Food truck dining in Central Florida has become a lifestyle all its own.
Food served from a truck. Who knew it would play such a significant part in our present-day culture?
The idea of selling food from the street is nothing new. Push carts in New York City have been around since the 17th century. Over time, variations emerged as hot dog wagons and taco trucks, followed by the so-called roach coaches that fed construction workers in the 1960s and 1970s. But it wasn’t until the mid-2000s that entrepreneurs in converted step vans began creating awarding-winning cuisine for which people were willing to stand in line and dine in parking lots, on grassy knolls or inside their favorite watering holes.
Today, food trucks serving up fare representing the four corners of the earth can be found in just about any city. FoodTrucksIn.com currently lists 3,900-plus food trucks in more than 765 American cities, including the City Beautiful, where you’ll find everything from Korean barbecue and pizza to crepes and empanadas. The Orlando area boasts an estimated 100 food trucks setting up shop outside of businesses or as guests of established events.
The Main Event
In a relatively short time, the popularity of food trucks has morphed from trucks being invited to events to being the event. In Windermere, for example, every fourth Friday the Town of Windermere Downtown Business Committee hosts Family Food Truck Night from 5-9:30 p.m., a major catalyst for the food truck explosion in the south part of town. The event is held in front of Town Hall.
In the City of Orlando, there are at least 10 regular food truck fests a month. Events like Tasty Tuesdays (Robinson Street/Milk District) and Wild, Wild Wednesdays (Conway Road), have become community mainstays attracting hundreds wishing to sample the diverse fare being created by a new wave of entrepreneurs, like Lisa Fareed.
Owner and operator of The Crepe Company food truck for the past four years, Fareed is a self-taught crêpier. In her previous life, she was a stockbroker utilizing the finance degree she earned from the University of Central Florida (UCF).
“I learned how to make crepes in France,” she says. “I love owning my own business and being my own boss. It’s been a life changer.”
However, like any business it does take a while to gain a following. Fareed has seen many trucks come and go. “I would say 10 percent of the trucks do 90 percent of the business,” she says. “I do 20 to 30 events a month, mainly private parties.”
As it turns out, most successful food truck owners make a living by catering private functions. The food truck events act as a means to an end.
In 2011, Mark Baratelli, founder of The Daily City newspaper in Orlando and considered the granddaddy of the local food truck movement, saw the need for a regional food truck concept, which has proven popular with truck owners and foodies alike. He now works with 51 trucks, holding 10 to 15 events a month throughout Central Florida under the moniker “The Food Truck Bazaar,” with each event featuring 15 to 20 trucks at a time. It’s a traveling circus of food on wheels designed to brand the trucks and build their crucial catering businesses.
“I think the food truck industry here is unique compared to anywhere in the United States because it is not a city scene but a regional scene,” he says, noting the truck owners he works with travel from Melbourne to Kissimmee and points in-between.
In Orlando, the Bazaar hosts a popular Sunday night fest at Fashion Square Mall, a Tuesday evening event at Lake Nona Town Center and the aforementioned Family Food Truck Night in Windermere.
Janelle Luce, who owns and operates the award-winning La Empanada truck, is a member of The Food Truck Bazaar roster. She says one of the benefits of being part of this industry is attending all of the events and fundraisers.
“It’s like I have a backstage pass,” she says. “Even though we’re working, we’re a part of the excitement.”
Working in restaurants since she was 16, Luce decided to change gears and teach 10th grade English after receiving her degree from UCF. After a couple of years, however, she realized food was her true passion. She honed her craft at the ever-popular Black Bean Deli, then launched La Empanada. That was four years ago.
“It’s a platform for my creativity with food, and I am being constantly inspired by customers who love what we do,” Luce says.
She certainly has a fan in Orlando resident Susan Tosko. “This is one of the best empanadas I have ever had,” she said after tasting the Barbeque Chicken and Gouda Empanada at a recent Tasty Tuesday event.
The New Foodies
The food truck concept is so engrained in our daily lives that the industry is now the recipient of foodie awards voted by residents in local magazines and newspapers, sharing space alongside brick and mortar restaurants. Besides La Empanada and The Crepe Company, fan favorites include Korean BBQ Taco Box, Sushi and Seoul on the Roll, Simply Divine Food Truck and TJ’s Seafood Shack.
Baratelli, who says the brick and mortars have not embraced the food truck scene in the Orlando area, are noticing the local catering boom.
“Restaurants ignore the food truck scene,” he says. “However, restaurants are recognizing how food trucks have discovered that catering is the real end goal.”
And from the looks of things, there is enough room for everyone. All it takes is a flair for cooking and a passion to share specialty dishes with the foodies of Orlando.