Mobile Phenom: Food Trucks Roll Into Tampa Bay

Food lovers rejoiced with the first Tampa Bay Truck Rally on Sept. 24.

The Hyde Park Presbyterian Church hosted the event, created by Tasting Tampa food blogger Todd Sturtz and co-sponsor 352 Media Group.

Ten food trucks -- including Wicked Wiches, Sinful Pleasure Dessert Co. and Fire Monkey Food Truck -- signed up for the one-day rally and served nearly 5,000 people, according to Sturtz.

Response was so great that a second event is already scheduled for Oct. 22 at the Christ Fellowship of Tampa in Seminole Heights from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sturtz says attendees can expect anywhere from 20 to 30 trucks at the rally and, if the demand continues, could eventually become a bi-weekly occurrence.

The stellar turnout proves that the Tampa Bay region is catching up to the national food truck phenomenon. Think big, clean, fully-functioning gourmet kitchens on wheels. Some are mobile, some are stationary, and they're cooking up a variety of fare for Tampa Bay's on-the-go crowd.

Da Kine Hawaiian Cafe

Steve Clay's business has been stationed at its 3316 S. Dale Mabry location for a year and a half. Everyday its sunburst-orange-colored truck lures customers to enjoy the carb-filled staples of a Hawaiian plate lunch.

If you've ever wanted to sample the local Hawaiian cuisine (sorry, no pineapple or luau dishes here) without purchasing the plane ticket you've got to try Clay's Da Kine Hawaiian Cafe.

The Portland transplant relocated to Tampa two years ago, and brought his experience in restaurant kitchens -- and love of cooking -- with him.

"When I came down here, all I wanted was a Hawaiian lunch plate," Clay says. "That's the food I grew up with and missed."

What can you expect from Da Kine? Comfort food, for starters -- and a lot of it.

The Loco Moco, a quarter pound hamburger patty with white rice, brown gravy and a fried egg on top. Don't forget to try a side of macaroni and dessert -- coconut Kahlua raisin rice pudding or shaved ice, a popular sweet retreat from the afternoon sun.

Baja Boys Grill

Fresh food can also be found farther south at Chris and Michelle Jett's Baja Boys Grill. When a restaurant partnership went sour, the husband and wife duo took a nearly 10-year break from the Sarasota restaurant scene to recoup their losses.

Concept to completion was a two-year process that involved perfecting recipes and creating a portable kitchen tailored to their needs.

While the opening of a sit-down restaurant can easily run $300,000, food trucks can be a significantly more economic endeavor.

"The whole key with restaurants is overhead," Chris Jett says. "If you can't keep it down, you have no reason to be in business."

The Jetts keep their prices budget-friendly for consumers by shopping local when possible and doing all of the labor themselves.

"We clean our trucks all day long," Chris says, dispelling the notion that food trucks aren't kept up to the same standards as restaurants. "I've had two health inspections since we've been open and we've had no infractions."

Chris is quick to point out that freshness is a key quality of Baja cuisine. The meats are never frozen and the tomatoes are fresh off the vine.

His penchant for Mexican cooking stems from surfing trips to the Cabo San Lucas and Baja regions in his youth. Following culinary training in Italy and Baltimore, he utilized Maryland's iconic seafood markets in his first Baltimore-area restaurants.

An affinity for the use of local seafood has followed Chris to Baja Boys and made their fish tacos a menu favorite. It starts with a grilled fish, which varies depending on what is locally available, paired with cabbage, chopped tomatoes, cilantro and Michelle's signature, crowd-pleasing Baja sauce that she's perfected over the last 18 months.

The truck has given Michelle, a former teacher with a Ph.D in linguistics, an opportunity to share one of her deepest passions -- a love of food groomed through traveling the country with her Italian mother and American military father.

Sinful Pleasure Dessert Co.

These days, the Jetts enjoy traveling the Tampa Bay region in search of fellow food trucks, such as Stephanie Barr's Oldsmar-based Sinful Pleasure Dessert Co., formerly known as 3 Ballers Traveling Bistro.

"[Her food] is phenomenal," Chris says. "My wife and I try to support food trucks everywhere we go."

That kind of support from the food truck community has been surprising for Barr, who debuted her business in January.

"I thought it'd be very cutthroat," she says, "but it's the exact opposite. Everybody's been sticking together because we need help to make it work."

Although the business weathered a tough summer, she's slowly earned attention for her well-executed burgers, soups, chili, sandwiches and -- her personal favorite -- desserts. Her individual apple pies in mini-glass jars, personal Chocolate Pecan Pies, Nutella S'mores and crispy, spongey Crown Cakes have been selling so well at the Ybor City Saturday Market that she decided to shake things up a bit.

Hyde Park's rally was the debut of Barr's new company name and pin-up logo. Her entire supply, ranging from Watermelon Gazpacho to French Toast & Praline Cake, was sold out within the first hour and a half.

Barr prepares all of the food, except the desserts, made-to-order on site in her ruby red 8-foot-by-10 foot  trailer that she purchased on a whim off Craigslist.

"My family thought I was crazy. There was no thought process and no planning," she says. "It's been a great learning experience."

One surprising lesson has been the hurdles many food trucks must overcome to do business in the Tampa Bay region.

Street Of Dreams Report

That mentality hasn't quite been accepted everywhere yet. A July 2011 report from the Institute of Justice, "Street of Dreams: How Cities Can Create Economic Opportunity by Knocking Down Protectionist Barriers to Street Vending," studied vending regulations in the 50 largest U.S. cities. Thirty-three out of 50 cities have restrictions that prohibit food trucks from operating in lucrative downtown areas.

Chris Jett has seen similar restrictions in the downtown Sarasota area.

"There are so many of us out on the fringes because we can't get downtown," he explains. "Certain municipalities have decided to pass their own regulations. I understand they want to help out the brick-and-mortar restaurants, but everybody could work together to get a share of everything."

Barr believes Tampa is starting to realize food trucks aren't going away, and the local economy could benefit from it. As for restaurants? She thinks food trucks just get the runoff of customers they can't serve.

"We're geared more towards people who need to rush in, get something and go," she explains. "They don't have time to sit down at a restaurant for lunch."

Barr is the first to admit she's not the type to back down from a challenge -- and starting her own business has proven beneficial in more ways than one.

"I get told that I can't do things so many times living with Crohn's disease, but I will do it and I'll do it 10 times better," she says. "It's not easy, but in a way, it's my own therapy."

Barr's friends and family, including her husband and four daughters, are more than a support system; they act as official taste testers. It was during the sampling process that a friend declared three particular spherical treats Barr concocted -- cake truffles, kicked-up meatballs, sausage and maple syrup breakfast pastries -- would lead to her achieving "baller status."

"I still tend to blush when I tell people the name of the company," she says, "but they seem to remember me because of it."

Wicked Wiches

Bryan Goodell's aptly named Wicked Wiches has quickly made a name for itself since its July 1 debut. His eclectic menu ranges from a Cigar City Brewing Maduro Oatmeal Brown Ale-battered Monte Cristo to South African bunny chow, a quarter of bread hollowed out and filled with rich, slow-stewed meats -- perfect for lunch on the go.

The "Fab Four" -- including Goodell, butcher Chris Taylor, Chef Brett Campbell and cashier/PR aficionado Kira Anderson -- traverse Tampa in an 18-foot-by-8-foot shiny black box to serve the hungry workforce on their lunch break.

"I worked with them before and knew they had a passion for something new," Goodell says. "They loved the concept of new scenery everyday and a changing menu that's fresh everyday."

Goodell relocated from New York seven years ago and worked as a vendor for Verizon. He found himself out of a job following the merger with MCI and decided to get back to his restaurant roots. He currently co-owns downtown Tampa's Fresh, which celebrated its first year of business in August.

With Wiches, Goodell says he attempts to find the path of least competition with established restaurants and focus on the convenience for his customers.

"I figured if I keep the pricing of the restaurant and truck under $10 we'd never have to worry what the economy was doing," he says. "People are always going to eat out -- it's a social comfort."

Matt Spencer, a University of South Florida grad, is a native Floridian who enjoys sharing his love for Patty Griffin, browsing produce stands, spending hours in record shops and gawking at the ice cream selection in grocery stores. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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