Orlando's Food Truck Scene Revs Up

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Click the image above to see a video of the first truck bazaar.

To anyone who hasn’t been following it or who hasn’t experienced it first hand, it’s difficult to explain the food truck fad. I have to admit I didn’t quite get it at first, and there are still aspects about it that I find puzzling. But it’s hard to ignore the near maniacal obsession with which some people seek and follow these eateries on wheels. Take, for example, TheDailyCity.com Orlando Food Truck Bazaar that was held at the end of March in the parking lot of a church south of downtown Orlando. Billed as the first food truck round-up for the area, the event’s Facebook page had almost 500 people indicate they would attend. But nearly 2500 people showed up, inundating the nine food trucks that had registered to participate and standing in line for up to an hour to purchase food from a window in the side of each vehicle.

The food truck trend is not brand spanking new, not even to Orlando. But in larger metro areas such as Los Angeles and New York, food trucks are a passion. That’s partly due the way the food trucks operate in those other communities. On the west coast, for instance, the trucks are peripatetic, moving around the city, stopping for short pauses to sell their wares, then moving along to the next stop. As long as they limit the time they’re stopped they can avoid having to obtain a permit for one location. These trucks owe their popularity and their success in no small part to Twitter. The truck owners found that if they tweeted where they would be and when, hungry hordes would follow them around town in a sort of culinary car chase.

But the fascination is also due to a new focus in the quality of food that is served from food trucks today. These are no longer just the wagons -- the unfortunately dubbed roach coaches of yore -- that show up outside construction areas and office buildings to feed the workers with prepackaged sandwiches and stale donuts. And they go well beyond the hot dog carts that have dotted city street corners for decades. Now you’re just as likely to find a food truck specializing in ethnic foods, from Spanish pinchos to Salvadoran pupusas to Korean barbecue. And you’ll find from some of the trucks the sort of haute cuisine you’d expect in a full-service restaurant, such as foie gras or short ribs or pork belly.

Tony Adams’ Big Wheel Mobile Food Truck serves the kinds of dishes that one would expect to find on the menu of a fine restaurant. So why not open a fine restaurant? “It’s a matter of economics,” says Adams. He estimates that to get his truck rolling cost 10 percent of what it would have taken to open a brick and mortar restaurant. And he insists that a food truck is a restaurant, “it’s just on wheels,” he says. The food trucks must adhere to the same inspections and sanitation regulations. And Adams says his truck is licensed with city, county and state under the same division that a regular restaurant would be.

Some of his equipment is the same, too. His truck, a GMC Grumman, is outfitted with a six-burner propane gas commercial grade stove, two under-stove ovens, an 18-by-18 grill and a deep-fryer. There is a standard “restaurant issue” tall refrigerator and another “low boy” refrigerator. When parked, the truck is powered by a generator. Adams says his favorite piece of equipment is the iPad with software that allows him to accept credit cards from customers. (Most trucks are a cash-only operation.)
Unlike the dine-and-dash trucks in other cities, Orlando area food trucks have established locations, although you’ll find some trucks that change postions from lunch to dinner. They generally make arrangements with gas station or building owners to set up each day in a corner of the parking lot. Korean BBQ Taco Box operates at a Citgo gas station -- next door to a McDonald’s -- at the corner of Primrose Drive and Colonial Drive in Orlando everyday at lunch time. Then, in the evening, the truck heads to the suburbs, to Oviedo and a Shell gas station at Alafaya Trail and McCulloch Road, to catch people as they head home.

Besides the wheels and the ability to move around, the food trucks are distinguished from conventional restaurants by their economy of scale. There is a limit to the space on board, and therefore fewer staff members. Even regular restaurants can have small kitchens, but food trucks are especially compact and require a certain choreography among the people aboard. And with a smaller staff and limited space, fewer customers can be served.

Or at least served quickly, as Adams and his fellow truckers discovered at the bazaar, the first of its kind for the area. “That was three hours of pure insanity,” says Adams.

The turnout prompted organizer Mark Baratelli to start organizing the next bazaar. The next TheDailyCity.com Olando Food Truck Bazaar will be Sunday, May 1, 2011, at Fashion Square Mall in the parking lot near Dillard's at 7 p.m. It may have taken a while for Orlando to catch up to the food truck craze, but it’s definitely in high gear now.


Some trucks and their locations:

Big Wheel: Corner of Orange Avenue and Washington Street downtown Orlando.

The Crooked Spoon: 1601 E. Colonial Drive, Orlando.

Red Eye Bbq: Dr. Phillips Farmers Market, Saturdays

Pinones en Orlando: Curry Ford Road and Conway Road, Orlando.

El Nuevo Tun Tun: 6200 E. Colonial Drive, Orlando

Kuko Christian Food Truck: 7958 E. Colonial Drive, Orlando

The Pelao: 815 S. Semoran Blvd., Orlando

For other trucks and locations, check out thedailycity.com and eatlocalorlando.com, which both keep close tabs on new trucks and their whereabouts.

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