When we walk up, he’s hunched over, pouring gas from a plastic red canister into the small opening of a generator. It’s early evening, and getting muggy. Luke and I scowl at the dark clouds forming above us, and Luke instinctually puts a hand on his camera strap and presses it to his side. Curtis stands up, wipes the sweat from his brow with a bright white cloth, and extends his hand.
This isn’t our first time meeting Curtis Bright. Months earlier, Luke and I huddled over his food at the Food Truck Bazaar on Colonial Drive, willing to brave the rain for a vegan dish that he posted as an add-on to his standard fare. This is, however, the first time that we’ve had a chance to see the SWAT team (Curtis and his wife Krystal) operate behind the scenes.
Curtis’ handshake is tight, and you can feel his anxious energy as he explains that they are running behind with their setup. To kill some time, Luke and I dip into the bar next door where, we discover, there is enough local color to keep us writing for days.
The bar is mix of kitschy surfer shack and small-town dive, and my eyes dart surreptitiously from the wiry dark-haired man with his feet up reading a Kindle to the road-weary owner of the large Harley Davidson with the phrase “Drink, Fight, Fuck” on the back of his leather jacket. Luke sets down a cup of water for me and flanks himself with two large glasses of beer. I raise my eyebrows in amusement. “What? They were Two-for-One! What was I supposed to do with the other one?” I shake my head, knowing that they will likely go untouched.
“I used to go to Pine Ridge High School, not far from here. I grew up in this area.” Curtis says as he rejoins us. His body language indicates that he’s engaged, but we can also tell that he’s excited to get on the grill; his brown eyes dart to the door where his large truck growls loudly.
Good,I think to myself, it’s important to love what you do.
“This whole thing came to me in a dream,” he says. There’s a loud crash from behind the bar, but Curtis doesn’t flinch - or even break his gaze. “I was part of Corporate America, and the money was good, but I wasn’t having fun.” He shakes his head. “So, I got my culinary training and spent a lot of time being a customer before I became a owner. See, that’s the thing;” he leans in, “many of these truck owners don’t know about the customer side of this interaction. Buying from a food truck is different than at a restaurant; it’s a unique experience.”
I ask him if the Orlando area is ideal for this type of business.
“There’s a lot of competition. Did you know,” he holds up a finger and his eyebrows raise. He gives us a small, incredulous smile. “Orlando has the highest concentration of food trucks per capita in the country? A lot of people get into this for the fun but they don’t take it serious. You’ve got to work to survive.”
The man knows his stuff. I checked his claim when I got home, and data from Business Insider shows Orlando with 37 food trucks per 100,000 people, the highest in the country. The closest contender is Miami with 34.
“We’ve been operating for three years now, and the menu is about to expand. We’re also going to do a truck remodel - inside and out. There’s going to be a new wrap on the truck and everything.” He waves his hand in the air as if conjuring up the image of their future selves on the wood table before us.
Luke and I are actually glad that we’re catching the last images of their operation before the upgrades. Their big black truck is a key component of the SWAT swagger and has become a familiar sighting around the city.
“It’s a 1975 Chevy P30, a once-retired Orange County School District truck.” While the outside of the truck encapsulates their tagline, “Skewers with a ‘Tude,” inside, the atmosphere is more relaxed and playful. We climb in and watch from one corner as Curtis, compact and reserved in the bar, now seems to physically and spiritually unfold in front of the flames that leap up from his grill. His movements are loose and free, and he and Krystal have developed a kind of choreography in this small space.
“She’s my high school sweetheart. She was a freshman when I was a junior. She lived around the corner from me and I didn’t even know it until we started dating!” It’s easy to imagine them as teenagers together, Krystal with bright eyes and a sweet, lilting voice and Curtis with his earnest gaze, leaning in to absorb every word.
Our joy from watching them work is only eclipsed by the final product, their food. Though their claim to fame is skewers with intensity and a stripped-down, no-fuss presentation, their flavors are actually quite nuanced. They only use fresh, natural ingredients that they cook to order. They are a huge hit with those who have adopted the Paleo diet and want delicious food that isn’t fatty or fried.
As we predicted, it has started to rain, but despite the wet weather, a small crowd is forming below their window. Krystal beams out at the patrons and begins to take orders. Luke starts snapping pictures, and I sneak away for a moment to talk to Kevin and Lindsay, an attractive couple that shows up to support the SWAT truck wherever its parked.
“We love it because it’s healthy and cooked fresh. I’ve been a fan of the chicken, but now I’m getting into the spiced salmon dish.” His bright blue eyes widen with emphasis and he turns to Lindsay, who is glamorously hidden behind oversized black sunglasses.
“Yeah, the chicken is great. But this beef is amazing too!” she laughs. “They are such nice people and the food is great, we’ve been fans from the first time we tried them.”
Judging from the reception that SWAT receives, it appears that everyone seems to love their healthy dose of cheeky ambivalence and unreserved enthusiasm. It’s hard to resist submitting to the SWAT team’s version of tough love.