navigating the ordinances in place and weighing his options. He said the current ordinances aren’t pro-truck and that they’re working to get some of that stuff changed. People have inquired about ordinances and food trucks, but no one has spearheaded any effort to get them changed yet.
“I think some of the old ordinances are in place to protect the brick and mortars, just so food truck guys wouldn’t come in from out of town, or really don’t have a stake in the community, and suck up all the business and go back home,” he added. “You can build it around a required business license and other things that make you a little more rooted. I have three business licenses in Morehead City, I pay my taxes, I’m part of the community, and I’m not going anywhere. I think that needs to be looked at as well. But it’s just going to require some text changes to the ordinances.”
The best way to see where the Dank Burrito food truck will be located is to check its Facebook page and Twitter feed. For now, Merrell said he’s just picking and choosing what he wants to do. As for a menu, Merrell is still brainstorming. He said he has a ton of ideas, and that he’ll probably stick with chicken, beef and pork, with some vegetarian options and features. The main goal for Merrell is to bring food to the people.
“I think the need for a food truck is there. To be able to offer a kitchen in random or remote places and be able to feed people. I hope that people will tune into that and understand what it’s about.”