Talking about Taste Buds Express with Billy Ross
1. Tell us about Taste Buds Express.
We're a friendly food truck that prepares Tex-Mex and Southern home-style foods. I'm originally from Houston, Texas, where I was raised cooking this style of comfort food. We offer a wide variety with our three page menu, including over 12 different tacos, each with their own unique flavors made with homemade sauces and marinades. We offer great customer service, reasonable prices and big Texas sized portions.
2. When did Taste Buds Express start?
Our grand opening was in October 2012, but the planning and collecting of items we would eventually use took about 2 to 3 years. I moved to Jacksonville from Houston about 4 years ago. In Houston I worked in the arts community - working for the Houston Ballet. When I arrived in Jacksonville I found that there was little to no funding in the arts to make a living doing what I did in Texas. So I took a job as a bartender. For the past 2 years we've been looking to do something along the lines of catering. We were thinking of doing the Riverside Arts Market as a food vendor, but were rejected due to competing menus. It was a little disappointing because we really wanted to do the Arts Market and felt that we had a pretty different twist on our Tex-Mex style of food compared to most vendors. We considered other options of vending including building a trailer but ultimately we decided on building an actual food truck.
3. Did you ever consider a bricks and mortar restaurant?
We would absolutely love to have a restaurant and bring some Texas hospitality to Jacksonville; but like most food truck owners we see this as an opportunity to learn the restaurant business and hope to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant in the future.
4. Who came up with your funky truck design?
We knew we wanted a design that was eye-catching and exciting. We got with Kevin at Stripeman Graphix and after a couple of consultations we finally got the over the top look we wanted. In addition to the design, we just added a police light bar and we will be adding more “BLING” to the truck soon.
5. What is the concept of your food?
We concentrate on home-style, Tex-Mex food. We started off making our basic “tacos al carbon” made with marinated charbroiled flank steak, thinly sliced with cilantro, onion and pico on a flour or corn tortilla. We expanded and began adding new items like grilled chicken and barbecued pork. Eventually we started offering fresh vegetables like Mexican corn, Brussel Sprouts, barbecued green beans and various mixed vegetables. We also offer our now near-famous black beans and cilantro vegetables. For lunch people can actually get a full, wholesome lunch or a snack that satisfies their taste buds and their pocket books.
6. Did you have a menu in mind when you started?
I did a lot of catering back in Texas for special events and charities. From that I developed a list of favorites that people really enjoyed. One of those items we have on the menu now is our Bourbon Chicken lunch. I've had people just order big pans of Bourbon Chicken for their lunch parties. It’s become so popular now that it was developed into one of our most popular tacos - The Bourbon Chicken Taco.
7. How do you differentiate your taco truck from other taco trucks?
Every truck or restaurant has their own distinct taste. Our style of “spicing” along with our homemade sauces and marinades gives our food a unique flavor that people crave and keeps them coming back for more. Our people friendly atmosphere, quality product and a rocking truck with comfortable outdoor seating makes for a great dining experience as well.
8. How do you come up with your recipes?
A lot of my recipes were taught to me by friends and family over the years. Some were trial and error experimenting with different spices. Many of the recipes we use on the truck are top secret now. We’ve had several people and other vendors try to guess or duplicate some of what we do on the truck and they are nowhere close.
9. How much of the menu is stable and how much changes?
We will always have our Tex-Mex and tacos as a staple. I would say that 85% of our 3 page menu will always be regular items.
10. How is that to manage? Do you do all the cooking?
Yes, I prepare and cook all the food daily. The hardest part is to determine how much to make for each location. I hate to waste food so a lot of our friends or people we see toward the end of the day might get a little something extra in their bags. For a company that's just started we've learned a lot, and we still have a lot to learn. I think we're doing alright so far.
11. Do you have a set location or do you move around a lot?
Right now, on Tuesdays we're downtown at Main and Forsyth from 11am – 1:30pm. Wednesdays and Thursdays we're at the Jax Federal Credit Union on Park Street. We’ve been fortunate to have come to an agreement with Metro Entertainment Complex. We pull right up to the club’s patio every Friday from 8pm until 1 am and Saturday from 9 pm until 1 am for seated dinner service with full bar access. They have cold beer, fresh fruit margaritas and daiquiris. We call it the Metro Cantina and Patio. We also do charity events and little things here and there. People are hearing about us through word of mouth and asking us to come out for special events and fundraisers. It's been wonderful.
12. What can you recommend to someone who's eating with you for the first time?
For the first timers, I always offer them our original tacos al carbon - then I point out a couple of other choices they may be interested in. People have been very open to our suggestions.
13. What can you recommend that's a little different?
One of our customers suggested I offer poutine. I thought "poutine?!" I'd never heard of poutine. I found out that it's a French Canadian dish which is basically brown gravy over french fries with cheese curds. It's a very popular dish in Canada so I started looking at different recipes and I thought I'd put a Southwest twist on it. So I braised a brisket with cilantro, tomatoes, peppers and spices then served it over our french fries with chipotle sour cream sauce and cheddar cheese. It's about 4 or 5 pounds of food and it’s been quite popular. In fact, we’ve seen over the last few months that a few brick and mortar restaurants have placed versions of poutine on their own menus.
We also make hand rolled egg rolls on the truck. We started off with this item being something else and it kind of merged into our Southwest Egg Rolls which is a spicy rice mixture with vegetables, rolled and deep fried. We serve it with our famous, top secret Green Sauce. The flavor is really interesting and the heat is not so hot that it kills you but your mouth knows you ate something spicy and yummy!
14. Do you make all the sauces?
Oh yes, we make everything! Our Green Sauce is very popular. We’ve had customers buy it by the pint and quart to cook with or for parties. At some point we’ll bottle it.
15. What's the most popular item on the truck?
Most of our customers mix and match tacos for lunch, but we do have some favorites like our Oriental Chicken Wrap, big 12 inch Flauta, Chimi-chumgas, Burritos, the ridiculously Big Ass BBQ Sweet Potato and our original Southwest Poutine.
16. The flauta isn't on your menu is it?
It was just added. It's a fairly new item. But it's popular and if something sticks I'll keep it on the menu.
17. What's your favorite item?
I love all of it! If I had my choice I'd go with the Billy’s Favorite Steak Taco. That's one of my favorites with mushrooms, bacon, blue cheese and grilled peppers.
18. Do you have really formal recipes, or do you cook more by feel?
I do have recipes but I’ve made these recipes so many times I can add a pinch and a splash of that and it always come out fantastic.
19. What's your cooking background?
I have no culinary training; most of what I’ve learned was self taught, experimentation and watching cooking shows since I was a kid. It's something I've always enjoyed; cooking has always been a part of my life in some form or fashion.
20. What's been the reaction to food trucks that you've seen?
Generally, it’s been very positive. Due to cable programs and local media buzz, people are willing to give us a shot. That’s why it’s so important to make sure the product is consistent and very good. Otherwise people won’t be willing to come back. Again, it’s been very positive.
We have also seen some push-back from brick-and-mortars trying to amend city codes to forbid trucks in the downtown area. I don’t see much support for that kind of reaction.
21. Is catering a part of your business?
We do offering catering. However, as a growing business we are focusing mainly on our daily commitments. But we have done a number of catering jobs. We will grow that aspect of the business over time.
22. Who's your main audience for catering?
At this time we are focusing on smaller parties and gatherings, specifically, weekend birthdays and daily office meetings.
23. What do you like most about owning a food truck?
Interaction!! As owner-operator I have unlimited contact with our customers. This is very important when growing a new business. I get immediate feedback. Obviously, I get a huge thrill when I put a smile on someone’s face after they’ve tasted our food.
24. What are your hours?
We typically serve lunch between 11 am and 2 pm. As of now we are at the corner of Main and Forsyth downtown on Tuesdays. Wednesdays and Thursdays we are at the corner of Park and Roselle in Riverside and we are open at Metro Cantina and Patio at 849 Willow Branch each Friday at 8 pm and Saturday night beginning at 9 pm.
When we are vending at festivals, special events and fundraisers we typically post it on Facebook, Twitter or our website, TasteBudsExpress.com
25. Anything else?
Simply that it is our honor to serve people food that they will come back for. We invite everyone to give us a shot. We’re very confident they’ll come back again and again.