TAMPA — Jeremy and Courtney Housley, freshly moved to Tampa from Baltimore, were headed to the beach Wednesday when they spotted something downtown they just had to check out.
Lykes Gaslight Square Park was necklaced with brightly colored box trucks, each pushing out its own aroma that drifted into the open windows of passing cars and up against the abutting office buildings.
The Housleys ordered a sandwich and shared fries as they sat on the grass in the shade. Their trip to the beach had taken an unexpected but rewarding detour: the once-a-month, city-sponsored Food Truck Fiesta, which on Wednesday celebrated its second anniversary.
“It’s our first time down here,” Courtney Housley said. “We’ll definitely come back to try a prime rib sandwich or some fried brie.”
And with that simple statement, maybe victory was won in the city’s ongoing fight to lure people downtown by bringing in new, temporary places to buy food – but without disturbing businesses in the process.
There was a time when downtown was bustling with a farmer’s market during the week, with vendors hawking produce from local farmers and other items from various artisans and merchants. But last year, the market moved to Sundays after a survey showed downtown workers didn’t have the time to shop during lunch breaks.
The market had been taking place there for four years and had weathered some complaints from restaurants in the area that the event was taking business away from them.
Mayor Bob Buckhorn was behind the move to bring the monthly food truck rallies downtown. At first, no one knew if the trucks would bring in hungry patrons – who might then linger and shop at nearby businesses – or, conversely, if the food truck rallies would siphon off potential paying customers from nearby brick-and-mortar restaurants.
At first, downtown eateries were wary of the food truck rallies, said Bryan Goodell, standing next to his Five Buck Truck, doling out desserts. Goodell also owns Fresh, a restaurant on Franklin Street, just across the street from the truck rally.
He said downtown workers are drawn out of their buildings during food truck rallies but said many of those watching the clock often end up in nearby restaurants to eat if they have to wait too long in line. Downtown restaurants typically have a busy lunchtime business while food truck rallies are taking place, he said.
The rallies offer a chance for people to try different things, he said. Menus, he said, “are quirky, different.”
Downtown denizens flock to the square to sample stuff they might not be able to get anywhere else, like The Oink, a roast pork meal with beans and risotto, from Rollin’ Zoinks, a truck run by Tammy Young, who claims some credit for talking Buckhorn into organizing the monthly downtown event two years ago.
“I met Bob at the Hyde Park rally,” which was a couple months before the first downtown one in 2011, she said. “He was so friendly and we were chatting and I had been dreaming of starting a food truck business and I asked him what was he going to do to help food trucks in Tampa. And look what he did.”
She said the result was beyond what most believed was possible.
“When Tampa does something,” she said, “It does it right.”
Young drives her truck here and there throughout the week, but the busiest it ever gets is during these downtown rallies, she said.
“It gets fast and furious for a couple hours,” she said.
The rally is held from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. the first Wednesday of each month. The weather was perfect Wednesday and by noon, many of the trucks had long lines of patiently waiting customers, stomachs growling, debit cards or cash in hand.
Buckhorn strolled out of City Hall and meandered into the park shortly before noon, greeting vendors and hungry customers. This is his baby, he admitted with a wide grin. He said it’s part of an overall plan to “set the tone for downtown, to create a buzz.
“Food trucks,” he said, “are part of the hipness factor.”