From the back kitchen of a mom-and-pop grocery store to an Ybor City restaurant and to a now-booming food truck business, the best Cuban sandwich in Tampa has come a long way.
Michelle Faedo's On the Go food truck has won first place in the traditional category in the Cuban Sandwich Festival competition for the past two years, and will compete again Saturday and Sunday in the third annual event.
"It might be the last year they allow us to compete since we have won every year," said Faedo, 38. "I would like to be a judge, though."
But the food truck pro, who works alongside her husband, Robert Faedo, 43, has plenty of sandwiches on her plate. Between raising three kids, ages 13, 16 and 19, running the food truck and looking for a location for their new restaurant, the Faedos never have a dull moment.
The couple's day begins at 4:30 a.m. After dropping the kids off at college and high school, they reach their location at 9 a.m. ready to prep.
"Its not like any other food truck that just shows up and opens," Michelle said. "We prep everything on premises, so when you get to our location everything is perfect by 11 a.m."
From 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., the Faedos do their dance. Michelle, wearing a white apron and her red hair in a bun, works the grill, flipping burgers, creating sandwiches and making fried macaroni and cheese. Robert mans the register, takes orders, bags food, hands out samples and speaks with customers.
Standing 6 feet 8 in his blue T-shirt and jeans, Robert looks as if he may burst through the truck's ceiling, even after having had it custom built.
Then there's Michelle. "The fixtures come up to about here on me," she said, pointing above her chest.
Though the truck's interior may be too tall for her, that doesn't impede her speed. When she is rolling patties and constructing Cuban sandwiches, she's in her zone.
"Every location we go to we are blessed enough, you know, that our customers in Tampa, they follow us everywhere we go," she said. "People even come to visit, like last year we did the Cigar City Hunahpu's Day event, we had people from Chicago and New York come back this year and say, 'You guys are unbelievable.' "
Whether they are parked at events like that, or along Madison Street at the Mayor's Food Truck Rally once a month, or camped at Tampa General Hospital, Cypress Point, the Sheriff's Office or any other location that calls them, it's the Cuban sandwich most customers drool for.
The best Cuban in Tampa could only come from city natives.
"When you are born here, that's a normal. The Cuban sandwich has been a street food for 100 years, born in Tampa, so that's a main reason, because we are about Tampa," Robert Faedo said of why they chose to specialize in the sandwich. "We produce Tampanian food."
Not only were they both born and raised in Tampa, they also grew up in food-business-minded families. Michelle's grandmother owned a restaurant, and Robert's family specialized in pastries and coffee.
Their youngest child wants to become a pastry chef.
"She's been baking a lot of unbelievable things from scratch. Some are good and some are 'you know,' " Michelle said with a laugh.
Robert and Michelle opened Faedo's Deli in 1996, a grocery store that Michelle turned into a sandwich shop.
"We decided to open the grocery store after we had our third child because I wanted something to do. Now I look back and think I should have been a home mom," Michelle said.
"I'd like to be a home mom," Robert joked back.
Michelle's sandwiches became so popular that they needed more space, so they opened a restaurant in Ybor City.
"We built it from the ground up. Everything Robert put in there, from the fryers to the grill, we did it all from scratch."
Eighteen years later, a man representing Taco Bus offered to buy the restaurant. The Faedos accepted.
From there, Robert suggested taking their menu on the road and in December 2011, just seven months after selling the restaurant, the wheels were spinning.
"It really worked to our benefit because now not only did we have our Ybor City customers, but now we can go to South Tampa, East Tampa and other different locations." Michelle said. "It's very interesting work. I thought my restaurant was hard, but this is a lot harder."
Though it may be harder, Michelle loves the opportunity to interact with customers, something she couldn't do from the restaurant kitchen.
Plus, working with her "better half" makes the process easier.
"It has its up and downs," Michelle said about being with her husband 24/7. "We bump heads a lot because we are both very strong personalities, but we understand each other, so I wouldn't prefer to work with anyone else."
The menu of Michelle Faedo's On the Go includes everything from fried broccoli and cheese bites to devil crab, and everything is made to order just the way the customer wants.
What makes the No. 1 Cuban Sandwich stand out?
Michelle says it's the ingredients, chosen with meticulous care. "We definitely don't take shortcuts."
Robert says it's Michelle's timing.
"When you have your salami and pork and it all heats up at a certain temperature, she's an expert at knowing when to take it off the press," he said.
They get so busy, they don't even notice the humidity heating up the food truck.
"We leave sunburned, with rosy cheeks. But if I had no business, I would complain," she said.
"All she's thinking about is if the food is perfect," Robert added. "We don't play when we are out there."
Hustling in the heat pays off, though.
"When you hear an old-timer say this crab tastes like it used to be made, how it should be made, and comes back time and time again, that's the gratification," Michelle said.
To satisfy more grumbling stomachs, the Faedos are once again looking for a home base restaurant, in addition to the food truck — "for customers that can't be mobile, to find us they know where they can go," Robert said.
That will mean expanding the employee list beyond the two of them, but it will also mean more Cuban sandwiches. .