It all went by in a heady, aromatic blur Monday as I spent four hours in Metro Orlando's hottest workplace: a food truck. Hot in heat, even hotter in chic. These days, skipping a sit-down restaurant to line up at a truck is cool. More than 60 food trucks now patrol the area, estimates Mark Baratelli, creator of Orlando Food Truck Bazaar and thedailycity.com.
One reason in this cash-poor economy is cost. If you want to get into the "restaurant" business and don't have the bread for brick and mortar, a food truck is the way to go. Experts put the cost of opening even a small sit-down restaurant at several hundred thousand dollars. A food truck can be up and running for $20,000 to $30,000, said Dean Watson, who converts trucks into rolling eateries at his Triple D Mobile Fabrication in Orlando.
"I'm backed up six to eight months on orders," Watson said. "The last two weeks alone, I've taken in seven trucks."
You've seen the long lines outside food trucks – there's a good chance you've waited in one – but what it's like inside? To find out, I joined Tony Adams, chef and founder of Big Wheel Provisions, in his big orange-and-white truck. He started as a caterer in 2009 and added the truck in March 2011.
Adams, 30, grew up in Maine.
"I got into cooking because my dad had his own fuel-oil business," he said. "I discovered at an early age that I enjoyed smelling like food more than fuel oil."
That's Adams – cheeky and offbeat – like his menu, which he changes daily with rainbow-colored markers on the board outside his truck. Monday it was parked at the Audubon Park Farmer's Market not far from Baldwin Park. "Working" inside gave me a different perspective on patrons lined up outside. They appeared transfixed as they gazed upward at Adams' exotic, eclectic offerings.
"People look at the menu and say 'Off a food truck?' I love to hear that," Adams said.
I struggled to stay out of the way as Adams took orders and bantered nonstop with customers at the window, Erik Gilbertson, 28, manned the grill, and Alex Myers, 23, put the finishing touches on the dishes. The galley is about 10 feet long and 2 feet wide, with a stove, grill, refrigerator and prep table on one side, the other taken up by sinks and the order window.
"Back, back, back!" Gilbertson cried all night to warn Adams as he passed behind him to deliver spatulas of hot-off-the-grill bluefish, pork belly and flatiron steak to Myers for final prep.
Adams opened the window at 6 p.m. Fifteen minutes later, eight people were lined up outside and the truck was rockin' – literally. He slammed yellow order slips in the slot above the grill. Gilbertson snapped off and crumpled each one before relaying the food to Myers.
"Back, back, back!" he said, sideswiping Adams.
The food-truck business is unpredictable.
"We lost 40 days last year to mechanical and weather issues," he said. "If there's even a sun shower at 4:15, we can count on losing $200 to $300 in business."
People's tastes are fickle, too. Adams figured the venison would fly out the window. "Why is no one ordering the venison?" he said after an hour. "I've sold 47 po-boys!"
As he about to close the window at 9 o'clock, a gaggle of customers lined up. Several ordered venison. "I did like $150 in the last 30 minutes," Adams said. "Crazy!"
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