Have tacos, will travel
First Posted: 7/23/2013
It’s 11:15 on a Wednesday morning and big, fat rain drops are pushing their way through gray skies, accompanied by a light wind – and yet, there’s already a line forming at the curb of What the Fork, a food truck that won’t open for another 15 minutes.
It’s no shocker, considering the just-turned-year-old business is being looked at as one of the top 10 food trucks in the nation by ABC’s morning show “LIVE with Kelly and Michael.” It’s been quite the journey for Mario Bevilacqua, 25, of Dunmore, his fiancé Katie Graziosi, 24, of Old Forge, and James Bodnar since they started, one that will hopefully end with a $20,000 grand prize.
Bevilacqua’s love for the food industry can be traced back to when he was eight years old, when his late father opened popular Scranton eatery Whistles.
“I absolutely loved the atmosphere,” Bevilacqua said. “Everything about it. Everything about the restaurant business was awesome.”
Bevilacqua went on to work in restaurants since the age of 15, graduating from The Restaurant School of Walnut Hill College in Philadelphia and working at the University of Scranton DeNaples Center kitchen, which is where he worked with Bodnar.
Bevilacqua was up for an executive chef job in Yardley, but after he and Graziosi visited the area, they determined the cost of living didn’t make sense for them financially – and then thoughts of a food truck started to creep in.
“At the time, ‘The Great Food Truck Race’ was going on, so it was a thought,” Bevilacqua said. The idea lay dormant for nine months until Graziosi’s uncle brought it up again.
“And then it was like, ‘Yes,’” Bevilacqua said. “The light came on. Within weeks, we were putting a business plan together, we found a truck in Harrisburg, and we rushed to do it.
“If we were going to do it, we wanted to be quick and one of the first ones out there. We wanted to set the bar and do it right. I already knew what type of food I wanted to serve, so from December 2011 it started, and we launched in July.”
MORE THAN A TRUCK
What the Fork serves American modern cuisine, the focus of which has recently become pulled pork tacos thanks to the contest, but before even discussing the food it has to be noted that, at this point, What the Fork isn’t just a food-touting truck – it’s a driving force of personality.
“You can’t imagine how it looked before,” Bevilacqua laughed when looking at the brightly painted truck. “It was so ugly; there was nothing on it. The wrap does wonders. Before, it was awful.”
There’s absolutely no way you can miss the vehicle, painted bright orange and green with black text all over it, some urging patrons to bite off more than they can chew.
The look is one thing, but social networking has given the truck a voice, as it speaks through Facebook (facebook.com/WTForktruck) and Twitter (twitter.com/wtforktruck). Not only does the page give fans daily menu items (which are ever-changing) and locations the truck will be at, it reads as a friend might talk to another, telling stories of its day. There have been truck driving mishaps recorded (the most recent of which in Clarks Summit was recounted through photos) and the sharing of What the Fork merchandise, most notably a batch of buttons that say, “No, Mario isn’t here.”
All of this is something the Fork team has put extra special care into, specifically Bevilacqua.
“Before we started, I was reading a book about running a business like this, and when I came across the part about branding, I was like, ‘Oh my God, how did I not think of this?’ We had to focus on fonts, colors, text. I didn’t immediately think, ’Oh the truck has to look some sort of way,’ but once I started to, I know what I wanted to do.”
The website (whattheforktruck.com) and Facebook were fully loaded with things for people to see even before they launched.
“We wanted to get people involved right from the start,” Bevilacqua said. On the first day for the Facebook page, What the Fork received 500 likes.”
The branding of the truck lends itself to the type of food it serves.
“We’re not cornering ourselves,” Bevilacqua said. “Not with the color, the name. We’re not creating the brand around something specific. It can be whatever it wants to be.”
And what that’s turned into is a menu that provides a bevy of options with a twist, from Korean braised short ribs with salted lime slaw to sliders of grain-fed beef, pepper jack cheese, and bacon jam.
Bevilacqua looked to another popular local eatery for inspiration.
“I was looking at AuRants because I absolutely loved it. They got people in the door to try exotic meats and crazy proteins, so I wanted to teeter on that scale – normal with a twist. That’s what everything is. We’re not using crazy vegetables or proteins; it’s just the technique and the way it’s prepared. Some of the things we have are for a beginner, and then we have some things a person wouldn’t normally eat.”
What the Fork spreads the local love through its food as well. The business buys from Purple Pepper Farms in Dalton and works with places like Dunmore Candy Kitchen and Pieroguys Pierogies.
“It’s so much fun to be able to do things like that,” Bevilacqua said. “We love local businesses, and it’s a good way to get creative and come up with some fun stuff.”
Currently, What the Fork is working with Dunmore Candy Kitchen on a Sriracha peanut butter caramel pretzel and teaming up with another, not-yet-named business to produce a bacon jam sundae.
The standout item on the What the Fork menu was once its sliders, but that has since been usurped by pulled pork tacos, which the Fork crew will cook up on July 25 when they film their “LIVE” segment.
The story of the taco recipe, which includes Sriracha slaw and candy sauce, is rooted in family.
“Every time we’d go to see Katie’s grandma, she’d make mashed sweet potatoes and pork chops seared in this candy sauce,” Bevilacqua said. “It was incredible, and then one year for Christmas, she gave me the recipe for it. We knew we had to somehow add candy sauce to the truck.”
It was a natural coupling with pork, but then what of the rest?
“I love barbecue sandwiches with coleslaw on them, which I know a lot of people don’t do, so I wanted to add the slaw, and I picked out the Sriracha for it one day randomly when I was cooking in the kitchen. Then we knew we needed to incorporate the sweet potatoes, so we added some crunch by doing sweet potato straws on top.”
The truck once sold 60 percent sliders to 40 percent tacos, but since the “LIVE” contest, all that has changed. Last month alone, What the Fork filled 1,300 taco orders.
“People are coming to the truck that have never been before and, because of the show, going, ‘Um, pork tacos, I guess?’” Bevilacqua said with a laugh.
What the Fork is the last of the top 10 food trucks to film and air its show segment. They are scheduled to film on July 25, with the segment airing July 26. Viewers will have the 48 hours following the show to vote for What the Fork. The food trucks will then be narrowed down to the top four vote getters, and then from there, two will face off on “LIVE” to compete for the top spot.
This is all after making it through a top 300, then top 20, and finally 10, a contest that started in the mid-May.
After the show, viewers can visit livekellyandmichael.dadt.com to vote.
Bevilacqua and company will certainly see their share of pork tacos over the coming weeks, but that’s not such a bad thing for Bevilacqua himself.
“Those and our French fries are literally the only thing on the truck I can still eat without a problem,” he noted with a laugh. “I’m sick of everything else.”