Thursday, June 20, 2024

Farm-to-curb food truck focuses on sustainable eats, ‘no labels’

Em and Kim Ecker will open their food truck No Labels on Nov. 8, 5:30 p.m., at Gio Fund, an events center in Leland that also acts as a nonprofit to raise funds for no-kill animal welfare organizations. (Courtesy photo)

SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — “She’s the face, I’m the taste,” Em Ecker said via phone Tuesday.

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The chef of the newly launched No Labels food truck was speaking about her wife, Kim — a health coach, who will work front of the house as part of their new venture. No Labels food truck opens to the public Wednesday. 

Em will oversee the kitchen, with menu items focused on healthy and seasonal food, frequently changing according to local availability. 

“Farm-to-curb, if you will,” she described.  

The Eckers will open Nov. 8, 5:30 p.m., at Gio Fund, an events center in Leland that also acts as a nonprofit to raise funds for no-kill animal welfare organizations. No Labels works out of Gio Fund’s commissary kitchen — required of food truck operations — and the Eckers are going through the permitting process to do caterings at the event center as well. 

“Eventually, we want to donate partial proceeds from No Labels to the nonprofit,” Kim said.

The food truck has been their passion for the last year or so. 

The two met while working together in the Maryland restaurant Rocksalt Grille but moved to Wilmington, a place special to Kim. She graduated from UNCW a decade ago before moving on to study yoga and attending the Institute for Integrative Nutrition to become a health coach, at one point serving more than 500 clients. 

Kim was a server when she met Em, who was nominated in 2019 as best new chef by the Maryland Restaurant Association. Em had fallen in love with the restaurant industry at age 8. She worked in kitchens with her aunt and uncle, who operated Foxbriar in Silver Run, Maryland. 

“He was a Greek chef,” she said of her uncle, “and if you know anything about the Greek chefs, they are very, very loud and passionate about everything they do. He had high standards.”

Though she didn’t attend culinary school, wearing various toques in the kitchen provided real-life skills. When Em moved to Wilmington she was working as a sous chef at Bluewater before taking a sabbatical for the last year. Instead, she went back to the land — working at Shelton Herb Farms, where herbs and microgreens are grown and used frequently in the local restaurant community.

“I wanted to get back to the roots of cooking,” Em said. “I felt very disconnected from food for a little while within the food industry, so I really wanted to get back to learning more and growing my own food.”

A future goal is to serve their own harvested food on No Labels, but right now the two entrepreneurs work with roughly a dozen or more farmers, including Changing Ways, Red Beard, Wholesome Greens, and Farmage. Their food inspired multiple menu items, such as the Farmers Market Bowl, as an homage to Red Beard. 

“I truly believe that a lot of things they do there are just so wonderful and beneficial to our land and our eating habits,” Em said.

The bowl has a sweet potato mash base and is topped with fresh kale, which will switch to collards, now in season, in the next couple of weeks. It will be topped with mushrooms, pickled onions, pepita, and microgreens. Chicken from Changing Ways can be added and the bowl is topped with a local apple cider drizzle or a hot honey.

The chicken salad bowl will consist of mixed greens — “being harvested right now,” Em said — served with pepita, apple slices, microgreens, goat cheese, radishes and chicken, topped with honey-ginger dressing. 

A seasonal soup with a homemade biscuit is on the menu, as well as paninis, including chicken or mushroom versions. The chicken one is topped with sweet potato mash, arugula, honey mustard, and pickled onions; the mushroom consists of five different varieties, including blue and yellow oysters, black pearl and shitake. It’s served with goat cheese and arugula on Wilmington Bread Company’s ciabatta.

Roughly five or six menu items exist for lunch, averaging $15, while the two expect to also operate for breakfast in December; the average menu price will be a few dollars less during morning hours. Included will be a grit bowl with poached eggs and vegetables, as well as a French toast sandwich or a locally made croissant topped with bacon, egg and cheese and a homemade jam. 

While the norm may consider such an item less than “healthy,” Kim is challenging the notion.

“It’s my whole purpose to shift people’s perspective about what healthy means,” she said. “Because all of the ingredients that we’re getting come from a local farm, it’s the freshest it can possibly be. To me, this is what healthy food is — food grown and harvested near you and in the season, the way it was supposed to be. So the foods we’re serving don’t have added preservative chemicals or inorganic ingredients that just weren’t meant to go in our bodies.” 

The bacon will be locally procured by a Wagyu farmer, Wilders, with goat cheese from Goat Lady Dairy out of Climax, North Carolina, or Ashe County cheese. The croissant is baked daily by Wilmington Bread Company and has a limited shelf-life, so it will be served within hours of its preparation. Kim said healthy food doesn’t have to just be low-calorie or low-fat, vegan or vegetarian to be considered wholesome. 

In the last year while preparing to launch No Labels, Kim has waited tables at King Neptune in Wrightsville Beach. It’s where her comfort derives from being public-facing. With No Labels, she wants to educate diners on choosing better quality ingredients and be able to talk with people about their dietary needs and accommodations.

“We’ll always have options available for all preferences, like vegan or gluten-free and allergies,” Kim said. “We feel like that’s a specialty of ours, really.”

The menu lists each ingredient in the dish for the dining public to inquire about. 

The name No Labels also allows Em’s creativity to expand. The couple said as the menu and its specials evolve, various global flavors will rotate.

It’s the first small step toward making a difference in the healthy dining fold. The two said finding a healthy lunch is one complaint they often heard from diners while researching what kind of truck to start. 

“That was the consensus from many in the corporate world,” Kim said.

She spoke with people at car dealerships and larger businesses in town, where No Labels plans to park for breakfasts and lunches.

“It’s challenging to find healthy lunch in general, so it’s really my goal to get that market nailed down and serve them in a central location, accessible to the public as well,” Kim added.

No Labels’ grand opening will feature live music from The Ford Project from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. The food truck will be parked at Gio Fund every Thursday night, too, where shag-dancing classes are held at the event center. 

The truck also has been booked for events at Palate Bottle Shop on Nov. 17, Craft Outpost Market in the Cargo District on Dec. 3 and SUNdays Coffee Shop holiday market at Wrightsville Beach on Dec. 16.

As the food truck is just getting its wheels greased, the operators aren’t necessarily thinking about its growth into a brick-and-mortar — at least not yet. They like the versatility of the truck: the fact they can go anywhere, serve anyone whether for a private function or at a brewery, and change menus quickly to make items unique. 

“When we travel, we’re always going to the smallest little one-off restaurant or coffee shop to taste the real, authentic flavors of that area,” Kim said. “And that seems to be in the smallest little joint in town. So to us, the food truck is just that.”

To find No Labels full schedule, follow it here.


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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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