Has the food truck trend run out of gas?
Once a novelty, food trucks are now commonplace in Central Florida. In 2011, when they first started coming to the area, they were showcased at events and rallies where they were the very focus of the gatherings.
Now you'll find food trucks on street corners and in parking lots, and often one or two will be parked outside of popular bars, bigger versions of latter day hot dog stands. That comparison may have something to do with the waning of their popularity, but we'll come back to that.
There are still food truck events, but there are signs that they're becoming less popular. In fact, the original food truck event, a monthly gathering at Fashion Square Mall, has been cancelled for December.
If there is one person responsible for the start of the food truck popularity in Orlando -- and there is -- it's Mark Baratelli of The Daily City, sponsor of several Food Truck Bazaars throughout the area.
Baratelli put together the very first gathering in Orlando, in March of 2011, in the parking lot of a church south of downtown. As I wrote in an article at the time, the event was hugely popular, with attendance beyond anything that was expected. Five hundred people indicated on the event's Facebook page that they were interested in attending, 2,500 showed up.
The nine trucks there that night all had long lines of people who waited over an hour -- without complaints -- and most of the vendors ran out of food early. (Click video above for a look at that first rally.)
Baratelli dove right in to scheduling the gatherings, the Bazaars, more regularly. The first to be held at Fashion Square Mall was on May 1, 2011. By the following April, Baratelli estimated that approximately 60 food trucks were working regularly in the area. In 2014, a national publication declared that Orlando had more food trucks per capita than any other city in the country, including Los Angeles, where the food truck craze began.
And so it continued. Others were influenced by the success of Baratelli’s Food Truck Bazaars to organize their own rallies. And frustrated restaurateurs saw a food truck operation as a viable alternative to a brick-and-mortar restaurant.
That was the key to the initial food truck allure. The best of the food trucks offered restaurant quality food without the trappings of a full dinner out. It wasn’t unusual for trucks to offer such things as crispy pork belly or pan-seared foie gras.
Some still do, but according to Viveca Abverstedt, owner of SwedeDish Food Truck, too many of the newer trucks aren’t in it for the same reasons as the early adopters.
“Unfortunately, I’ve seen so many that don’t use good quality ingredients,” said Abverstedt. “They’re just serving — sorry to say — just crappy food.” She said that when she started, seven years ago, the food truck scene was exciting and new, something out of the ordinary. Now, she said, she sees trucks serving chicken nuggets, “Like you can get at McDonald’s.”
So, glorified and bigger versions of hot dog carts.
Also, she said, there was an over saturation of truck owners as well as events and promoters. Rallies that once limited participation to 10 trucks started to have 15 or 20, she said.
Abverstedt said she stays successful because of her loyal following. And, she only participates in events that are still well-run and more exclusive in the trucks they feature.
Ironically, at the beginning of the food truck fad, it took some time to get people to think beyond the “roach coach” mentality of food vendors that served mediocre food. Food trucks didn’t serve pre-made, pre-wrapped sandwiches. Or chicken nuggets.
So has it gone full circle? Are the majority of food trucks now just cutting the same corners as the job-site coffee wagons?
Can the food truck culture be saved?