Major food truck festival comes to Milwaukee area

Lisa Neff, Staff writer

Leave the tight jeans at home, Anne Marie Aigner advises.

She’s the founder and executive producer of Food Truck Festivals of America, which has organized more than 60 festivals in the United States and will bring a caravan of food trucks to Waukesha May 20.

“We’ll have everything from crepes to tacos to barbecue and pizza,” she says. “People come to graze — and there are not too many places left these days where you can do that.”

FTFA, based in Allston, Massachusetts, bills itself as the largest traveling food truck and craft beer company in the United States.

The tours kicked off in 2011, and this year the company is driving an expansion to 16 markets.

“When we started our business in 2011, our list of trucks was eight,” Aigner says. “Now that list is 3,000-plus. The growth has been explosive. We weren’t sure when we started whether it was a fad or a trend.”

FFTA opened its 2017 schedule in late February in Palm Beach, Florida. The first April stop on the tour was in Albuquerque, New Mexico — where an imaginative dish topped the list.

“At our recent festival in Albuquerque, the lines were longest for the truck selling doughnut burgers,” Aigner says. “Yep, a burger between two doughnuts. Smothered in green chilies no less.”

At another festival, a truck sold chicken wings stuffed with mac and cheese.

“Have we mentioned that our festivals are not days for dieting?” Aigner asks.

In May, the festival stops include the Milwaukee Food and Craft Beer Festival May 20 at the Waukesha Expo Center.

Each festival brings its own unique mix of trucks.

“Food trucks are large — usually 27 feet long,” Aigner points out. “They cannot drive easily beyond a couple of hours. So our festivals feature trucks within a two-hour radius.”

For the Waukesha event, for instance, Aigner says festivalgoers will find trucks from the Milwaukee, Waukesha and Madison areas.

food truck
The Bacon Truck is open for business.

The arc of mobile food

Plenty of food magazines and critics credit Los Angeles chef Raul Martinez with opening the first modern “food truck.” In 1974, Martinez converted an ice cream truck into a food wagon dubbed King Taco that served street-style tacos.

Martinez’s success — within six months of launching King Taco he had a restaurant chain — inspired many chefs and entrepreneurs.

Of course, there was food on wheels before King Taco. Veterans of the Army during the 1950s might remember the mobile canteens stationed at U.S. bases. College students probably had a favorite 2 a.m. bus near campus that served hot dogs and cheese fries. Workers from office districts to construction sites have cheered when the coffee, packaged Danish and ham sandwiches guy arrived.

But times have changed.

“In the old days, you got a grilled cheese sandwich from a truck and it was American cheese between two slices of white bread — and you didn’t know how long it had been sitting there,” Aigner says. “Now you can get a grilled cheese from a food truck and it will be fontina with short rib and caramelized onions on brioche — and you can watch the chef make it right in front of you.”

Today’s trucks are upscale mobile kitchens.

“The food trucks have come a long way,” says Aigner.

Accelerating industry

Surveys show accelerated growth in food truckin’ in 2008, as the Great Recession hit. Chefs and entrepreneurs were looking to start lean businesses, while consumers were looking for gourmet cuisine — but without the fat check that can come at the end of a sit-down dinner.

The industry continued to grow after the recession, and this year food trucks are expected to generate $2.7 billion in revenue — a quadrupling in only five years, according to the National Restaurant Association.

food truck
A serving of Macarollin’.

With growth in the industry came new legislation — health and safety rules and measures setting hours and locations of business for vendors. Some localities moved to enact measures to promote food truckin’ and others moved to limit the businesses.

“Things got trickier for us,” says Pete Raynard, owner of the New Dog and Tricks truck in the Tampa Bay region. “You can’t necessarily just go to a neighborhood and start selling. We now partner to sell food at brew pubs and we do the festivals.”

The Milwaukee Common Council recently voted to restrict food trucks in the popular Brady Street area on the city’s east side. The mayor has not yet signed the ordinance.

Foodies and beer lovers aplenty

For vendors and customers, the festivals are a win-win.

“When a food truck vends for lunch on a city corner they may see 50 to 150 people between noon and 3 p.m. At our festivals, there are thousands of people. It is a fantastic way for trucks to make good revenue and to market themselves before a larger crowd of foodies and beer lovers,” Aigner said.

To vend at the Waukesha festival, FTFA requires a $100 participation fee and a $100 refundable deposit, plus a certificate of insurance, a health permit and temporary food license, and a menu.

“We have had a tremendous response from food trucks and craft brewers,” Aigner says of the call out to vendors for the Wisconsin festival. “In fact, we plan on having 25 trucks at the festival, but we have heard from over 80 interested in attending.”

Menus will include small, medium and larger items, but Aigner says many festivalgoers prefer the smaller items that can be held in one hand, freeing the other hand to hold a beer.

“We like to offer local and regional craft beers that you know or are curious about and enjoy, such as beers from Raised Grain Brewing Co. and a new seasonal beer from Sprecher Brewing Co., as well as national brands you may have heard of, but haven’t had a chance to try, such as some beers from North American Breweries” in New York City.

Organizers booked musical performances and offer lawn games, but the craft beer and food headline this festival.

As of WiG press time, more than 29,000 people had showed their interested in attending with check-ins on FTFA’s Facebook page and ticket sales for the Milwaukee Food Truck and Craft Beer Festival are outpacing the 14 other events on the tour schedule.

Why?

For the street-style tacos, sliders, gourmet hot dogs, wicked-good wraps and smothered fries.

“Every year the food truck industry evolves,” Aigner says. “But the constant is the fact that the food is fun and really good. Our food truck chefs are really chefs — and creative at that. They compete with each other to offer the most creative and tastiest items that you can’t find elsewhere.”

On the calendar

At least 25 food trucks will be serving menu items at the Waukesha Expo Center, 1000 Northview Road, Waukesha. Also, about 50 craft beers will be available. The event is noon–6 p.m. May 20. This is a rain or shine event. Tickets are $5 in advance. Children 12 and under enter free. A VIP pass is $20. For more information, go online to foodtruckfestivalsofamerica.com.