My first food truck experience was very memorable because it didn’t quite happen exactly. My boyfriend and I were out-numbered by a thousand other food-lovers who also showed up to the first TheDailyCity.com Food Truck Bizarre. We had invited a couple friends to go with us and sold them on it being a quiet night out. Boy, were we wrong. We arrived at Discovery Church to discover hundreds of people patiently in line at the front of each food truck. I had never seen anything like it in Orlando. We decided not to wait in those lines. I hadn’t eaten all day and was starving. So we walked around the Christian Hipster Craft Market (or the Cripster Market as Cory likes to call it), and then cruised down to Numero Uno, the cuban restaurant just down the street. The next day, I learned people waited two hours in those lines, only to get to the front of the line and find out the food truck had sold out. To say the very least, The Food Truck Bizarre had been a great success.
The event had impacted me. My curiosity was peaked. I had to know why people were willing to wait so long for food truck food. How good could it be? According to Cory, “The Korean Taco truck in LA serves the most delicious food you’ll ever eat.” So two days later I tracked down the Big Wheel Provisions Food Truck (because I thought it was the prettiest) and ate a gourmet pork sandwich off an old ironing board–and loved it. What is so great about eating from a food truck? Everything. Again, I ate a gourmet pork sandwich off an ironing board and loved it. It’s an experience. You can try unique eats and enjoy them outside and in nature, with or without friends, and all the while you’re supporting a local business. If you haven’t tried a gourmet food truck yet, you must. If you’re too lazy to track down your dinner, you can hire them to come to you (Big Wheel caters!). No matter how you do it, I want to ask you to support Tony, Big Wheel Provisions and other local food trucks. Without our support, they will go away.
Jana: Where did you learn to cook?
Tony: It’s been a long journey. My Mom past away last year so it’s tough to stop and think about, but it started with her. My dad had a boiler company as I was growing up, where he’d fix boilers. I didn’t like the smell of fuel. I didn’t like how dirty you got. So I just hung around inside and in the kitchen and helped my Mom cook.
I also wasn’t allowed to watch TV unless I was watching cooking shows. So it kind of started as a way to sneak TV, but then I realized I could chop really fast and do most of the stuff. So I did college. I did vocational school. And I just started working. [Laughs] I’ve been working since I was like twelve. So I’ve spent a lot of time in restaurants.
Did you work in any local restaurants around town?
Not a ton. I moved down here from Providence [Rhode Island] to teach at Le Cordon Bleu. I was hired full time. I didn’t know anyone, but I made some friends who also taught at the school.
To be honest with you, I was pretty disappointed with the restaurant scene when I first got down here. This was pre-Luma, pre-Ravinous Pig… and I was living in Metro West, which is not a great part of town, at least not for restaurants. I left the school to open a place in College Park called Adair’s—it’s now closed. But I did a lot of work there for a couple of months. And then I got to spend sometime at The Dessert Lady, waiting tables and playing with cake. Working with Patti [Schmidt] was great. She used to get a kick out of me answering the phone cause she’d make me say, “Hello, this is The Dessert Lady.” [Laughs] But that’s it. I haven’t spent a lot of time working in restaurants in town.
How did Big Wheel Provisions come about?
A couple different ways. I was teaching at the school when I got a random phone call about doing some personal chef work. It was with one of the Magic players. I started working with him, and was immediately hired by another one of the Magic player’s families. They had come over for lunch one day and was like, “Oh my gosh, you must come work for us too!” So [I was working] five days a week, plus teaching, so it became a lot. I did that for a year. I was dating someone at the time that was passionate about the things we do now, and still is. And it was time to make some changes. Working for a for-profit education system is often soul-selling I guess you would say. I started having issues morally, and attitude-wise with what was happening at the school. So I decided to spend some of time on Big Wheel [Provisions], which we officially launched in 2008 going into 2009.
Honestly, it looks so much different now than we ever thought. Big Wheel was called Big Wheel because we thought it was going to be Big Wheel Cheese & Provisions. We thought we were going to open a cheese shop, which was our goal. Here we are three years later and still no cheese shop. We thought we could call up the Winter Park Farmer’s Markets and say, “Hey, we here and ready to do all your stuff. We’re local.” But we’re still on the waiting list there. So we came to the Audubon Farmer’s Market here at Stardust and Gabby Othon-Lothrop was like, “Oh my god. We’ve been looking for someone like you. Yes, please. Come join us.” So we started with five or six different products one night and did extremely well considering with what we came with. And the madness started from there… and it’s been nuts.
Food Trucks are big in LA and New York but what made you feel like it would work in Orlando?
I didn’t know it would work, and I don’t know if it’s working still, which is very difficult to say. This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The thing about Orlando is that it rains every day in the summer between 4-6 and we’ve lost a lot of days in the summer because of it.
What was your first food truck experience like?
[Pauses] I don’t know that I had a food truck experience until I owned one. [Laughs] That’s really embarrassing to admit. But other than ice cream trucks… yeah, I never had a food truck experience. Wow, that’s weird to think about it.
Do you think there can be too many food trucks?
Yeah. There’s a surge happening here, but also a waning. I’ve already seen some food trucks come and go which is unfortunate. I think people may get food truck fatigued. I few other food truck owners got upset with me earlier this spring because I said I saw food trucks as a two-year fad in Orlando. Financially, we set it up so that for two years we’d be in it, make a little bit of money, and then we’d own the truck to put out every now and again. We hope that doesn’t happen, but already we’ve seen some community backlash in LA and Portland and I just hope that doesn’t happen here. So can there be too many food trucks? Yes. But I’m more worried about there being food truck events too often and too often in the same place. I also think a normal family doesn’t want to eat at a food truck six nights a week, and it’s difficult to fight for those people.
How do pods work to a food truck’s advantage?
Pods are great. When we started, we thought we were going to be downtown, that we were the only truck and that people would come jammin’ to us. What we really found out is that when we’re alone, very few people come seek us out. Orlando is a town of a convenience, at least in the food truck world. When we do food truck pods it gives people a choice.
It just seems counter-intuitive to me to invite your competition to sell with you.
It is. But you know, it’s great. Like the other night Treehouse’s generator went down and they came to me for oil. I searched for oil and starter fuel and did anything I could to help them get back up and runnin’. We all run together and kind of look after each other. At the same time, I think we’re all looking to be the best truck. At the end of the night, everyone asks around, “Hey, how’d did you do? Did you do I alright?” Ya know? It’s not that we think we’re better than everyone else. We just want to make sure we’re being the best we can be.
How much does a food truck set-up cost?
It cost us about 10% of what would be brick and mortar. Although, it’s cost us double than what we had in our initial budget. Realistically, it’s gonna cost $35-40,000 just for the truck, and then there’s licenses. That’s also before you get into places to park, gas, staff, and everything else. It all adds up really quick. We are very lucky. We have great vendors and do a lot of the work ourselves. But when you have no money and you’re spending investor’s money, it goes a lot quicker than you want it to go. [Laughs]
What’s the biggest challenge to cooking on wheels?
The unexpected. The unexpected pops up everyday. It’s not like a restaurant, where you can call emergency guys to come fix equipment twenty-four hours a day. Those people don’t work on trucks, and then the ones that do work strange hours. So if you go down, there’s nothing you can do. You have no other choice than to shut down.
We’ve lost tires. We’ve lost alternators. And those are things we didn’t expect. Of course we expected maintenance of the vehicle, but it’s always unexpected when something messes up or breaks. There’s a lot of things that can happen and as a planner my mind goes crazy. But you know, it’s part of it and we’ve learned to embrace the food truck life.
Are licenses and permits ever a problem?
In Orange County and City of Orlando you have to be on private property to sell. What that means is that we have to find someone who owns private property and then ask if they’ll let us park there, which requires a letter of permission and usually means we even pay rent. In some cities in America, you can just park on any street and sometimes you may get a ticket but you just stay and literally go anywhere. So it’s not that license and permits are really problems. It’s more finding places that will have us.
Who comes up with the daily menu?
It’s a team effort. There’s often our stack of greatest hits that we feature on the menu, like we’ll always have our chicken skewers and grits or some kind of variation of them. Often, the variations are brought through by Nikki Pulli who is our sous chef, or Erik Gilbertson when we just sit around and talk about the menu. A suggestion may be that we need to have more snacky stuff. So we’ll think of things to do, with like octopus or sliders or meatballs. We buy local as much as possible. So often we’ll buy at Farmer’s Markets with no idea or purpose, and then figure out what we’ll do after. Our menus often depend on what we buy.
What items are your best sellers?
[Pauses] We go through a lot of fries, and I’d say our bacon brown sugar fries are most popular. A lot of grit cakes, which are always delicious.
And Mexican Cokes! That’s personally something I buy every time.
We go through a fair amount of soda, and we feel like we do a pretty good job stocking up on a selection that is natural with no corn syrup. We like carrying things that no one else has.
Describe a good day on the food truck.
We wake up and it’s sunny. The forecast is 0% chance of rain. We get to the food truck and no breakers have shut off. The truck cranks up the very first time. It’s rolling. We load all the food into the truck and there’s plenty of room in the fridges. We remember to strap everything down before we pull out. [Laughs] Because that happens often. We pull out and something falls and breaks.
We arrive at our location 10-15 minutes early because there was no traffic. There’s no problem with the truck and the generator starts up the first time. We set up on time and there’s a line waiting before we even open. Then when you’re cooking, you fall into something that I like to call ‘The Matrix’, where you’re almost not thinking about what you’re doing and things are running smoothly and the flow of expediting is good. People are paying in cash—we take credit cards, but cash is always good. [Laughs] And the beer is cold… that’s obviously after we’re off the truck. But yeah, just a lot people walking away with smiles. You can’t ask anything more than that.
You’re very close to being a contestant on The Great Food Truck Race. What do you think the show would do you for your business?
We were talking about it just the other night. We were asked to join them last season, and I had to turn it down because we opened the very next day. I know from those conversations you’re only allowed three to a truck and there are five of us that are working on it at the moment. We’d have to figure that all out. Business wise, it’d help us expose our brand. There are still some people in Orlando who have never heard of us. That’s good. It’s some untapped market. But it’s also shocking because we’ve been on the cover of the [Orlando] Weekly, and wow, we were in the [Orlando] Sentinel eight times just last month. And how have you not seen the thousands of people waiting at a [TheDailyCity.com] Food Truck Bizarre Event in the Fashion Square Mall parking lot?
We think in this town you have to have something extra to make it big. The show would help people in Orlando realize there’s some really cool things going on here in Orlando that aren’t franchised, and are independent. We’re real chefs. We’re not a roach coach, or whatever you want to call it. We feel like coming off a road trip like that we could get into a space with rent that’s not too expensive. Maybe open a small retail shop? That was always in the plan for us. It would just help us get where we need to be brand-wise.
And when do you find out if you made it or not?
No idea. The voting goes into September. And I’m already a little weary, because I hate asking everyone to vote for us all the time. But it’d just be a good thing for us if it happened.
What would you do if the food truck business faded away tomorrow?
I’d have to have a couple tough conversations with some employees. [Laughs] Honestly, I’d cry and I’d probably think about what city I’d want to be in next. And that’s tough to say because I love being a part of the change in Orlando. I love being a part of what’s making Orlando a better place to live, and I do think we’re helping to accomplish that.
But you’d definitely keep cooking, right?
Oh yeah. I don’t think I could ever step away from cooking. I’m not smart enough and I’m too crude and rough around the edges to do anything else. [Laughs] Food is the only thing I have any expertise in.
*Interview Date: August 20, 2011