Many successful restaurateurs tell a story of a passion to not only cook amazing dishes but to craft masterpieces. Some suppress that talent, indulging for family and friends while ascending the corporate ladder or building a business in a different, perhaps less risky, industry. For them, cooking, while still embraced with passion, becomes a hobby.
Phil Vanderhider followed a similar path. Now a pioneer in a new food truck concept, Cajun in a Truck, Vanderhider previously only cooked on the side. He built his career in a different industry. But he never stopped dreaming of opening a restaurant where he could flaunt his passion and skill. A realist, he was mindful of the tremendous commitment, both financial and physical, that owning a successful restaurant would involve.
“I have been cooking Cajun all my life,” he said.
Vanderhider grew up in Mamou, La., a small town in the southern part of the state known for its Cajun music, food and traditions. In 1997, he moved to Florida and built a manufacturing business. But his background and passion remained with the crafting of authentic Cajun food. The quality of his dishes are representative of what one would expect to find traveling along Louisiana’s Interstate 10 corridor from Lake Charles through Lafayette and Baton Rouge to New Orleans. Traditional gumbos, red beans and rice, jambalaya, and spicy seafood delicacies like crawfish, shrimp and other shellfish are among his Cajun specialties.
The art of Cajun cooking is more than just feeding hungry bellies. There is a deep love and connection that goes along with it, Vanderhider said. Food is a very important part of the culture, bringing families and friends together to share a connection beyond simply passing a plate.
When Vanderhider was ready to explore options in food service that wouldn’t break the bank or risk his entire foundation, he considered a food truck.
“We could be mobile, thereby reaching more communities,” he said.
He could also focus on a few specific food items to test the market and mix things up a bit as the idea caught on. And he’d employ only a select few master cooks and support staff to maintain quality of his “empire.”
He originally planned to do a BBQ truck, something that might appeal to a wider range of customers. But after giving it some thought, he decided to pilot a Cajun-style food truck since no one else was doing it. One of his goals was to find ways to change stereotypes that Cajun food is too spicy.
Cajun in a Truck rolled onto Hernando County streets at the beginning of October and has already had an impact.
“The Cajun food truck concept didn’t just happen overnight,” Vanderhider explained. “I had been researching it for two plus years.”
The high visibility of the truck with its bold colors and huge orange graphic lettering makes an impression as it pulls up to one of four regular destinations. Within just a few minutes, the side is opened to display the ordering window and condiments. Bistro tables and stools are set up for ease of dining and prep cooks get to work firing up the grills and cook surfaces.
Vanderhider chose to introduce a few items at a time to get an understanding of what customers in Hernando County are willing to try. Traditional dishes have been a hit, even among those who might not have tried Cajun in a different environment.
“It isn’t that spicy,” Vanderhider said.
Instead, the food has a sort of smooth touch to the back of the palate when it goes down. And the distinctive flavors become a savoring experience.
Cajun in a Truck has chicken or sausage jambalaya and gumbo but their biggest sellers tend to be the Po Boys, made with chicken, shrimp or catfish. Entrees are served with a slice of crusty grilled bread, similar to Italian bread but with a Cajun spice.
Vanderhinder sells a healthy quantity of sides, including deep fried jalapeno pepper and onion strips, and Boudin Balls, which combine ground sausage, rice and spices, hand molded into balls, rolled in a crunchy panko breading and deep fried.
Vanderhider also prepares his own dipping and bottled hot sauces that bring the experience to a new level.
Most of the food preparation is done the day before so flavors can blend, Vanderhider said. His six staff-member team includes experienced cooks and servers that begin their day hours before the truck heads toward its destination.
“You can feel that energy in the truck when we’re going to a new location,” Vanderhider said.
Cajun in a Truck will hold a ribbon cutting at noon Thursday at the Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce, 15588 Aviation Loop Drive, Brooksville. Normal schedule for Thursdays will resume next week.
They are also branching into catering for parities, business meetings, seminars and other events. They offer boxed lunches and the option of a dinner meal to go. And each week will offer a different entrée on special.
Cajun in a Truck is the first of three trucks Vanderhider plans to launch in Hernando, Pasco and Citrus counties.
“Once we have them established, my plan is to duplicate them in other regions,” he said.
For now, Cajun in a Truck is setting up in the same locations, building solidity among the community and adding to what is steadily becoming a solid customer base.
“Cajun is about faith, family, food and friends,” Vanderhider said. “We cook a lot, which creates good friends and good community. That’s what I wanted to bring to this. I wanted to bring in the whole experience.”