Food trucks rolling into Taste of Cincinnati with a flavor of their own

These meals on wheels were new to the fest in 2012

CINCINNATI -- This is how far Cincinnati has come with mobile food: Three years ago, food trucks weren’t allowed into the Taste of Cincinnati. With a half-million people descending into Downtown over Memorial Day weekend for the 36th annual Taste, food trucks will park and serve up food from their own alley.

In the developmental arc of food trucks, Cincinnati is still a toddler—on its feet, learning to walk with confidence, trying to understand its place in the larger world. Nine food trucks have their place on the Taste menu alongside 56 traditional restaurants.

Taste of Cincinnati is May 24-26, filling up six blocks of Fifth Street, from Vine Street to Sentinel, in Downtown Cincinnati.

Some might see food truck alley, on Broadway north of Fifth Street, as a placating gesture, like shuttling the kids to their own play area while the more established brick-and-mortar restaurants have booths several blocks west, near the festival’s hub of Fountain Square. But for those banking their entrepreneurial futures on four wheels, Taste of Cincinnati is an unmatched opportunity to market themselves and establish food trucks as legitimate options for credible edibles.

“People who appreciate food and are there for the food are going to seek out good food, and they’ll find it whether it’s in the middle of the festival or the far corner,” said Jeff Ledford, who drives and operates Catch-a-Fire Pizza with his wife, Melissa.

“There’s a broad range of food you can get from a truck and we’d like to consider ourselves in the upper echelon of that,” he said. “I know a lot of other food trucks are working hard to do the same thing. We’re trying to change the culture and develop a new culture.”

Among the food truckers at Taste, pizza and desserts anchor the cuisine, with Tex Mex and Korean fare tossed in for flare. The stories behind the trucks are more varied.

Marty Meersman taught art for 11 years at Northern Kentucky University—he just finished his final semester there—before moving into the waffle business. A trip to Findlay’s market inspired him to step into the path first blazed in Cincinnati by Taste of Belgium. Armed with a degree in sculpture and his wife’s degree in graphic design, Meersman purchased a UPS-styled truck, gutted it and filled with items salvaged from another moving truck.

Marty’s Waffles debuted this past August at the Night Owl Food Truck Rally in Mason and has since earned as many accolades for the truck’s design as for the waffles it serves up.

“The hours I’ve been keeping are kinda like graduate school all over again. I do an all-nighter of prep work on Thursday to get ready for Friday,” Meersman said. “Then you clean everything up, fill your clean water tank, drain the grey water and get four hours of sleep before you get up for the next event.”

This past weekend, at the Loveland Food Truck Rally, Meersman sold 450 waffles in four hours, but he’ll have to sustain business far longer to hit his goal of $10,000 for the weekend of Taste. Before then, he’ll spend 12 to 16 hours per day making dough.

“It’ll be pretty exhausting. If we make a little bit of money, that’s fine. It’s more of a publicity thing,” he said. “I mean, there are going to be a half-million people there. No other event we might do can give us this kind of exposure.”

Nino Loretto didn’t get off an auspicious start in the mobile restaurant business, flying to El Paso with his father to purchase and drive home a food truck, only to realize upon getting back to Cincinnati the truck wasn’t right for what he needed. Loretto has since converted a former bread van that was already sitting in his driveway into the home of Panino. His fare features a “fast-casual, Subway-meets-Chipotle” eatery that shines a spotlight on Loretto’s whole-hog butchery and recipes dating to his grandfather’s career as a butcher.

Among other dishes at Taste, Panino. will offer sliders made with pork from hogs slow-roasted porchetta style for 24 hours. Loretto is also serving duck confit and duck crostini. All his marketing stresses eco-consciousness—his truck runs on vegetable waste—and locally sourced ingredients.

“The staff is me, my mom and my friend Joe, so we can rock out some food and it doesn’t take much to hit my numbers,” Loretto said. “No matter how much (business) we do, it’s worthwhile to me, with my involvement with slow foods, to show what can be done.”

Perhaps the most eyebrow-raising feature of Catch-a-Fire Pizza is that Ledford, the proprietor, managed to outfit his truck with a 3,000-pound, six-feet-around wood-fired oven.

“Before we dived in, we made a lot of phone calls to the fire department and other departments and we couldn’t find any regulations telling us we couldn’t do what we wanted to do,” Ledford said.

Ledford’s 15 years in the restaurant industry includes managing one of Jeff Ruby’s restaurants and, most recently, the residential dining program at Xavier University. He and his wife initially saw Catch-a-Fire as a stepping stone to a fixed-locale pizza parlor but have since seen the marketing value of the truck, regardless of any eventual growth.

“We’ve been able to reach out to a wider audience to get our name and brand up,” Ledford said. “It’s been more challenging in ways I couldn’t imagine. Last winter was brutal but we remained out there. But it’s also broadened our scope and our goals are loftier. We want people to think of us as great pizza, period, not just great pizza from a truck.”

With any stigma of second-tier offerings fading away from food trucks, a number of established restaurants, which haven’t always been friendly to the mobile competition, are finding wheels of their own. The Mellow Mushroom pizza chain, which has three fixed locales around the Cincinnati area, is hauling its “bake bus”—actually, a camper towed in by a truck to the food fest. 

“It’s super hippy, super stoner-looking. If the 1960s threw up on a bus, that’s what it looks like,” said Josh Emig, a general manager at the Mellow Mushroom in Wilder, Ky. “Take everything we do here and put it in a bus, and that’s what we do.”

Lance Barry, communications manager for Taste and with the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber of Commerce, sees Food Truck Alley as both a reflection and endorsement of the trucks’ fast-emerging presence in Cincinnati. The festival first welcomed trucks in 2012 after patrons at previous Tastes questioned why trucks weren’t included. This year, for the first time, Food Truck Alley will feature its own stage of entertainment.

Barry shrugs off the notion that Food Truck alley in any way segregates the truckers from their more grounded counterparts.

“It allows them to have their own identity and calls attention to how big a focus they now have throughout the region,” he said. “I don’t see this necessarily as a trend. At this point, I see them as ingrained in the area. They are every bit a restaurant as the brick-and-mortars, and they just happen to be on wheels.”

Food Truck Alley

Catch-a-Fire Pizza (Americana)

C'est Cheese (Americana)

Marty's Waffles (Americana)

Mellow Mushroom (Americana)

Panino (Americana)

Red Sesame (Korean)

Street Pops (Sweets)

SugarSnap! (Americana)

Texas Joe Tex Mex (Mexican)

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