Melissa “Chef Melly” Gardner attracts foodies from as far off as Orlando to her gourmet food truck. Along with her mother, Michelle, (right) and grandmother, Thelma, the family venture is a recipe for success.
BY FRANK DROUZAS, Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG — Looking for good Cajun fish and grits, grilled bone-in truffle butter ribeye or delicious parmesan fries? No need to head to a gourmet restaurant — the gourmet restaurant will simply come to you.
The Three Generations food truck, to be exact. Melissa Gardner, affectionately known as Chef Melly to many, has been operating her food truck for six months now and her flavorsome cuisine has attracted quite a following.
Gardner, 28, graduated from St. Petersburg College where she earned a bachelor’s in Information Technology and Management and became a software engineer. Yet she always found herself drawn to cooking, and even made appearances as guest chef for special events at renowned local restaurants like Callaloo on 22nd Street South. In time, Gardner set up her own tent and served her savory street food outdoors on weekends.
“I would do a Saturday pop up,” Gardner explained. “I would just pop up in a tent, and we would just cook.”
Word of her pop-ups started attracting attention, and customers would come from all over St. Pete and beyond to sample Gardner’s cuisine.
“We would wake up on a Saturday morning and say, ‘Hey we’re going to be here,'” Gardner said, “and the people in the city would come out. We’d have customers coming from Tampa, Bradenton, Polk County, Sarasota –everywhere!”
Not long after, Gardner decided to trade in the florescent lighting for the natural sunshine. She quit her engineering office job, secured a food truck and turned her attention full time to serving hot food to hungry folks on the street.
Many of the recipes are originals, which Gardner and her mother Michelle worked to perfect. Three Generations is a family affair in every respect, with Gardner’s grandmother Thelma involved as well.
“Me, my mom and my grandmother, we work together,” she said.
Three Generations operates Tuesdays through Saturdays, with a central location at the Trinity Presbyterian Church, 2830 22nd Ave. S. Gardner provides info on any location changes on the Three Generations social media pages such as Facebook and Instagram. She also plans to have a presence at many of the upcoming outdoor events in the city.
“We’ll be participating in a lot of the fall festivals,” she said.
Though Three Generations started as strictly lunch, it transitioned into a place to get dinner (on Thursdays and Fridays), and now even breakfast, which Gardner noted was rare for food trucks in the area.
“We started cooking breakfast, and it was a hit,” she said. “We sold out our first day!”
Gardner noted that her Cajun shrimp and grits is a top seller, among other unique fare such as salmon croquettes, and of course, her scrumptious version of chicken and waffles.
“We’re the only people in St. Pete right now that sell red velvet chicken and waffles,” she said. “Our entire menu is personalized; that’s why we have such a big following.”
For those that crave Gardner’s delicious edibles but can’t get away, there is a delivery service available Tuesdays through Fridays.
Among the many regular diners is a growing number of new customers Three Generations attracts daily.
“We get City of St. Petersburg customers,” Gardner said, “we get a lot of the restaurant owners and food workers. We do specials every day; we do promotions when the kids go back to school, we give teacher discounts and things like that.”
Some customers are so hooked they’ll have breakfast one morning and come back for dinner later in the evening, Gardner said.
“Sometimes they’ll stay and eat their food here,” she pointed out. “We’ll set up tables, and they’ll want to sit out and enjoy the vibe and enjoy the experience because we’re not just a food truck, we’re a gourmet food truck.”
An obvious advantage of owning a food truck as opposed to a brick-and-mortar restaurant is not simply the lower overhead cost but the mobility. Almost daily, at least one customer asks if Three Generations will ever move into a restaurant space.
“People are more likely to come to a restaurant because they have a place to sit,” she conceded, “but if the food is really good on the food truck — I mean, I’ve had people drive from Orlando, so many places, just to eat with us!”
Gardner said one of the things she loves most about what she does is the chance to bring something new to the community.
“I’m from Miami, and I’ve lived in different places that serve a variety of food and in St. Pete, we needed something new…for me that’s awesome — just bringing a new flair to the area!”
To reach Frank Drouzas, email firstname.lastname@example.org