TAMPA — Rain was in the air Saturday morning, but it didn't stop a world record-breaking effort at the World's Largest Food Truck Rally.
More than 80 trucks paraded from downtown Tampa to the Florida State Fairgrounds after Mayor Bob Buckhorn rang the ceremonial dinner bell. At the fairgrounds, 99 trucks was the final record-breaking count. The previous world record was 62, set at Magic City Casino in Miami in April.
Once in position, vendors scrambled to ready their trucks for the onslaught. Fairground officials were forced to open the parking lot a half-hour ahead of schedule because would-be diners' vehicles were backed up nearly to Interstate 4, causing a traffic snarl.
By 1 p.m., thousands of food truck enthusiasts were wishing the morning's clouds would roll back in. Vendors selling lobster bisque and other cold-weather delights were overlooked in favor of Hawaiian shave ice and gourmet flavored ices. Amy Morina, hustling to hand out coconut-lime and strawberry-basil fruit bars from Whatever Pops, sold more than half of her stock of 450 pops by 1 p.m., with another seven hours of rally to go.
Still, lines seemed to stack up the deepest at seven barbecue stands. Barbecue, evidently, is impervious to the vicissitudes of weather.
Food truck fever has swept the country in the past several years but came fairly late to the Tampa Bay area, gaining public attention toward the end of 2011. Since then, nearly 100 trucks have come and gone from city streets, assembling regularly at rallies such as Mayor Buckhorn's monthly Food Truck Fiesta at Lykes Gaslight Square Park.
Maggie Loflin, owner of veteran Tampa Bay truck Maggie on the Move, has done loads of rallies in the past. Still, she wasn't sure what to expect of the world's largest. With a smaller piece of a bigger pie, how do you know how to stock and staff appropriately?
"We have been blown away by the number of people," said Loflin, who purveys Mediterranean fusion dishes. "I'm just hoping I have enough food."
In addition to Tampa's veteran trucks, vendors traveled from far afield to be part of the festivities: Bem Bom Food Truck brought its Portuguese cuisine from Orlando, Happy Belly Food Truck zipped down from Atlanta and Feelin' Saucy brought its homey Italian fare (luscious eggplant Parmesan) from Sarasota. Alaska Mike's Yukon Fry bread (American Indian fusion cuisine) got folks head-scratching about just how a truck made it here from that noncontiguous state, but a quick inquiry revealed that it hails from Clearwater.
While many of the attendees claimed this was their first rally, some were old pros. Tom Witzgall and Nikki Devereux, both from St. Petersburg, huddled in the shade of the London Fish and Chippy truck from Eustis planning their strategy.
They started with shrimp tacos and Mayan chicken, then opted for Salvadoran pupusas and Korean barbecue short ribs. Next up was a lobster roll and then kangaroo on a stick from Not Your Ordinary Food Truck, owned by one of the rally organizers, Jeremy Gomez.
Gomez and his fellow organizers saw it not only as an opportunity to break the Guinness World Record (because it costs $5,000 to have an official Guinness adjudicator on hand, Gomez and crew documented the record with photos and video), but also as a way to showcase the breadth and talent of local mobile vendors.
And what will kangaroo on a stick taste like?
"Just like chicken?" Witzgall says hopefully.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.