Kimberly Platt stands outside of her business, Charlie Tulum’s Taco Shack, located on the southwest corner of Ridge Road and First Avenue Southwest, a block away from West Bay Drive and Clearwater-Largo Road.
LARGO – Once you’ve cooked Thanksgiving dinner for 20 people on a two-burner stove and a toaster oven, roasting the turkey one piece at a time, serving tacos out of a truck doesn’t seem so crazy.
Kimberly Platt has always loved to cook and entertain, but in hindsight, that dinner 10 years ago foreshadowed her recent change in careers.
“I should have known then,” she said. “I’m creative with my space and with what equipment I have available to me.”
Platt, 42, is the owner of Charlie Tulum’s Taco Shack and the accompanying Dos Tacos Food Truck. How she came to run a taco and catering business is a serendipitous tale, perhaps only less murky than how a turtle named Charlie made it from Tulum, Mexico, to a home in Indian Rocks Beach. Platt described his journey as “smuggled” and is careful to avoid the names of his current caretakers.
The business named after the Mexican turtle started as a walk-up taco window on Indian Rocks Beach. Platt came on as a business partner to help launch the taco truck.
“We updated the logo, did a lot of changes,” she said. “He was supposed to do all the food, and I was doing everything else.”
The food truck officially began operating Oct. 1. Eleven days later, Platt’s partner left abruptly during lunch service, mere days before the Dos Tacos Food Truck was scheduled to serve at the Clearwater Jazz Holiday Oct. 16.
“I had never driven the truck. I had never cooked for that many people,” Platt said. “So for three days, I didn’t even sleep.”
The trial by fire was managed with the help of some great friends and family, Platt said. She doesn’t know how many tacos she served during the event, but it was great advertising for the new business.
“Everybody that came and ate came back that day and ate again,” she said. “I have no idea how I did it.”
Platt leases the building at 707 1/2 First Ave. SW. in Largo. The restriction that she could only be open for lunch at the location was perfect for a food truck business that primarily stayed busy during the evenings.
Platt painted the tiny building bright green, trimmed in orange and blue. She decorated the taco shack’s yard with colorful patio furniture and planted a garden where she grows fresh basil and parsley that she uses in her tacos.
“A lot of time and money has been spent here to make this me,” she said, sitting with coffee under a green umbrella in the patio area of the taco shack. “I’ve always had bright, colorful things. It makes you happy – you’re sitting in happiness.”
The serene lot – a block away from the intersection of West Bay Drive and Clearwater-Largo Road and near O’Shy’s Irish Tap House – is a bit hard to find, she admitted.
“But it’s also a great location, because if people want to leave their office and come and hide, they can do that,” she said.
The taco shack, which offers free Wifi, is open Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Charlie Tulum’s niche is fresh, more organic tacos. Platt, who lives in Dunedin, said she usually stops at Jam’s Farm Fresh Produce in Largo for ingredients on her way to the taco shack.
“I shop every morning. I shop as local as I can,” Platt said.
The taco shack is closed on Mondays because Platt attends classes at the Art Institute of Tampa that day. She’s just two classes away from an associates degree in culinary arts. Restaurant management is a new career field for Platt, but she’s always been in the food business and industry in some way, sometimes without even knowing it, she said. Aside from working in restaurants on the beach, she ran a division of her parents’ food recall and retrieval business, overseeing the representatives that pull products off the shelves. When her parents sold that division, Platt had a rare opportunity to make a “scary and crazy” change in her life.
“I had the ability to do anything I wanted to do,” she said. “At 40 years old when you decide to go back to school, it’s a whole other ball park.”
Platt traveled a lot for her previous job – one year sleeping in her own bed only 26 nights total. The new lifestyle was supposed to allow her more time at home, around the time that Platt began dating longtime friend and now fiance, Lisa Deliello.
“My goal is to be home and with her – and we have a little puppy – as much as possible, because I did travel for so long, so hard,” she explained.
Nonetheless, Platt has been busy. She probably should have finished school before launching a business, she admitted. But Platt is one who always does “everything at once,” she said.
She’s not sure when she’ll finish school. She’s taking a semester break to concentrate on Charlie Tulum’s and plan her beach wedding in March. She and Deliello were the 49th couple to be registered as domestic partners when Pinellas County opened the registry in April.
Deliello, who’s also finishing up a degree, often helps Platt on the truck. Catering and the taco truck have been most successful part of the business. When she’s not serving from the truck, Platt has a much broader culinary range, specializing in varied selection of bite-size party appetizers she calls “smalls.”
The taco shack also sells more than tacos, offering salads, soups, hot-pressed sandwiches and burritos on its menu as well as changing daily specials. Platt is open to critiques and suggestions, often telling customers, “If you like us, tell us on Facebook. If you don’t like us, tell us on Facebook.”
“I take any criticism or praise,” she said. “I haven’t had too many negative comments.”
Growth has been steady. Platt began delivering within a two-mile radius of the taco shack about a month ago. She only recently began actively advertising her business.
“I can feel the business changing. I can feel Largo changing since I’ve been here in October,” she said.
The city officials and leaders have been supportive and welcoming, she said. She recently joined the Central Pinellas Chamber of Commerce and found its members very loyal to one another. Through the chamber, she partnered with Jay Dingman of Barley Mow to bring the truck out for a monthly event on second Thursdays, 6 to 9 p.m. A beer cheese soup she made with Barley Mow beer has already been a sold-out hit.
Platt said she hopes to continually expand her customer base at the taco shack.
“I’m hoping that I can propel the business into something that someday will be bigger than the taco shack,” she said. “I’d like to stay here in Largo, build a business here. I’m always keeping my eyes open for what’s new and what’s next and what’s going to happen in the future.”
And, as soon as the Charlie Tulum brand becomes entirely hers, Platt plans on updating the logo.
“Charlie’s great; he’s awesome. But he is a male and I am female, so I need something that represents me a little more,” she said, explaining that the new logo will feature a “girl turtle.”
Though she didn’t come up with the mascot of her company, Charlie Tulum has been an appropriate icon to represent Platt. She’s been obsessed with turtles since she started visiting Hawaii once a year for a month at a time and fell in love with swimming alongside them. Locally, she’s found herself drawn to the turtles at McGough Nature Center in Largo. Charlie Tulum will be a sponsor and food vendor at the Turtle Trot 5K on April 26, benefiting the center.
And there was one more reason Platt was drawn to Charlie Tulum. A couple of years ago, she reconnected with the son whom she bore and gave up for adoption when she was 15. His name is Charlie, and he works as a chef back in Chicago.
“That’s why it’s so cosmic, this all coming together in the time frame that it did,” Platt said.
The road has been long and difficult, but Platt is happy with the life she’s built, she said. Creating and serving food has become her passion.
“I love what I’m doing,” she said. “I love feeding people. I love making people happy.”
The taco shack will be closed Thursday and Friday, Feb. 27-28, as the taco truck heads out of town, but open again Tuesday, March 4.