Taste of Louisiana food truck brings Southern cooking to Utah

Story by STEPHANIE ROSILES

“We’ve been all around the world. Utah was our last rodeo,” Helena Carter said. 

She met her future husband, Jerrell, in Germany during their service in the U.S. Army. Jerrell served 22 years and Helena served 17. In 2007, their military service led them to Hill Air Force Base in Clearfield, Utah. There, they retired from the military and set their sight on something else: giving Utahns a Taste of Louisiana. “Louisiana’s food is iconic. Utah isn’t as versed in the culture aspect as other parts in the country. We thought they needed to have a taste of Louisiana,” Carter said in a phone interview. Jerrell is from Louisiana. Helena’s grandparents and great grandparents are all from Louisiana as well. 

“While we thought it would be a good idea, there was also something about bringing this food to an underserved market. They don’t have this kind of food in those places,” Carter said in a phone interview. “The introductory period would be more painful if this was somewhere that people were more familiar with the food. There’s cultural gaps. This is a good opportunity to bridge some cultural gaps.” 

She added, “Taking into consideration that Utahns don’t like spicy food, what we’ve done is season our food well, full of flavor. But not the hot flavors. Even though Louisiana food is typically spicy, we kind of made it less spicy with Utah in mind. The only challenges are that people are sometimes intimidated because of that and won’t come and try it.” 

Jerrell and Helena decided on a food truck instead of a brick-and-mortar restaurant due to expenses. “When you start, it’s like what are the chances that you’re going to be successful? There’s a lot of start-up costs. With a food truck, if you do it right, there’s not as much as far as start-up costs. It’s an easier way to build our brand and test the waters,” Carter said.

The Taste of Louisiana truck. Photos attributed to Helena Carter from the Taste of Louisiana website.

With a bachelor’s degree in business administration and a master’s degree in human relations, Helena was skeptical of the idea. However, she gave in and the couple began working on the project in 2016. The truck would officially hit the streets in November 2017. 

Taste of Louisiana officially began as a tent pop-up at events. The couple would bring a canopy tent to different places and serve food at events and festivals. Carter said they organically transitioned from the tent to the food truck. She said the next move would be a walk-up type of drive-through. “Everything has been methodical as far as financing. We didn’t want to just come out and spend a whole bunch of money and do too much too soon,” she said. “We wanted to let things organically evolve. We wanted to build the brand so we’d have people that are following and continue to come.” 

Carter said they’re in the process of trying to see when and where they could do a brick-and-mortar establishment. “Even that, we don’t want it to be too big. We’ve grown accustomed to doing what we do in small spaces. It makes sense, even if we do a brick-and-mortar, to have it be small. We’d do a walk up type drive-through. No dine in. It takes a lot of manpower to manage a restaurant as far as the labor: cleaning, shutting down at night. It’s too big.” 

Taste of Louisiana has been incredibly successful, popping up anywhere from festivals to the University of Utah’s food truck days on campus. Over the last year, however, things changed for the Carters. “A lot of our annual events got cancelled,” Carter said. “Things that we do every year got cancelled — festivals, heritage days, various cities. We have a contract on base (Hill Air Force Base) and we started there in our tent. They’ve been instrumental in our presence.” 

Taste of Lousiana’s seafood gumbo being served in a tent. Photo attributed to Helena Carter from the Taste of Louisiana website.

Some Cajun menu items include shrimp po’ boy sandwiches, fried chicken and fish baskets, seafood gumbo, and shrimp and grits. Carter emphasized that the favorite menu items vary from person to person, saying, “It depends on who you ask. If you ask the food, the food will say ‘Hey, I’m the star of the show!’”

Carter explained the difficulties of moving away from the University of Utah’s campus, where she and her husband parked the truck any day depending on their own schedule. “We suspended service at the U because we weren’t making any money after they moved to virtual learning,” Carter said. “We shifted and now department heads are contacting us and asking if we can bring the food truck or individual plates to a luncheon. It’s ‘Our department is having a meeting at Murray Park. We want you to bring the truck there.’ People are finding different ways to serve their department. We had to switch up the way we do business.” 

Students at the University of Utah greatly enjoyed the food trucks on campus, as it was an alternative to the restaurants in the Union. Mary Cologna, a business student, said in a phone interview, “I loved the food trucks. I felt like I didn’t have to go eat inside and listen to all of the conversations. It was convenient to grab something quick before class or there were also days where I could sit outside on the grass with my friends in warmer weather.” 

Carter also talked about the blessing Taste of Louisiana has had in having the ability to keep their doors open, saying, “A lot of food trucks work seasonally. We have a presence all year round and it’s been a part of our business model from day one. What are people going to be eating? Why not eat Taste of Louisiana because it is available?” 

Lisbeth Patino, a nursing student, said of Taste of Louisiana, “I like that it’s accessible all year. Especially in the winter, if I’m in a rush, it’s convenient to grab something quick and go. It’s great service!”

Daily location information for Taste of Louisiana can be found on its Facebook and Instagram pages, @tasteoflouisiana. 

Carter said, “What we do is on a restaurant scale. The complexity of our menu is restaurant quality. People say, ‘I can’t believe you guys are doing that on the truck!’ This is what makes our operation unique. When it’s flowing, it’s a beautiful day.”