Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 15, 2012

By Sarah Campbell
SALISBURY — The white bus that sits outside Pastor Michael King’s Fisher Street home looks pretty ordinary from the outside.
But inside it has all the makings of a professional kitchen where fried chicken, tilapia, hamburger, hotdogs and french fries can be served up.
About a year ago, King gutted the bus, adding a stainless steel sink, deep fryer, refrigeration and overhead shelving for storage.
King’s church, Damascus Ministries, plans to hire at least six Rowan residents to run the truck. Six people who, he says, might otherwise be unemployable because of a past that includes incarceration or drug addiction.
“We actively go after the poor, the downtrodden, the disadvantaged, the jobless,” he said. “The ones who need us the most because they have fallen through the cracks.”
The restaurant on wheels is ready to roll, but a state regulation has kept it parked.
A general statute that requires mobile food units to “operate in conjunction with a permitted restaurant or commissary “ is keeping the truck, nicknamed the “Mac-Attack Wagon,” from operating. It also states the unit “shall report at least daily to the restaurant or commissary for supplies, cleaning and servicing.”
That means King would either have to open his own restaurant or set up an agreement with a local restaurant to use its facilities before his food truck can hit the road.
Both options would cost a pretty penny and be a waste of money, King said.
King knows because he’s already been down that road.
Several years ago, he spent thousands of dollars to open up a restaurant at the corner of Main and 11th streets.
“We outfitted it as a kitchen for the sole purpose of operating a mobile trailer, but what we found out was we didn’t use that kitchen for anything other than water,” he said. “The kitchen was totally useless because the trailer had a three-compartment sink with a drainboard, it had a water tank, it had it’s own deep fryer and grill.”
King said that meant when it was time to clean the trailer, there was no need to go back to the restaurant.
“The rent on that place was $1,000 a month,” he said. “That’s expensive just to maintain a kitchen that you don’t use.”
So, King shut the operation down. But he wasn’t ready to give up.
When he finished converting the into a the Mac-Attack Wagon, King knew what would come next. He would have to operate with a restaurant or commissary. But he doesn’t plan to do that.
Instead, he’s fighting to change state law.
“My opinion is that we shouldn’t have to do this,” he said. “We have everything we need on the truck already.”
Greg McNeely, an environmental health specialist with the Rowan County Health Department, said although he hasn’t worked with King specifically, he’s seen others stunted by the law that requires a commissary.
“That’s a big hurdle for a lot of people,” he said. “If you own a restaurant and I come to you and say, ‘Can I use your restaurant as a commissary,’ and you’ve never met me before you may be a little hesitant to just hand me the key.
“Basically a restaurant would have to give you 24-hour access to their facility whether they are there or not.”
But McNeely said a commissary is needed to ensure food safety and sanitation.
King argues that his food truck should be able to act as it’s own commissary because it already has a two-compartment stainless steel sink for cleaning, a hot water heater, refrigeration for perishable foods and plenty of extra storage.
And he says the law is in place to protect restaurants from competition.
“But I’m not competing against the brick and mortar restaurants,” he said. “If you have a taste for Christo’s or Ryan’s, you are still going to go there.
“But if you have a taste for our chicken, you can only buy it on this truck.”
King also said the current law caters to upper and middle class residents and doesn’t take into account the cost of setting up a commissary.
“We’re not a mainline church with all of the rich folk in it that can go and say, ‘Well, let’s outfit our kitchen fully and get these trucks on the road,’ ” he said. “It’s not right that just because we don’t have as much money as everyone else, we don’t have the right to create a job.”
King said he’s spends about three days a week making calls to legislatures in Raleigh trying to get the law changed.
“I’ve heard they are actually changing the rules for food trucks and making them more stringent,” he said. “There’s a committee working to change the rules, but no one with a mobile food unit is on it and that’s not right.”
But King isn’t giving up.
“This issue is not going away,” he said. “I’m not going away because I have to find a way to help the poor. As a preacher, I’m commissioned to help the poor.”
King said he got the idea to start the food trucks after doing missionary work in Alabama for about two years.
He said the preacher there had gone out and created jobs and provided them with food and shelter.
“That covers everything,” King said.
King said if he can get his truck running full time, he can make a difference.
“If we can create the jobs then we can affect their environment,” he said. “Because without that job you can’t teach people responsibility.”
Essentially, King said, the food trucks would serve as a ministry to “save lives.”
“If I can pull a crack addict out of the streets, that’s a life I save,” he said. “But I can’t do it by putting them on welfare and sending them down to the soup kitchen.
“The only thing you are doing is putting a bandaid on the problem.”
King said in order to save a person you have to work with them one-on-one to get their “mind right.”
“I’m after souls,” he said. “I’m not after feeding somebody just because they’re hungry, I’m not after putting some one in a house just because they don’t have a place to stay, I’m after getting them off welfare because that affects your mindset.”
If King can successfully get the laws changed, he’s hoping to grow his operation.
“I hope I can get through this red tape to eventually have about 10 or 12 trucks,” he said.
Contact reporter Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.
Facebook: Sarah.SalisburyPost