Lloyd the taco truck chugged onto the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus one recent Thursday, as rain poured from leaden skies.
The truck was there by invitation to serve its tacos, burritos, nachos and churros to the complex's 8,500 doctors, nurses, researchers and others. But Lloyd's operators, Peter Cimino and Chris Dorsaneo, feared that the deluge might dampen business.
Then they saw the umbrellas.
"People were standing out in the pouring rain for the entire three hours," said Mark McGovern, the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus' project manager. "People without umbrellas were out there waiting in line."
Lloyd started serving up its Mexican-styled fare in July, from a spot downtown at Main and Mohawk streets. The truck has been a hit, even if it's not up to speed. It can take 15 minutes to get your tomatillo pork or vegetarian black beans, and the partners are planning improvements.
Naturally, some Buffalo eaters are wondering: If Lloyd can make it, can other food trucks be far behind?
If you've never eaten street food outside Buffalo, you might wonder what the interest is. Before Lloyd, the only Buffalo choices were between hot dog carts and one serving Buffalo's ubiquitous specialty sandwich, beef on weck.
For years now, ambitious cooks in other cities have been turning mobile kitchens into a favored mode of cutting-edge casual food. They lure eaters with three or four unusual offerings, like Korean barbecue, Vietnamese sandwiches or gourmet burgers. They use Twitter and Facebook to tell customers where their daily specials can be had.
Food trucks have cut such a tasty profile nationwide that they've inspired their own Food Network show, "The Great Food Truck Race."
Los Angeles and New York City aren't the only places enjoying the changes, with plenty of food trucks calling smaller cities home. In Albany, outside the State Capitol, a dozen or more food trucks line up to serve office workers and others everything from Greek gyros to Jamaican jerk chicken, healthy salads and cupcakes.
And now, the food truck has finally made it to Buffalo. But there's just Lloyd. Dorsaneo and Cimino say they'd like competition. "We want there to be other taco trucks, other food trucks," said Cimino.
"Because in the long run, it's going to breed a better quality product, better quality businesses," said Dorsaneo. "More creativity. People need to be on their game when there's competition."
> Finding a place to park
Food trucks, and the kitchen where the food is prepared, need to be inspected by the Health Department. Since the church kitchen they use was already inspected regularly, that wasn't a problem, Cimino said. Finding a place to sell tacos was.
City regulations don't allow food trucks to serve food from any public streets, he said. City officials are also sensitive to the prospect of mobile kitchens competing with established restaurants. That's why Lloyd can only serve tacos by permission, in spots off the public ways.
Cimino said he was researching some mobile vending ordinances from other cities, in hopes that Buffalo could eventually adopt regulations that work for everyone -- brick and mortar restaurants, food trucks and hungry people.
Buffalo Place welcomed their truck to its spot at Mohawk and Main, Cimino said. When they get set up at 11 a.m., hungry customers start lining up, the Lloyd truck's Twitter note alerting them that tacos are available.
At the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, where Lloyd now serves lunch on Thursdays, McGovern said there's room for many more food trucks next year in a spot at the heart of the complex. It's being built this winter as part of streetscaping work.
"We're big fans of Lloyd, and would love to see if someone else hopped on the truck wagon," McGovern said. With thousands of workers, patients, visitors and others on campus, he said, there should be more options for lunch.
"Nurses, researchers and doctors don't always have an hour like us white-collar workers do," he said. "These guys have a quick 30 minutes when they're getting out. It's great when the truck rolls up right outside the door."
> Mechanical difficulties
Lloyd has been a long time in the making. Friends since they were 6 years old, members of the Kenmore West Class of 1999, they only pursued their dream of a joint venture last year. Dorsaneo, a former pastry chef, and Cimino, a math teacher, first thought of a poutine truck, serving the Quebecker junk food classic, before deciding on tacos.
"Everyone loves tacos," Cimino said. "We can do whatever we want with tacos, get creative. We can throw garlic shrimp in tacos, we can make chicken finger tacos and make people in Buffalo happy."
Which was how two guys from Kenmore who had never eaten at a taco truck decided to open one themselves.
The biggest surprise so far? The truck's alleged advantage -- freedom of movement -- is an illusion so far.
"We can't get a whole week of service to save our lives," Cimino said. Days before Lloyd's planned grand opening, the engine died. Taco fans who had sampled their wares during a soft opening, rallied over Facebook and Twitter by diehard taco truck fan and event organizer Christa Glennie Seychew, showed up for an instant fundraiser.
They bought Lloyd an engine, Cimino said, helping the partners with the $6,100 repair.
Then the transmission went. "We had to pay to get our truck towed to the Party for the Park event to honor our commitment to them," said Cimino. "Then get it towed back to the transmission shop." Another $1,600 gone.
"If we didn't have the demand we're having, our truck wouldn't be on the road," Dorsaneo said. "We wouldn't be able to afford it."
Then there's the question of winter. They're not sure people will wait for tacos, even though they've started giving 863-9781 as an order-ahead number. They're not sure they won't freeze, either.
Even if they have to retreat to catering and special events, Lloyd will make it to spring, the partners said. "We're passionate about bringing our food to the people," said Dorsaneo. "The feedback has been 99 percent positive, so we're going to do everything we can to keep the truck on the road."
> Expanding the menu
They've got plans. Now that the truck's fryer is working, they started offering churros, a rich doughnut stick sprinkled with cinnamon sugar and served with homemade spicy chocolate dipping sauce. Another recent entry is their cranked-up nachos, which tops chips with your choice of protein, pickled red onions, house-brined jalapenos, chimichurri sour cream and a homemade cheese sauce.
Hopefully, the spring brings competition, they said. "There is absolutely a demand," Cimino said. "There is a ridiculous demand, a demand for seven trucks on the road."
Buffalo's truck pioneers acknowledge that by calling for competition they could be "signing our own death warrant," Dorsaneo said. "We're not saying we're the best, what we're doing now. We want to inspire people. We want competition, because it'll cause us to work harder."