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Roll with It: At Food Truck Rallies, Eating Is an Adventure

Part of being a tourist is exploring the local dining scene.

In August, 99 food trucks paraded from downtown Tampa to the Florida State Fairgrounds, setting a new record for the world’s largest food truck rally. The old record belonged to Miami, with 64 trucks.

For my staycation adventure, I headed to the fairgrounds to taste what all the food truck fuss was about.

I stood in line at a Latin themed food truck called the Traveling Kitchen. Right behind me was Steve Rabinowitz, who grew up in Palm Harbor and who now lives in the Washington DC area.

"I came down for my sister’s 30th birthday. She’s like, 'Let’s go hit the food trucks,'" Rabinowitz said.

Rabinowitz knows he’s spoiled by DC’s food truck scene, but he was still impressed by what Tampa had to offer. There were trucks serving all kinds of food, with names like Maui Wowi Hawaiian, Holy Crepe and Thai One On.

It was fun having so many choices all in one place. But jockeying for position against the thousands of other attendees in the August heat? Not so fun.

"It’s really hot out here," Rabinowitz noted. "And I just realized ... if I wanted something else, I probably could’ve had it by now at a sit-down environment. So I don’t know. It’s a little bit of an adventure. I’m feeling hipsterish today. What the hey?"

Apparently, a lot of people in Tampa Bay are feeling hipsterish these days. Tampa, Lakeland, St. Pete Beach and Palm Harbor are just a few of the cities that regularly hold food truck rallies. But St. Petersburg has taken the opposite tack, banning the trucks until recently.

Back at the fairgrounds, after about 15 minutes, Rabinowitz and I made it to the front of the line at the Traveling Kitchen. I was all set to order the chicken special, but the truck was all out of chicken.

Unfortunately, running out of inventory is a common theme at food truck rallies. Many owners are new to the business -- like Jimmy Shelton, who started the Traveling Kitchen less than a year ago.

"I’m currently a manager of a supermarket, and I do this as a hobby," Shelton said. "I enjoy the cooking aspect of it."

He also enjoys the profits. Shelton said that on a "phenomenal day" like this, he could rake in more than $2,000.

The food truck phenomenon is more than a passing fad, says Candy Gomez. She and her husband, Jeremy, run Generation Food Truck, a promotion company that books trucks for festivals and corporate events. The record-breaking rally at the fairgrounds was their idea.

"In other cities, they are at a boom that we can’t even imagine here in Tampa," Gomez said. "We just need to let everybody know and be aware that these are not roach coaches. These are gourmet food trucks with chefs on them."

So despite the heat and the long lines, Rabinowitz chose to look on the bright side of the food truck craze.

"I think it’s great," he said. "It gives people options that they didn’t have before. Obviously, it’s a good way for a single person to start a business. It’s probably not as expensive as getting into a brick-and-mortar outfit, so I’m all for it."

That’s good, because Generation Food Truck is staging another record-breaking rally at the fairgrounds for March. Nearly 200 food trucks have already signed on.

"I host a food podcast" is a great icebreaker at parties.