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Food & Dining

Record Tampa food truck rally creates taste for bigger one

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Published:   |   Updated: September 4, 2013 at 12:44 PM

TAMPA — For weeks, organizer Jeremy Gomez told people he expected 10,000 people to attend the World’s Largest Food Truck Rally at the Florida State Fairgrounds.

“In my head, I was thinking probably only 6,000 would show up,” Gomez said.

Instead, an estimated 20,000 people overwhelmed 99 trucks that came from across Florida and as far away as Texas and South Carolina to serve food and attempt a new Guinness World Record on Saturday for the most trucks gathered at one event.

Despite long lines for food and parking and beer and everything else, organizers already are planning a 200-truck rally next year.

Fairgrounds officials said today the parking lot refilled three times during the nine-hour event. That usually only happens on busy weekends during state fair season.

The unexpected crush of fans caused a food shortage, with several vendors running out of menu items as early as 1:30 p.m. for an event scheduled to last until 8 p.m.

Without knowing how many customers they would have, Gomez told truck operators during the weeks leading up to the rally to limit their menus or bring less food than normal so as not to waste food and lose money.

That forced vendors Danny and Kim Flores of Holy Crepe! and several other truck operators to run to nearby groceries to restock their refrigerators. Some did so as many as three times.

Gomez said he ran through two 100-pound propane tanks and an 80-pound supply of the kangaroo meat he grilled and served on a stick. One vendor who served tropical drinks in pineapples with the tops lopped off reported customers were scalping them to others who wanted to avoid the long line.

Others persevered through more challenging problems. The Mayan Grill Food Truck broke down on Interstate 4 on the way to the rally. The vehicle was towed to the fairgrounds, where it served Central American pupusas to hundreds of customers. The owners made enough money to be towed home to Orlando.

Margaret Aiken Loflin, operator of Maggie on the Move, posted on Facebook that trucks weren’t expecting those numbers.

“We won’t be caught off guard again!” Loflin wrote.

Cars trying to reach the fairgrounds entrance on U.S. 301 were backed up for miles, Some were at a standstill while exiting I-4.

“During the fair, if you can peek toward the amphitheater from the midway and see cars backed up on I-4, you know it is a good day,” fairgrounds marketing manager Scott Merselis said. It was that way Saturday.

Fairgrounds staff struggled to keep ahead of overflowing trash cans and thirsty beer drinkers, who depleted the supply of craft beer left over from the Funshine Festival in April. The use of one main entrance also strained the parking facilities.

“We did the best with the staff we had, but obviously we need to do more and step up our game,” Merselis said.

The success of Saturday’s rally prompted Gomez to announce Monday that there will be an attempt to draw 200 trucks to the fairgrounds on March 22.

Having the rally in the spring would make for more tolerable weather compared to Saturday’s event, when temperatures reached into the low 90s. Using more than one fairground entrance already has been decided. There also will be more staff to maintain garbage and rest rooms.

Inviting more trucks in theory also would shorten lines for customers. Unless more people come. Gomez said he already has 100 trucks pledged to the March rally. Inquiries have come from as far as Ontario, Canada.

“People are so excited and Tampa is such a foodie town,” Merselis said. “It was something overdue that we need to do here, We did it once and we’ll keep doing it.”

jhouck@tampatrib.com

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