James Turner had worked hard for 35 years in various restaurant kitchens and was over the moon when he bought his own food truck. But that feeling was not going to last long.
He purchased a 2002 Workhorse step van and had it customized with a stainless-steel kitchen and a large service window with a lighted canopy. It has a wraparound logo that read “Turner’s Beltway Bistro.”
“When I went to pick it up and saw it for the first time, I had to take a step back,” recalled Turner. “This was something I had been thinking about for months, and it just hit me — this is my kitchen. To have something of my own, something that I had helped design, it felt good.”
The Burtonsville, Md. native bought the truck in April, and over Memorial Day weekend he parked it in Silver Spring near a commercial kitchen where his food was stored and prepared. But when he returned Monday morning, it was gone. The truck was found two days later stripped and vandalized by police in Charles County around 40 miles.
“It was like a gut punch,” Turner said. During this challenge, he was missing his mother, Ella Johns. She was the driving force behind his pursuit of the culinary arts. She’d taught him to cook when he was a boy growing up on the Eastern Shore. He would often turn to her for advice in the past whenever he faced any problems in life.
But now she was showing early signs of Alzheimer’s and was moved into an assisted-living facility. He didn’t wish to bring his problems to her now, but with the media calling him for interviews and his wife starting a GoFundMe account, he wanted to tell her before she found out.
His $52,000 food truck had been stolen, and his dreams were being threatened. “And she said just as sweet as can be, ‘That’s okay, just get the money out of my account and buy another truck,’ ” Turner recalled. “I said, ‘Mom, you don’t have that kind of money in your account.’ She said, ‘Okay, then do this for me: Pray.’ ”
His mother had lived a tough life, cleaning houses for a living, working hard, and praying that her family would have enough money to make it. When Turner was 5, he remembers standing on a chair next to his mother and watching her make biscuits from scratch. There would be prayer at the dinner table before he could eat one.
When he was 15, he landed his first job as a short-order cook. She prayed that he would stick with it. Later he was the only boy enrolled in cooking classes at school, but always had his mother’s prayers and encouragement. “I don’t like to brag, but I knew I was the best student because I’d had the best teacher — my mom,” he said.
The 21-foot Workhorse was the answer to all his and his mom’s prayers. It had been retired from the U.S. Postal Service after 126,000 miles of bulk mail deliveries and then retrofitted at a custom shop.
The truck would deliver the best of his cuisine experiences: short-order cook, tutelage under French chefs at a Ritz-Carlton in Boston, executive chef at Blue 44 Restaurant & Bar in D.C., and even the young boy watching Ella Johns cook. He thought that once they would taste his food, they would want more, book him to cater special events, or even hire him as a private chef for dinner parties.
“I had turned 50 in February and wasn’t getting any younger,” Turner said. “I was thinking, ‘Now is my time.’ ” He remembered asking an employee at the custom shop if his food truck needed a security alarm but was told that no truck was ever stolen. “He told me, ‘It’s a work vehicle, not a luxury car.’ ”
The valves inside the truck were turned off and the doors were locked. He wanted his mother to see the personalized license plate frame that read “In Memory of Pop Turner,” his grandfather who’d been a seaman in the Navy and a mate on a party fishing boat off Kent Island. The license plates were also removed from the truck. “I’m saying, ‘Come on, guys, did you really have to steal that, too?’ ”
Turner figured that it was better to take his mom’s advice to pray than keep boiling with anger. By Saturday, the GoFundMe account had raised $13,000. Turner used a part of it and the rest of his savings for a down payment on another food truck. He was awestruck by those who were helping him try to get another truck.
He says, “People are sending money who don’t even know me,” and adds, “I don’t know why they are doing it, but I am grateful.” He still can’t get over the fact, “What makes somebody think they have the right to steal somebody else’s food truck?” And is still following his mother’s advice to pray.