Food truck fever

Orlando's mobile food scene sheds its training wheels

Food truck fever
Photo by Jason Greene Orlando Food Truck Bazaar

March 29, 7 p.m.-10 p.m.
Discovery Church
4400 S. Orange Ave.
Cash only for food.
Admission is free
Bring your own chairs, tables

They're a godsend for late-night eaters and midday lunchers, and they're a novelty for gourmands who like to slum it once 
in a while.

Most everyone has stopped off at a food truck for a taco here or a pork sandwich there, but food trucks aren't just about simple, greasy food anymore. The food-truck scene is catering to more cultivated tastes, and Orlandoans are finding that they now have options - serious options - when it comes to grabbing food on the run.

Korean barbecue? There's a truck for that. Locally sourced menu items? We have that too. Cupcakes? Not quite yet, but there's a truck in the works that'll be making its debut in less than a week. Trucks around the city are now serving ceviche, Brazilian burgers, Dominican chimichurri burgers, Jamaican jerk, vegan hot dogs and the list goes on.

Truck food is getting more creative. Gourmet even. It's the next horizon for chefs who want to break out of the brick-and-mortar box, and it's a cheaper avenue to small business ownership that looks attractive in a slow economy.

Since the beginning of the year, at least four new trucks have hit the road, and within the next two weeks, two more will set sail. Twitter and Facebook, where many of the mobile-food vendors promote their businesses 
to their clientele, make it easy for fans to find their favorites and keep up with location 
and menu.

Orlando, which has long been home to taco trucks parked around town, already had an established food-truck culture. Mark Baratelli, event producer and owner of culture blog, was an early food-truck cheerleader, hosting intermittent Taco Truck Taste Tests beginning in 2009, in which he'd encourage his blog readers to patronize select local taco trucks at the 
same time.

"I got the feeling from talking to friends and other people that most people didn't even really know they [the taco trucks] were here in town," Baratelli says.

Now he's organizing the city's first Food Truck Bazaar, an event that will take place on March 29, gathering eight food trucks in one location in the city's SoDo neighborhood.

Food trucks are getting their due not just in Orlando but nationally as well. The Food Network has a show dedicated to them - The Great Food Truck Race - and big-time restaurateurs, such as Philadelphia's Stephen Starr, are throwing down for high-end food-vending mobiles. Miami holds regular food-truck events, like Street Food Fridays, where the city's trucks gather in one place in a bazaar-style setting - the concept is what gave Baratelli the idea to hold this event in Orlando.

"I saw food trucks for the first time in San Francisco and New York," Baratelli says. "I loved the idea that you could follow them on Twitter … and that the food could go to any neighborhood, so a small business owner could take their creativity from neighborhood to neighborhood."

The Crooked Spoon is one of the newer trucks to turn up in town. The gourmet burger truck/trailer can usually be found parked in the Chevron parking lot at the corner of East Colonial Drive and North Fern Creek Avenue on weekdays during lunchtime. The trailer looks new - its pristine exterior and shiny interior gleam with pride of ownership - though Steve Saelg, chef and owner, purchased it lightly used from a woman who was using it as a breakfast truck in a rural area. Food from the Crooked Spoon is made to order, and all the prep work happens in the trailer. On a sunny day at the beginning of March, Saelg leans over to talk to a customer through the small, screened order window. He's geared up for the lunch crowd. It's his third week working as a food truck chef.

A customer, who also happens to be Crooked Spoon sous chef Allie Henschel's fiance, orders from a menu that's anything but stereotypical truck food. There's the Crooked Spoon Burger with chipotle aioli, onion marmalade, swiss cheese, marinated tomato and lettuce; fish tacos with red cabbage and celery root slaw; gourmet mac 'n cheese; and a Mediterranean chicken wrap.

And then there's Saelg himself, who seems anything but the stereotypical food truck proprietor. He previously worked as a sous chef at Tavern on the Green in New York, and as a chef at Citrus Club and K Restaurant in Orlando. He's worked in restaurants for 10 years, but always wanted to own his own business. He chose to open Crooked Spoon because food trucks have lower overhead and startup costs than traditional restaurants, he says. Since the business is new, he hasn't got all the bookkeeping updated, but he figures he has broken even or turned a small profit during the truck's first three weeks.

"We had an extraordinary late-night last night," Saelg says. The truck had been parked outside Stogies cigar bar on Sand Lake road, and business was booming. "I was surprised, being that it was the day after St. Patty's day. I didn't think a lot of people we're going to be out."

Many proprietors open their trucks because they want to be their own bosses, but the trucks are also a good way to expand an existing business or start a new one for less money than it would cost to open a stationary restaurant. That's not to say that it's easy to just start up a food truck - the permitting process is, in fact, pretty extensive.

Food trucks in the City of Orlando must have a Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation mobile food dispensing vehicle license, a mobile peddler license from the city and a local business tax receipt from Orange County in order to do business. Trucks are not allowed to stay in one location for more than 48 hours, according to the city's Economic Development Permitting Services office, and they cannot park on any public streets, sidewalks, rights-of-way or in any public parks. The trucks also are subject to unannounced inspections each year by state sanitation and safety inspectors, just like stationary restaurants. In the case of trucks selling prepared baked goods, they are inspected by the Department of Agriculture.

Despite all the paperwork, Joey Conicella, owner and marketing director for the Yum Yum Cupcake Truck, which will debut at the Food Truck Bazaar, says he's been impressed with how helpful Orlando's permitting offices have been in getting his truck up and going. (In fact, no food truck owners interviewed for this story cited issues with the permitting process.)

Conicella found his truck, a 1973 aluminum-clad Chevy step van, for sale while driving around Colonialtown one day. It was a perfect match for Yum Yum Cupcake's kitschy, retro vibe. "It was almost like kismet," Conicella says of the moment he and his husband, baker Alex Marin, laid eyes on it. "The [food truck] culture is based on converting old Chevy step vans" that in a previous life were postal vehicles or Frito Lay trucks and the like, he says. "They're very cheap." Conicella and Marin paid $3,150 for theirs, but making it a mobile kitchen - with a baker's rack, three-compartment sink, handwashing sink, refrigerator, hot water, generator, air conditioner and other updates - cost another $18,000.

Yum Yum's truck is currently undergoing a paint job. Then it will be loaded up with cupcakes: chocolate on chocolate, vanilla with buttercream frosting, red velvet and other flavors requested by customers via Twitter or Facebook.

As of now, Yum Yum doesn't have a set location, and Conicella says Yum Yum plans to be a little more mobile than your average food truck. You may find it parked at meters in the Thornton Park, College Park and Lake Ivanhoe neighborhoods in the coming weeks.

Another new food truck on the scene bears a name familiar to most locavores and Orlando foodies: Big Wheel Provisions. Tony Adams, chef and co-owner of the Big Wheel food truck, says he and chef Tim Lovero started the truck as an expansion of Adams' business. Two years ago, Adams launched his catering and charcuterie company, Big Wheel Provisions, with the intention of promoting locally sourced food. "Our goal is to change the way Central Florida eats," he says. "And the way we want to do that is to highlight all of the awesome local people that are creating food. We want to get that food into the hands of the diners." He regularly sold out of his Monday-night prix fixe dinners at the Audubon Farmers Market, and his catering business was growing. The natural next step, Adams says, was the food truck. "It was a fraction of the cost of any other way of expansion," he says. "Tim came to me and said, 'Hey, I want to open a food truck.'" Adams didn't need much convincing.

People have been following Adams' progress with the truck on, where he asked for donations to get it up and running, and on Twitter and Facebook. Last week he kept followers posted as he struggled with a busted engine belt on the truck, letting people know when it would (and wouldn't) be able to be at its designated location. Promoting via Twitter and Facebook is apparently working well for Big Wheel: During the truck's inaugural launch and subsequent late-night hours last week, the order line was sometimes 10-deep.

Social media has fueled the food truck hype and is the way many truck proprietors, like Adams, are letting customers know of their whereabouts. Kogi BBQ in Los Angeles is credited as the truck that first used Twitter as a means of primary communication with customers in early 2009.

Adams towers over customers as he takes orders from the window of the Big Wheel step van. He swipes cards on his credit card reader-equipped iPad as Lovero mans the kitchen. Lovero's concentration is apparent as he cooks and swiftly assembles orders such as the cured, dry-aged charcuterie platter (with local pork lomo Spanish-style with pimenton, bresaola flanco, duck breast prosciutto, local mangalitsa lardo toast, mustard and bread). There's also a foie gras parfait on artisan toast, tempura-fried local spring onions with romesco, Dick's fried pickles with charmoula, among other savory items served in little black boxes. People gather around ironing boards, set up as impromptu high-tops, so they can set their food down and chat. In keeping with the Big Wheel philosophy, the menu changes according to the availability of local ingredients.

Maritza Flores, owner of Pupuseria Flores, a food truck near West Colonial Drive and Ninth Street in Winter Garden, serves only pupusas from the truck she launched with her husband, Jose, in May 2010. They realized that pupusas - a Salvadorean specialty in which corn-flour tortilla dough is stuffed with seasoned pork, refried beans and cheese, then cooked on a griddle and served with pickled cabbage and spicy tomato sauce - were tough to find in Orlando. Flores' mother had made pupusas for a dinner party one evening, and the guests loved them.

"Next thing you know my friend knows a guy who was selling his catering truck," Flores says. "One thing led to another and here we are a year later selling our stuffed tortillas out of our catering truck."

She's thrilled that others are joining the menagerie. "My husband is a real estate broker, I'm a realtor and we work together during the day doing real estate, and at nights and on the weekends we do this for fun," she says. "People love it. They love our food. It's a nice environment. It's fun."

The fun is not without its challenges. Finding a coveted parking spot in which to peddle your wares can be a chore, for instance. Saelg had a hard time securing his spot on the heavily traveled Colonialtown corridor because he says property managers think it's a liability to host a truck, despite the fact that he has all the required insurance policies and licenses. Perhaps they don't know that local food trucks, depending on the type of operation, are subject to inspections similar to a regular restaurant, with all the same requirements in regard to sanitary food preparation, handling and storage. "It's the same process as going through and getting a restaurant license," Adams says.

"A lot of these people are thinking that we're not regulated, but if anything we're probably more heavily regulated than some of these restaurants," says Rob Nelson of Red Eye BBQ, a truck and catering company owned by his family, which got its start as a barbecue team last August. Red Eye can be found at the Dr. Phillips Farmers Market on Saturdays and at local events - it was parked at Orlando Harley Davidson for bike week recently, and on St. Patrick's Day it could be found outside World of Beer in Dr. Phillips.

A glimpse inside the Red Eye truck shows that the proprietors tend to take their mobile foodcraft as seriously as any other restaurateur: Red Eye's kitchen may be the most well-endowed food-truck kitchen in Orlando. It has a full commercial kitchen with a 50-pound fryer, 24-inch griddle, a six-burner stove and oven, a cookstack smoker and a nine-foot hood for ventilation. Crooked Spoon sports similar specs, with all-new appliances.

The reason Saelg decided to go all out is simple: "I don't want to limit myself about what I can do with the menu," he says. "I want to keep evolving my menu as time progresses. I am a chef, I like creating, I want as much stuff on the trailer as possible. Different foods require different cooking techniques, which require different equipment."

Big Wheel's truck will also promote kitchen envy. It came with a six-burner stove, griddle and fryer, but what Adams really fell in love with was the large window that gives the truck the feeling of an open-air kitchen.

The Food Truck Bazaar promises to be a sort of primer for the uninitiated and a bonanza for foodies already into the mobile-food scene. The positive feedback from all involved has Baratelli energized. "Finding a venue, I thought, was going to be very difficult, but everyone I asked said yes," he says. "This is going to be a reoccurring thing."

It's the general consensus of owners that when it comes to food trucks, the more the merrier. Increasing the number of trucks means they can create more of a draw for their customers, especially if they're gathered together. An informal count of food trucks around the city puts the number operating in and around Orlando at 27. As of press time, the city of Orlando had not called back with its official tally of permitted trucks.

With all the newbies in town, Julia Enamorado's Taco Company (also known as the Taco Truck or the Taco Lady) stands out for its longevity. She's been making traditional Mexican tacos, quesadillas, tortas and huaraches for almost four years and selling them from her truck parked in Ocoee. Her advice to newcomers: Ask people how they like it and adjust accordingly. Also, it doesn't hurt to provide a free sample to hook customers.

"For me, it's a cool business. It's not like I'm making a lot of money because I'm going to lie to you if I say that," she says. "In this economy, my business is stable. I keep making the good food and try to get 
more customers."


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