Today, it seems almost any random gathering of people is likely to attract at least one food truck. Tom Flanigan reports the number of these restaurants-on-wheels is growing in Florida, as well as their impact on the economies in which they operate.
The scene is a former Tallahassee shopping center, which is now the home of several state government agencies,. Part of its vast parking lot is full of colorfully-painted food trucks.
Hundreds of people are checking out the various trucks’ menus, which range from sandwiches and traditional comfort foods to exotic, international fare. One customer isn’t shy about sharing his personal choice.
“I’m sorry, I’m SOUTHERN! Being a southern boy, I like bar-b-que, so if you got a barbecue truck, see me!”
This enthusiastic diner’s food truck expertise, however, goes beyond simply knowing which ones have good barbeque. He is Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation Secretary Ken Lawson. His agency regulates the state’s food trucks, which he says are rapidly growing in numbers.
“Over the last year, since last December when we had this first food truck event, we’ve seen growth at seventeen percent across the state. In fact in Tallahassee alone we’ve seen a doubling of trucks, where now we have about 95 – more than 95 – in Tallahassee and the Big Bend area.”
Statewide, Lawson’s department says the number of licensed food trucks now exceeds three-thousand. Some are simply mobile extensions of existing traditional restaurants. But many are expressions of individual entrepreneurship. Take Julio Soto who owns “Julio’s Food on the Move”.
“It was just a hobby. I mean, I got a full time job; a real job. I just do it on weekends and special events here and there.”
Soto specializes in Italian sausage and other dishes reflecting his ethnic heritage. That he says, plus the vehicle he chose to house his kitchen – a trailer rather than a truck, makes his operation different from most.
“This is a ’68 Airstream. I didn’t just want to do a trailer; I wanted a unique one. And I found it and started putting stuff in it and here we are.”
But while Soto isn’t fully committed to the life of a food trucker, Rebecca Kelly is. She’s a classically-trained chef who could very well have opened a regular restaurant. But she opted instead for a food truck and painted the name “Street Chefs” on the side.
“Because this cost about a tenth of a brick and mortar. It cost me around $30,000 to buy the truck, get the equipment, start everything up, license, insurance, the whole nine yards. Multiply that by ten easily for a brick and mortar.”
Kelly says there’s another difference. Whereas so many regular restaurants get their food and other goods from large suppliers that aren’t local, she prefers shopping small, local sources.
“We get all of our produce from Tomato Land. Our bread comes from Three-Sons Bakery here in Tallahassee. You know I’m a small business; I want to support small business. That’s I think the way the circle should work.”
And, besides loving the barbeque some of them serve, Department of Business and Professional Regulation Secretary Ken Lawson likes that food truck circle of success idea, too.
“They’re regulated just like any other restaurant. We check them out twice a year to make sure they’re safe and they’re providing great service. And also a shot in the arm to the economy, so we’re all glad they’re here.”
As are so many hungry Florida residents and visitors who find, more and more, wherever they are, so too will the food trucks be.