Tree House Truck, Melissa's Chicken & Waffles, and the State of the Food Truck Scene

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Tree House TruckIt took me a year, but I finally caught up with a couple of elusive food trucks.

And what a year it’s been for the food truck business in Central Florida. It was the end of March last year that Mark Baratelli of TheDailyCity.com organized the first Food Truck Bazaar. I went along for the ride that night. There were nine food trucks scattered around the parking lot of a church south of downtown. And they were mobbed by thousands of hungry diners who stood in line for up to an hour and a half. That was one clue that this trend was about to go into overdrive. The other clue was the number of people who came up to me that night and said they wanted to own a food truck.

A lot of them followed through. Speed ahead to today. From that night a year ago with nine food trucks, Baratelli estimates there are now 60 regularly working the streets. (Urbanspoon lists 121, but they include everything on wheels, including hot dog carts.)

After the event last year, Baratelli didn’t have a solid plan for a follow-up Bazaar. But he quickly got into gear (I promise the automotive allusions will end soon) and started having them monthly. Then weekly. Now he sponsors several each week.

And other promoters have hopped on the bandwagon. I doubt that scarcely a day goes by without some gathering of food trucks. 

And of course, the individual trucks are out on their own, too. And they’ve gotten better at that over the last several months, as well.

I expressed dismay when on several occasions I set out to sample a food truck only to find it was not in the space it had indicated it would be in, or that it had run out of food, well before the end of its designated time.

That didn’t seem to be any way to run a business.

Specifically, two trucks that eluded me long ago were Tree House Truck and Melissa’s Chicken & Waffles. I’d given up on them, but I happened upon both recently.

I found Tree House Truck set up along Robinson Street in the Milk District, part of a regular Tasty Tuesday event that features five to seven trucks. (More on this gathering in a moment.) 

Tree House is known for its burgers, so that’s what I ordered. I really wanted the one that was served with a fried egg on top, but I worried about ending up with egg on my face, and my shirt, and my pants, so I ordered the one with fried onion rings instead. It was a really thick burger, juicy and with a good char on the outside. The bun was toasted, too, which I thought was a nice touch. I didn’t really need the fried onion rings, especially with my side order of fries, which had a crispy coating and were doused in a yellow substance that movie theaters like to refer to as cheese. I’m not complaining -- they were delicious.

Let me tell you about something else that has changed from last year, at least with the Tasty Tuesday food truck gathering in the Milk District. As the food trucks started to move into certain neighborhoods, established restaurant owners felt threatened. Some were openly hostile to food truck owners. When Baratelli scheduled his second Food Truck Bazaar, in a far corner of the parking lot of a shopping mall, he was restricted to holding the gathering on a Sunday night, after the mall’s food court had closed.

Contrast that now with the Milk District’s Tasty Tuesday. There are, along that stretch of Robinson Street east of Bumby Avenue, several eating and drinking establishments. The trucks park directly in front of several of the businesses. But instead of getting all huffy about it, the business owners embrace it. In fact, many allow people who have bought food at the trucks to come inside to eat.

That’s very smart. Why? Because the people go inside and buy a beer or a glass of wine (which are not offered at the trucks) to enjoy with their food. I’m guessing these businesses do better on Tasty Tuesdays than on regular, um, Tasteless (?) Tuesdays.

MelissasI caught up with Melissa’s Chicken & Waffles at a rather odd gathering of trucks on Forsyth Road between Colonial Drive and University Boulevard. There were only three trucks, including two that have been around since the early days, Yum Yum Cupcake Truck and the Korean BBQ Taco Box. (Directions for the mid-week gathering said they’d be in the parking lot of a church. I could only picture row after row of warehouse like structures along that road. Turns out the church is in one of those warehouses.)

As the name says, Melissa’s specialty is chicken and waffles. This consists of some chunks of breaded and fried chicken served atop a thick waffle, with or without chicken gravy and syrup. The chicken I sampled was overly spiced, with salt the predominant flavor. The waffle was quite large and thick, and a bit too doughy.

I was glad to have finally tried it, but I’ll just drive on by next time.

If you’ve still not sampled the area’s food trucks, here are some tips. Start with the listings on TheDailyCity.com. Baratelli lists his Food Truck Bazaars there, but you can get info on others by clicking on the links to the Twitter, Facebook or websites of the trucks that sound good to you. They should have information at those links as to where you can find them.

You won’t always find a comfortable place to eat your food, as I did inside one of the bar in the Milk District. At the other food truck gathering, I ate off the hood of my car. You can also sit on a curb or take your food home to enjoy.

Many trucks accept credit cards using the Square device on an iPad, but there are still lots of trucks that are cash only. If you attend an official truck gathering, you should be aware that lines can be long.

Food trucks have to adhere to food safety and sanitation rules just like brick and mortar restaurants. And, just as with brick and mortar restaurants, you’ll find some that are better at it than others. Use your common sense. If you walk up to a truck (or if you walk into a restaurant) and it doesn’t seem safe and sanitary, don’t eat there.

A lot of people don’t understand the allure of food trucks, and they don’t understand that the food, in many cases, rises far above the “roach coach” culture of lunch wagons found at construction sites. Sometimes, the food rises about the quality of food you’d find in some so-called gourmet restaurants. You’ll know it when you see it. But if you have no desire to try it, that’s fine, too.

It’s pretty clear, however, that the truck trend is going strong. It’s stunning to see how much it’s changed in just the past year. I can’t wait to see where it is a year from now.

Click below to see a video of that first Food Truck Bazaar last year.

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