Wednesday, April 25, 2018
Business

Food trucks rolling into the suburbs

ODESSA

Nick Tzoumas grew up in Chicago, where food trucks are so popular, the City Council recently banned vendors from doing business within 200 feet of a restaurant. Tzoumas' dad, who owned a sub shop for many years, once appeared on a local Chicago television station denouncing the trucks. So why was Tzoumas standing in the middle of the suburbs last Friday night eating a gourmet hot dog from a food truck called Americanwiener? "This reminds me of home," Tzoumas said. "The food is cheap and really, really good. And there's nothing like it around here." The food truck craze, which hit Tampa almost a year ago, has seeped into the suburbs.

From Westchase to Lutz, Odessa to Brandon, food trucks are attracting fans outside of downtown.

Customers known more for their manicured lawns and expansive community centers are proving that food trucks aren't just an urban concept anymore. It appears America's fixation with food trucks doesn't stop at the city limits —- suburbanites like their food, too.

At the Odessa Food Truck Festival last week, several hundred people showed up during the four-hour event to sample foods from seven different food trucks, including a cupcake truck that quickly sold out.

From 3 Suns Organic Bistro's all-organic fare to Keepin' It Reel's fresh catch, it was the place to be on a Friday night in Odessa.

"It's something different," said Sue Nee, a Keystone Manors resident who went for the Portabella Burger from Burger Culture. "I like the idea."

It seems a lot of people like the idea, too. Thousands of locals have embraced the food truck concept.

A year ago, there were fewer than 10 gourmet, contemporary food trucks in Hillsborough County, said Todd Sturtz, owner of Tasting Tampa, a restaurant and food truck consulting business. Today, there are more than 50, said Sturtz, who organizes food truck rallies all over the Tampa Bay area.

Once the movement caught on, people who didn't have money to invest in a brick-and-mortar restaurant saw food trucks as an opportunity to share their food with the world.

The first rally Tasting Tampa organized featured 10 vendors and drew almost 5,000 people to South Tampa. A Fourth of July event at Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz attracted more than 10,000 people. The first-ever rally in Lakeland last weekend featured 14 trucks and about 2,000 customers.

Food trucks work in the suburbs, Sturtz said, because residents have fewer choices in quality restaurants close to them. Also, social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter aid in the marketing campaign. Most followers subscribe to food trucks to track their suburban schedules.

"(Food truck rallies) present a variety of choices of cuisine at a variety of prices," said Sturtz, who is looking to host monthly events in the suburbs. "It's nice to have that many choices at one place at one time."

• • •

The food truck gathering in Odessa was organized by John Ciani, who owns the Odessa Organic Farmers Market.

His Green After Dark event, a nighttime farmer's market, proved so popular, he wanted to do more. 3 Suns Organic, the only food truck at Green After Dark, suggested the rally.

"The food trucks are owned by local business men and women who work very hard at what they do," Ciani said. "It's something that should go beyond city limits."

The farmer's market property, a parcel of land along Gunn Highway, served as a grassy parking lot for the trucks. A live band performed, artisans sold handmade crafts and locals mingled from truck to truck, mulling dinner options like sushi rolls and grouper sliders — all for under $10.

Residents, like 20-year-old Katie Dennison, appreciated the selection.

"There's a variety of foods to choose from, so everyone can find something that appeals to them," said Dennison, who was accompanied by her parents and boyfriend. "And we don't have to travel far."

Food truck vendor Shirley Quinones, owner of Unforgettable Cupcakes, said driving to the suburbs has been good for business.

Twice a month, Quinones and her Unforgettable Cupcakes truck roar into small communities where she sells specialty cupcakes for $2.50 each. In Odessa, hungry customers snatched up all 300 cupcakes in under two hours.

Deborah Ahlgren drove from Safety Harbor to Odessa to check out the rally. She once owned a hot dog cart and is contemplating operating a food truck offering Chicago-style hot dogs.

"With food trucks, you can offer a quality selection," said Ahlgren, who opted for a buffalo po' boy. "And if the food is good, people will come."

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