Also known by their technical name mobile food dispensing vehicles (at least in the eyes of the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation which licenses and monitors them), the number of food trucks in Florida has increased from 1,680 in 2001 to 2,569 in 2014. The Tampa and Orlando areas have the most.
In Southwest Florida, 112 food trucks were operating within the three-county region last year — up seven from 2013. A decade ago, there were just 67. Palm Beach County issued 140 MFDV licenses in 2014, compared to 124 the prior year and the 84 reported 10 years ago.
While Florida appears to be embracing the mobile movement, the industry itself is changing. Food trucks are more likely to circle the wagons at farmers markets and other regularly scheduled events lest they unwittingly violate municipal regulations or raise the dander of bricks-andmortar restaurant owners should they park too close. Many of these moving mini-restaurants aren’t the wanderers they once were, sticking to venues where a captive audience is a better bet than guessing who’s hungry where.
The rise of the food truck has also spawned related services — big-time promoters akin to Hollywood agents who stage invitation-only rallies and roundups and a flurry of how-to and industry websites, some dedicated solely to street justice and battling those laws that take a bite out of business. Many food truck owners supplement their business with more lucrative private catering.
Lee Caglioti and Brian O’Flaherty of the Ravenous Rhino adhere to their own mom-and-pop rule, avoiding downtown Punta Gorda out of respect to the locally owned restaurants there. Instead their truck generates most of its business at the Sand Trap, a Deep Creek-area bar that doesn’t serve food. The couple offers dinner service Friday through Thursday, and 75 percent of their business comes from people who live in the area or follow them on Facebook.
Ms. Caglioti says they serve 40 to 50 dinners nightly in three hours. During high season there’s a 45-minute wait for the Rhino’s $12 slow-roasted prime rib.
Like Caglioti and Brian O’Flaherty, food truck entrepreneurs tend to be trained chefs who prefer the open road to the higher overhead of a stationary restaurant. A food truck gives them freedom to take business where there’s demand — except when the engine or the generator acts up or a tire gets flat, laments Woody Szaza, owner of Woody’s Burgers which serves fresh-cut fries, 7-ounce premium brisket-and-chuck grilled burgers and other specialties from Port St. Lucie to Miami.
“Restaurants are great when they’re busy but there’s a lot to deal with,” says Mr. Szaza, whose 30 years in the business includes tenure at Ritz-Carlton restaurants and as the owner of a small chain. “Food trucks can be a nightmare at times. You don’t have the same problems of a restaurant but the truck itself can have mechanical issues.”
Mr. Szaza is a relative newcomer, rolling out his food truck 18 months ago, shortly after his relocation to the Sunshine State. “I’m enjoying it,” he says. “It’s a great way to see Florida and get the word out.”
For Erika Nunez and Fernando Pina, their Nando’s Taqueria in Englewood was a dream come true. The couple plunked their entire savings into the truck and took out a loan to get the business off the ground. It opened Dec. 1, 2013.
“We’ve both been in the food business one way or another,” says Ms. Nunez. “We moved from Georgia where we cooked for older people who raved about our food. We thought a taco truck would be easier than a monster like a restaurant.”
Englewood, where Mr. Pina has family, had similar demographics and a hunger for quesadillas, burritos, tacos and enchiladas. The couple and their family serve meals six days a week from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. in the parking lot of Omni Marine on McCall Avenue. Ms. Nunez credits Omni’s owner Ryan Blumberg as a mentor who often helps her with business advice.
“We left Georgia in 2008 during the bad economy, had a lot of faith, took a chance and here we are today,” she says. “Business has been awesome and the locals have been so good to us. We paid off the loan. I’m proud to say the little taco truck is mine.”
Mr. O’Flaherty and Ms. Caglioti’s foray into the food truck business came in a round-about way and involved a hefty serving of romance. They’d both worked together in the late 1980s at the old Mike’s Landing at Page Field in Fort Myers, dated for 18 months then went their separate ways for more than two decades.
“Brian looked me up in 2009 out of the blue and it was almost as if he’d just gone to the corner for milk,” she says. “We picked right up where we left off and married in 2011. Because we married later in life and we knew we wouldn’t have 60 years together and decided to spend as much time together as possible.
That led to a catering business and the Ravenous Rhino food truck. “We’ve always worked well together and knew we didn’t want the overhead and staff of a bricks-and-mortar restaurant,” says Ms. Caglioti. “With a food truck we have flexibility, can roll out to events and where the business is and have fun with it.”
The couple continually changes the menu, trying to focus on whatever’s fresh and available.
“We’re really the only food truck of this nature in Port Charlotte and Punta Gorda,” she says. “There are others but they’re not doing the gourmet thing. We always cook over the top, serve way too much. We want folks to get a good value. Our market isn’t as metropolitan as Miami or Seattle.”
The Ravenous Rhino, with a licksmacking gray rhino on the side, hit the road in spring 2012 and has earned a loyal following for its bacon-and-cheesestuffed HogZilla burger, Granny Smith apple slaw and Thai shrimp tacos.
Ms. Caglioti figures the same rules of the restaurant business apply to food trucks: lose money the first year, break even the second and show a profit the third.
“Our business is good and keeps growing. We’re not rich by any means but we’re having fun.”
For Matthew and Amanda Somsy, Stuart based caterers, their Curbside Gourmet provides instant gratification.
“We do a lot of catering and both of us have run kitchens,” Mr. Somsy says. “In a restaurant you’re always in the back and never get any feedback. With a food truck, people tell you they like your food or you hear them saying, ‘Wow that tastes great.’ We put our heart and soul into our food and that’s nice to hear.”
Curbside Gourmet is also an exception to the disappearing lunch truck. It offers lunch three days a week at the old Improv Comedy building on Dixie Highway and Wednesdays at the Esperante Corporate Center, both in West Palm. “We’re the only food truck that has a lunch crowd,” Mr. Somsy says. “That’s how we built a following. We have 6,000 social media followers.”
Lunchtime meals range from braised short ribs and pork bellies to grass-fed burgers and crab cake sliders.
Mr. Somsy says lunchtime “can be hit or miss. We can do anywhere from 30 to 60 meals in the span of three hours.”
Ravenous Rhino tried lunch service but it didn’t pan out, says Ms. Caglioti.
“Charlotte County is so geographically spread out we weren’t getting enough people in the time they have to eat,” she says. “Everything we do is cooked to order so it can take 15 minutes. We’re just not well-suited for lunch.”
Business for Paul Schmidgall’s Fire and Rice is so good, the chef plans to spend the summer on the road selling franchises throughout the U.S. and Canada. The 20-year-veteran chef was working for a Naples homebuilder when the real estate market failed.
“Employees were told to get a parttime job,” he says. “I started doing this in 2011 and business has grown exponentially year over year, so much I’m almost tapped out at what I can do. I’m going to exhibit at franchise shows.”
With paella — albeit in many forms — as Fire and Rice’s sole specialty, Mr. Schmidgall says he’s close to selling his initial franchises, which will be outside the Southwest Florida market.
Fire and Rice also stick to farmers markets, weekly making the circuit from Marco Island to Lakes Park in Fort Myers and the occasional pop-up event, like a recent rally at Momentum Brewery in Bonita Springs. The truck typically sells out of 300 to 350 servings by 11 a.m. during the Third Street Market every Saturday morning in Naples.
A caterer as well, Mr. Schmidgall says he’s been working non-stop since October, taking off only Thanksgiving Day and Christmas.
The Ravenous Rhino tries to participate in food truck roundups and rallies. Ms. Caglioti became the Charlotte County contact for Food Truck Festivals of America after participating in the promoter’s Food Truck & Craft Beer Festival in March during spring training at Jet Blue Park in Fort Myers.
“This company is rapidly expanding and we’re trying to gage the interest and demand for making a food truck festival happen in Charlotte County,” she says.
In Naples, Taste of Collier will have a food truck row during the annual event later this month.
The Seminole Immokalee Casino used to host regular rallies but hasn’t had any for several years.
The Somsys are so passionate about their food truck and the business they’re members of one of the industry advocate groups. “Food trucks have been around since the chuck wagon,” he says. “We are not hindering the business of brick-andmortar restaurants. Food trucks are not a fad; they’re part of society and restaurants need to accept that. This is a good way for foodies and chefs to get their food out without big overhead.
“I get phone calls all the time from people interested in starting a food truck,” Mr. Somsy says. “If you love cooking, it’s awesome, especially the instant gratification.” ¦