If you’ve as much as stepped foot into the heart of a booming metropolis in the last few years, chances are you’ve seen a food truck. Perhaps you’ve even sampled some one of a kind “street eats.”
Even if you haven’t yet had the pleasure of stumbling upon a truck and biting into some signature grub, if you have cable you’ve most likely come across the Food Network series, “The Great Food Truck Race” while flipping channels. That’s right—food trucks have even earned a spot of stardom on their own reality TV show.
The novelty of food trucks is that their mobility allows them to go where the people go—and in some cities—stay where the people stay. Depending on the degree of regulations that are in place, food trucks can typically be found roving about town, or parked in front of host establishments. Certain cities even boast entire lots dedicated to these restaurants on wheels, while local alliance groups regularly hold “pop up” food truck rallies.
Not only do food trucks offer unique, out of the box and on-the-go cuisine, they are proving to add vibrancy to areas within cities that may have previously gone overlooked, while serving to complement, rather than compete with, established food communities.
Food trucks have become a growing trend not just within contained areas, but nationwide, and one that remains on the up and up. Industry research from IBIS World reports that food trucks and carts grew 8.4 percent from 2007 to 2012 and now make up a $1 billion industry, with more than 3,500 businesses employing upward of 15,500 persons.
Northwest areas including San Francisco and Portland, Ore., and East Coast areas such as Washington D.C. have been leading the way for quite some time.
A survey conducted by the National Restaurant Association in 2011 reported that “Consumers living in the West (29 percent) and Northeast (24 percent) were much more likely than those in the South (15 percent) and the Midwest (9 percent) to see a food truck parked in their community.”
While slower to catch on, the trend is continuing to spread throughout the South. Food trucks have become established entities in capital cities like Austin, Texas. Some cities that remain in earlier stages of the movement are using recurring events to further engage their communities. Underground Atlanta hosts its own weekly summer series, “Food Trucks Wednesdays.” Further South, in Tampa, the local community—and even the mayor himself—have shown visible support with a monthly event titled “The Mayor’s Food Truck Fiesta.”
Back on the home front, currently the food trucks regularly gracing the streets of our own city add up to a whopping zero, or next to none. However, with the introduction of outdoor dining options, the restaurant community acknowledging the trend, and original stands such as tacos at T&W Flea Market, we just may be getting close.
Recently, nearby cities have jumped on board—forging together to allow the food truck phenomenon to truly grow and flourish; and serving as pioneers so that smaller cities like our own can take good notes, and hopefully over time—follow suit.
New Orleans is proof that you don’t have to be the biggest, “baddest,” or most bustling of cities—although in our eyes the mighty NOLA is all of the above—to have a food truck movement, you just need to be a little bit bold.
Rachel Billow was one of the early pioneers for food trucks in New Orleans. Two years ago when Billow purchased her food truck, carts and stands were rampant throughout the city but the food truck scene in New Orleans remained rather bare. Of the limited number of food trucks that were operating at the time, many were doing so without the required permit.
Although Billow had worked closely with city hall to find out how to obtain the required Mobile Vending Permit for her truck, La Cocinita, what she didn’t realize was that there were no more permits actually left. At the time, there were only 100 permits available total. These permits extended not only to food trucks, but every Lucky Dog, produce or other stand on the streets.
The New Orleans Food Truck Coalition began when Billow and a small group of eager entrepreneurs on wheels banded together in true grassroots fashion, seeking not only to expand the number of permits available, but to work together to loosen the restrictions that were in place in the city—restrictions that were vastly halting their mobile operations.
“We started a petition to get people interested and to show politicians there was widespread support for our cause,” said Billow. “I wrote my first proposal a year and a half ago.”
Today there are 22 trucks and carts in the Coalition, in addition to supporting community members. Not only has the Coalition been able to achieve their goals and eliminate the dated restrictions that had been in place since the 1950s, they’ve been able to serve as a model entity, and resource for those interested in starting up their own operation—from assisting in outlining laws and permits, to pointing newbies in the direction of a truck.
“People resist change but food trucks are a win-win. They are a good way to get people eating outside and taking advantage of outdoor spaces. They turn streets that were once used to go from point A to point B into thoroughfares. They’re good for the economy, small businesses, and reductions in crime—more eyes on the street. They’re good for the whole community,” said Billow.
When it comes to the chefs themselves, Billow sees food trucks as a way for entrepreneurs to get started in a culinary field and an opportunity for line and sous chefs to go out on their own. Plus it lets you take creative cooking to a whole new level.
“It allows you to be creative and show people something they might not see on a restaurant menu,” she said.
Breeze through the menu of her truck, La Cocinita, and you will see that Billow’s menu is a prime example of both creativity and authenticity. “The Little Kitchen” takes a build your own approach to Latin American Cuisine beginning with choosing your vessel—be it cornmeal patties or flour tortillas, all the way to loading your vessel with protein of choice, and packing it down with extras such as tostones, crispy smashed green plantains. To wash it down, the truck serves the cinnamon rice milk beverage known as horchata.
“People are really excited to have new options—a quick gourmet bite to eat that doesn’t overlap with or replace [existing food options],” said Billow. “The trucks are colorful and we keep tourists coming—they’ve become a part of our tourism industry.”
Although she admits that her truck was the most expensive purchase she has ever made, with a base price of $15,000 increasing to $55,000 once branding, wrapping and getting it up to code was all said and done, Billow encourages that overall, “It is doable.”
The beauty in the business model is that while there are certainly costs associated, there are lower overhead costs and barriers to entry compared to those faced when looking into erecting or purchasing an existing brick-and-mortar restaurant. This heightens the appeal and increases the accessibility for younger entrepreneurs, or those who may lack the startup capital to otherwise have a restaurant.
Despite initial oppositions that La Cocinita and other trucks faced, the trucks are receiving increased support from the established restaurant community.
“There are a lot of supportive restaurants who understand they can expand their own operation with a mobile branch of their existing business. They understand it can be mutually beneficial,” said Billow.
Billow has been involved with restaurants playing host to La Cocinita and other food trucks outside of their establishments, and confirmed that this festival-style set-up resulted in spikes in revenues for both operations.
“It turned into a mini Mardi Gras,” she said.
Ultimately, the Coalition is promoting a community that they consider to be a “win-win” situation for all parties involved—the city, existing restaurants, and of course, the food trucks. In New Orleans, the Coalition has helped pave the way to success for a range of food and beverage ventures—from the most involved of menus, to simpler, more traditional delicacies simply being served out of the box—even coffee.
You may remember Brigade Coffee curing your hangover at Hangout Fest 2012. Currently, Brigade can be found as a flagship staple on Magazine Street in New Orleans. Emma Chevalier manages the noteworthy truck run by silent owners who started Brigade out of a desire to be a part of the rich, vibrant coffee culture that is native to New Orleans.
Brigade has become a fixture on Magazine, and developed a following of regulars, even in their young operations of under two years. Although Magazine Street has become increasingly home to tourists, “we definitely have regulars who travel from other neighborhoods to see us,” said Chevalier.
The truck itself was purchased from Belgium and then gutted and customized for its own coffee uses. It currently serves as Brigade’s only structure. Unlike a typical food truck where operators are inside a closed, or semi-enclosed structure, the truck allows for Chevalier to serve coffee from the outside.
While trucks like La Cocinita are primarily roving trucks that are constantly on the go—Brigade remains slightly more stationary. Although the Brigade truck travels around to targeted events such as movie sets and rallies, Chevalier explains, “Most people like the routine of having their coffee in the same place.”
Before the recent change in the New Orleans laws to loosen the restrictions and allow for an expanded presence of food trucks in the city, Chevalier notes that there were great difficulties, even for Brigade.
“We have had trouble and have had to leave areas,” she said.
For those wanting to start their own operation from scratch in a city that currently doesn’t have a flourishing community, Chevalier advises, “Research the laws first and then go from there. Also, utilize social media. That’s how food trucks function.”
Urban Outdoor Dining
Albeit not mobile food trucks, in downtown Pensacola there is the recent introduction of urban outdoor dining that is attracting attention—one that goes by the name of Al Fresco.
Taking his own spin on the appealing, well-established food truck culture in Austin, Texas, Michael Carro sought to create an atmosphere that was well thought out and pristinely landscaped—rather than a dirt, unpaved, come and go, lot—here in Pensacola.
“I’m a big fan of Austin where they have 1600 food trucks in the community. Really amazing food comes out of the food trucks,” said the owner and developer of Al Fresco.
He’s also a fan of a different kind of set-up that can be found closer to home. “When you go to Seaside they have a more structured environment for these food trucks to reside in that’s eclectic,” he said. “I wanted to blend my love for Austin with a development the community could be proud of.”
And so, the outdoor, food court style lot of permanent airstream trailers was born, right in downtown Pensacola. Vendors for Al Fresco were selected based on items that would not be seen as competing with downtown eateries.
“I looked at what we didn’t have, and tried to make Al Fresco complement the existing Palafox eateries,” said Carro.
“Let’s face it. When you talk about something like this it can evoke a lot of different types of thoughts,” he said. “Even people that initially spoke out against it vocally have done an ‘about-face.’ This is so much better than they imagined.”
While this initial development is home to airstream trailers, Carro has plans in the works for a new development in town featuring different types of structures. Four other cities have also already contacted Carro, interested in erecting a similar food court in their respective areas.
“You never know where it’s going to go,” said Carro. “It’s been a wonderful learning experience and although we’ve made mistakes, we get to correct those on the next one. We’ve been blessed by the support. And Al Fresco continues to get better and better as people discover it.”
But what about actual trucks—you know, on wheels?
“I think the Al Fresco project has changed how people look at food trucks; it is possible now,” said Sandy Veilleux, seasoned area chef and co-owner of Flora Bama Farms. “The coolness factor always helps sell something here in Pensacola.”
Veilleux notes brick-and-mortar establishments that have mobile operations, including Jordan Valley, and Miguel’s on Nine Mile, amongst others who have been taking their food on the road for quite some time.
“It’s definitely a budding industry. I know a lot of people in different stages of either trying to do this, getting to do this, or having done this,” she said.
Several businesses remain in the planning stages of branching out into their own accessory cart, truck or special supplementary units.
“It’s definitely a really fun idea to take your kitchen on the road. For a cook, even a fine dining chef, or a short order cook, it’s just a very unique way of reaching more people and not being stationary all at the same time,” she said.
Several area restaurateurs have previously dabbled with the idea of opening a truck as either primary or supplementary operations, but decided at the time the barriers were a bit high and Pensacola wasn’t quite ready. However, today, they remain supportive of the business model for others looking to go their own way.
Prior to opening The Magnolia in the East Pensacola Heights neighborhood, owners Kiley Bolster and Bill Manning were looking into the idea of a food truck—having seen the success in other areas.
“Food trucks allow a person who maybe can’t drum up the money for a full service restaurant the opportunity to have a kitchen to work out of without the overhead of staff, rent, seating, etc.,” said Bolster. “You can sell gourmet food out of a truck for a fraction of what you can sell it for at a restaurant because you lack that overhead.”
Despite opting to open up a restaurant with walls and windows, rather than wheels, Bolster has high hopes for Pensacola catching on.
“I think Pensacola would embrace a food truck culture,” she said. “For having several colleges in this town, we don’t really embrace the college-age demographic. A basic food truck system in the Cordova Mall to University area would probably thrive. A gourmet truck would hopefully be well received downtown, especially in the more mild months.”
Ryan Thomas, owner of downtown staples Nacho Daddies and Portabello Market, became inspired after hearing a story about a restaurant that served tacos at a permanent location during the week, and then catered weekend events, such as house parties, with a food truck serving the same menu. This was originally his plan for his restaurant Nacho Daddies; however, he decided the costs were too high.
“It is a large investment overall to put a hood in it, to retrofit or outfit a truck. You have certain food safety guidelines that you have to follow so it has to meet state inspection guidelines. Then you have your cooking equipment. The cost outlay is pretty high,” he said.
“If you can lay down the money and go buy a food truck that’s already ready for you, it’d be turn-key. There’s a lot of stuff on Craigslist right now where you can buy an existing catering business from people and create a food truck for yourself, or you can build one from scratch,” said Veilleux.
Personally, Thomas sees a greater draw of implementing food trucks in cities with massive office buildings, and highly dense populations. “Pensacola seems so spread out. In larger cities you are able to pull up to a group of huge, tall office buildings that 5,000 people work in and make your money for that day,” he said.
And then there are the laws of the land. It’s not the local regulations that Thomas cites as being cumbersome, but rather the paperwork, and the state laws.
“When you fill out paperwork to open a restaurant, they ask you if it’s a commissary for a food truck,” he said. “It’s in the paperwork. You do need a central location to work out of.”
Still, Thomas is supportive of others serving as pioneers. “If you have a dream, go for it,” he said, adding that if he thought it was viable for his business, he would probably try it.
Laws of the Land vs. Rules of the Road
When it comes to the laws—and the rules of the road—major cities have specific Mobile Food Vendor laws. Some cities like New Orleans have battled overregulation, while others under regulation. In Pensacola, it’s the issue of misinformation, and the lack of a clear passageway that have served to hinder the movement.
To be clear—it’s not that Pensacola can’t have food trucks, it’s that with the lack of push for them, there has yet to be an outlined infrastructure in place to protect or support them on a local level. On top of that, the laws of the state land are costly.
As far as the City of Pensacola is concerned, despite the absence of a defined pathway in place, the recent introduction of open air dining into downtown has, if nothing else, planted a seed for the trucks to roll in.
Sherry Morris, AICP who oversees the City’s Planning Services Division, confirms that although there is nothing in the city code that specifically addresses or protects the operations of food trucks; there is currently not a ban on them.
She suggests that the city recognize the growing trend in other cities. And although it’s not something they’ve seen an influx of in Pensacola yet, it’s something they are willing to work with.
“We do allow food trucks as long as they have a business license and are legally operating in the right-of-way,” said Morris.
For example, trucks are able to “park in parallel spaces as long as they are feeding the meter and/or not exceeding time limits.” Despite the hassle of the meter, it should be noted New Orleans’ food trucks must abide by the same practice back on their own turf.
Furthermore, “If they are invited on commercial property—they are allowed to do so,” said Morris. Still, as it stands, food trucks are not allowed in residential areas.
These “rules of the road” only apply to mobile food trucks. Immobile vendor food carts actually have stricter guidelines in place. Currently carts are not allowed on public, city property. Food carts that set up for events must obtain special events permits and separate approval is handled through the City’s Department of Neighborhood Services.
While the introduction of Al Fresco’s airstream trailers brought about the updating of the City’s Land Development Code—outlining various restrictions tied to that particular parcel of private property situated on Palafox and Main—these private property restrictions are solely applied to that operation.
According to the existing language within the Land Development Code, any future private property lot wanting to set up a food court, or other operation of that nature must undergo the conditional use process and receive both approval from the City Council and Planning Board.
However, none of this tailored, specific language extends to regulations for “Food Trucks” with a business permit, operating legally within City right-of-ways.
Start it Up
Asking the Florida Small Business Development Center (SBDC) at the University of West Florida if they ever receive inquiries about starting up mobile food operations merited a laugh from Janet Etheridge, Certified Business Analyst, who has spent extensive time assisting with the process.
Requests for guidance into entering the world of food happen at least once or twice a week. And although everyone jumps at the word grants—this “free” money, unfortunately, no longer exists.
What does remain free, are the SBDC’s dedicated services to assist aspiring entrepreneurs. Etheridge has created her own “cheat sheet” to walk individuals through the process of starting a business in the area, beginning with initial decisions regarding how to best structure from a legal standpoint.
“I love what I do and am very protective of my clients,” she said. “I know what it’s like to struggle and make something you want to be proud of and make your family proud of and I want to see my clients succeed.”
When it comes to mobile food operations specifically, Etheridge has worked with numerous area clients, some of whom attempted such operations and have cited frustrations of being forced to leave areas in both the City and County due to differing regulations.
“If you’re doing business in the County and not in the City, all you need is a County license. If you are doing business in the City, you have to get a license for both,” she said.
As far as the County goes—Etheridge’s understanding is that it’s limited to private property; however, the County ordinances themselves have outlined specified zones where it is acceptable to have a mobile food operation. Meanwhile out at the beach, although the Santa Rosa Island Authority (SRIA) did report that they were reviewing several of their ordinances in the wake of certain County adjustments, unfortunately serving food on the island is like most things, not as simple as it seems, or as it could be.
Local ordinances and grey area regulations aside, Etheridge confirms there are costly items of consideration—items that come from a state level.
“Any mobile vending unit has to have a commercial kitchen up to code as well,” she said. “When you get to the point of going to the tax collector’s office, they are going to look into regulatory state agencies and are not going to give you the license unless you meet that requirement.”
It’s not just one license, but rather cumbersome food safety regulations and codes. In addition to the Florida Department of Agriculture, you are dealing with the Department of Business and Professional Regulation. There is a plethora of paperwork and a fee schedule.
For those interested in starting small and in the comfort of their homes—the SBDC has been working to assist individuals with entering into the Cottage Food Industry, offering a stepping off point for those looking to break into small scale home food operations.
“It’s not heavily regulated like the food trucks are,” said Etheridge. “And it kind of gets you primed [for other food operations].”
The freedom in the Cottage Food Industry is that operators are not required to meet stringent requirements with a couple of exceptions. Gross sales must remain under $15,000 a year and they must sell directly from operator to consumer. Food must be labeled according to required Florida Statutes, especially important for those with food allergies.
As for actually outfitting a truck as home to your food operations, trucks are required to be equipped with or have access to a commercial kitchen, since you can’t store food at your home. Potable water has to come to and from a commercial kitchen. And if you’re frying, your grease has to go to a commercial kitchen.
“We really do have to be careful about food safety and I certainly wouldn’t want to endanger peoples’ lives,” Etheridge said, recounting her own experience with a bad batch of deliciously deceitful boiled peanuts. Still, she affirms that loosening the regulations on food safety would make it more accessible.
Despite the regulative barriers, Etheridge can report success stories, granted they required a bit of improvising.
“I had one client who ended up leasing a commercial kitchen at a convenience store but she also did festivals and had a mobile food truck. She expanded her business and then has the deli at the store,” she said. “I had another client making fudge who converted her garage into a commercial kitchen.”
While churches and area community centers have commercial kitchens, presenting opportunities for individuals to lease them out—it can still prove a challenge for those hoping to sustain mobile food operations, yet are unable to afford all-inclusive truck operations, outfitted up to code.
Word on the street is, a new project by Pensacola Cooks may provide an accessible answer to incubate the future of food trucks.
Meet Pensacola Cooks, the mobile education company lead by Mike and Jacki Selby that specializes in conducting culinary classes. They currently do on-site training for both adults and children’s groups at homes, as well as local establishments, including downtown locations like the Bodacious Olive, The Wine Bar and Polonza Bistro.
Although officially formed this year, the parties involved in Pensacola Cooks have been involved in conducting cooking classes in the Pensacola area going on eight years. Their newest project is an incubator kitchen—coming Fall 2013.
Although the word “incubator” may throw you off initially—think shared kitchen space that allows budding foodies to use it for a reasonable cost, until they are able to afford their own, full-fledged mobile, or other, kitchen operation.
“In addition to being a commercial kitchen that is available for rent to food entrepreneurs at specific hourly rates, an incubator kitchen offers other services that are critical to the success of a food-related business,” said Mike Selby.
Not only will it be a kitchen—but a fully functioning educational resource center.
“Many of the services are based upon networking a trusted set of referrals and many of the services include business education. We are located on the west side of Pensacola, minutes away from downtown,” said Selby.
Selby explained that the intended use of any incubator kitchen is “to provide a physical, social, and educational environment that permits budding and established food entrepreneurs to grow, to discover and refine their niche in the market place, and then move on to a bigger location.”
“In short, a successful incubator kitchen will have a large portion of its clients move on to be fully established in their own location,” he said.
Although the incubator kitchen will not be solely designated with the intent for use by food trucks, they can certainly benefit by operating from an incubator kitchen.
This is Pensacola Cooks’ first venture into the world of incubator kitchens, although they have been following and consulting with a number of incubator kitchens throughout the country that are proving successful—Houston, Chicago, Indianapolis, and central Florida.
“Any area that has a rich food culture is a prime candidate for an incubator kitchen for the food entrepreneurs,” said Selby. “It can be especially important in Florida because operating from a certified incubator kitchen permits the food entrepreneur a broader opportunity for sales and marketing.”
“Networking and distribution have historically been weaknesses in the growth of local food marketing. One of the goals of the incubator kitchen is to develop a strong food network that supports local food and the local seafood industry,” he said.
“You go away [from Pensacola] because there are no jobs here. Then you come back because you love it and it’s home,” said Etheridge. “We need to give people the opportunity to stay and flourish and not have so many regulations. We have the opportunity to grow around food.”
“The food truck industry is huge and is coming into vogue. It’s not hot dogs. We’re talking gourmet. It’s gone into a whole new realm of ‘Holy cow!’” she exclaimed. “You can get Chicken Cordon Bleu on your lunch break in bigger cities—but we don’t have that here [yet].”
With dedicated members of the SBDC like Etheridge on board to provide assistance to help entrepreneurs, urban dining on the rise, and new projects such as the forthcoming incubator kitchen acting as a resource to those seeking to bring their food dreams into fruition, not to mention local foodies like Veilleux continuing to forge community food relationships, it’s clear that both the desire, and sustainable network of support are here.
Like New Orleans—it’s just going to take some leaps forward.
Billow encourages that much like what has been done with the New Orleans Food Truck Coalition, all it takes is someone to step out and be the forerunner for the movement—specifically in smaller Southern communities that remain on the brink of a cultural shift—like Pensacola.
“Go for it!” she exclaimed. “We’ll bring our truck [La Cocinita] out.”
“I deal with chefs on a daily basis, and they are so smitten with this idea and in such a productive way. To be able to create a small business and a mobile kitchen that would allow them to explore all of their menu options and their talents and have more freedom and be less constrained than by some of the experiences they’ve already had. There’s an incredible allure to it,” said Veilleux. “It’s completely doable if you’ve got the greatest spirit of adventure ever.”
NOLA Food Trucks
The home of the New Orleans Food Truck Coalition, this online hub is the ultimate guide to street food in New Orleans. Plus, it keeps you up to date on “pop up” rallies and other events, and acts as a resource center if you are looking to get started in the industry with a truck of your own. nolafoodtrucks.com
Cottage Food: Starting a Home-based Food Business
Want to learn more about the Cottage Food Industry? As part of their ongoing series, The Florida Small Business Development Center at the University of West Florida is presenting a Brown-Bag Lunch on Wednesday, Sept. 4 from noon to 1 p.m. Participants will gain knowledge on the types of foods that can be produced from their home kitchen, licensing and labeling requirements, and how products can be sold.
Attendees are encouraged to bring their own lunch. For more information, or to register for this free seminar, call 474-2528 or visit sbdc.uwf.edu. The Florida Small Business Development Center is located at 9999 University Pkwy.
Pensacola Cooks offers a variety of ongoing programs, including PC@lunch, PC@home, PC@work and PC@night. From their lunch classes at Bodacious Olive, to ladies nights out and couples classes, Pensacola Cooks’ wide range of flexible programs allow you to participate in a dynamic up close and personal setting with one-on-one instruction, or if you so choose, sit back, relax and simply enjoy indulging on the delightful cuisine prepared right in front of your eyes.
Visit pensacolacooks.com to learn more and view an updated calendar of events.