By running food trucks, unemployed cooks can continue what they love to do. And the customer gets everything from soup to nuts. There’s all kinds of ethnic food and fun things like pizza balls. The toughest part is to choose.
By Robert Hughes | Florida Today
Jim Dimitriou is unfazed by the current food-truck fad sparked by social media and the growing number of food and restaurant reality shows.
Dimitriou, a 68-year-old native of Greece, has been cranking out gyros and other Greek delectables from his El Greco Grill in a converted roadside trailer on New Haven Avenue, next to a “gentlemen’s club” and just east of Interstate 95.
To explain his long-running success, Dimitriou has a simple explanation, “I have a lot of followers because I use old, authentic family recipes.”
While customer loyalty explains much of his long-running success, his spartan operation — i.e., low overhead — certainly doesn’t hurt. It keeps business cost lower than if he were operating a traditional sit-down restaurant.
It is those elements that are helping drive a nationwide love affair with food trucks, mobile restaurants where food preparation takes place in small mobile trailers and customers get their food and eat it wherever.
They show up on street corners, at carnivals, concerts and sporting events.
Monthly events in Titusville and Melbourne have been drawing thousands of people to everything from barbecue to tacos in food-truck happenings that are becoming as much about social events as they are filling people’s stomachs.
In May, Palm Bay will be hosting “Food Truck Wars” in hopes of making it an annual event intended to put Brevard County’s largest municipality on the festival-scene map.
Liz Otts, owner of the Orlando event-management company Food Truck Crazy — which is organizing the event in Palm Bay — said the down economy affects food trucks’ popularity from both sides of the order windows.
“By running food trucks, unemployed cooks can continue what they love to do,” she said. “And the customer gets everything from soup to nuts. There’s all kinds of ethnic food and fun things like pizza balls. The toughest part is to choose.”
Catching on in Brevard
Despite their popularity, there’s a bit of scarcity of food trucks in Brevard.
Otts said she knows of several hundred food trucks in Central Florida, but couldn’t name one from Brevard.
Destination Brevard magazine editor Ryan Seeloff, who organized an event called “Food Trucks for a Cause” in downtown Melbourne on Saturday, tried to use as many Brevard food trucks as he could.
But as of last week, he still figured he’d have to hire three from Orlando just to have 10 in his charitable event, for which he was expecting 1,200 to 1,500 visitors.
Seeloff said there are probably a dozen food trucks (including food trailers that can be towed) operating out of Brevard, and about half of them are stationary.
“I can understand the difficulties cities would have with stationary food trucks, because of (their lack of) parking and restrooms,” Seeloff said. “But it’s a viable business, and local food trucks don’t want to have to drive to Orlando to do business.”
That scarcity is part of the reason John Carter, a longtime restaurant veteran manager of the Chart House in Melbourne and Goombays Grille & Raw Bar in Satellite Beach, started his own Coastal Kitchens food truck on State Road A1A in Cocoa Beach.
“I was looking at brick-and-mortar restaurant locations, but the initial investment (from $70,000 to $150,000) was a scary proposition,” he said. “But then I thought about a food truck and what an interesting concept it would be to do events, cater and set up at different locations. And it seemed like Brevard is missing that element.”
Carter spent $10,000 on a van that had been used to sell hot dogs in Kissimmee and put in another $5,000 to gear up the kitchen he needed to make tacos and food bowls.
Carter’s been satisfied with the business so far. He estimates he’s selling 60 to 100 tacos and bowls daily since opening March 16, “but I know it’ll go up.”
Tom Neilson, seven-year owner of Neilson Surf Shop, where Carter parks his truck on Wednesdays and weekends, said: “It’s a win-win for both of us. He brings me business. I bring him business. Surfers are always hungry.”
Others also realized a surfer’s appetite for the quick and inexpensive.
Just a few blocks north, Taco City owner Bobby Goldberg opened a food truck parked in front of his restaurant a few weeks before Carter.
But he doesn’t compete with Carter, as his truck serves burritos for breakfast, a meal Goldberg said “isn’t served any place else between the Pineda and Minutemen causeways,” a stretch of seven miles.
Goldberg was drawn to the food truck idea because of television, and it meshed nicely with his sit-down restaurant.
“To be perfectly honest, I’m a big A&E-Travel Channel watcher, and seeing how food trucks have gotten so popular, I figured, ‘Why not?’ ” Goldberg said of his venture.
Business has been good so far. On a recent Friday, he sold 52 burritos. That is business that might have gone to another eatery if the food truck hadn’t been so convenient.
Some local food truck owners see it as a starting point to opening their own restaurants.
Steve Hodges sold his cheesesteak sandwiches from a trailer beside State Road A1A in Satellite Beach in 2007, but that only lasted six months, as their popularity led him to open his Little Phillies restaurant nearby.
Last year, Hodges told FLORIDA TODAY about that experience. “People went crazy about (the sandwiches),” he said. “We had to get a restaurant. It was just too busy. There was no way to do that volume out of the trailer.”
That was also the plan of two Titusville entrepreneurs who have run food trucks for more than a decade.
Mary Allen has run Jamerica’s Kitchen for 14 years. Arthur McKinney started his Art’s Bar-B-Q truck in 1992. Allen’s still seeking a restaurant. McKinney opened a brick-and-mortar business at 1823 Knox McRae Drive two years ago. He continues to work his truck at events.
Centered on food
Mobility is what makes food trucks perfect for special events. But that’s just part of their rise in popularity. Once a feature of festivals centered on other themes, food trucks still perform that function and also star at events centered on themselves.
Food Truck Crazy’s Otts said she has gotten great support from Central Florida cities that want the mobile eateries at events.
“They’re practically knocking our doors down,” she said.
Palm Bay Parks and Recreation Department director Heidi Lapin was one of the people knocking to get Food Truck Wars to come to her city.
“Palm Bay doesn’t have a festival, if you will,” Lapin said. “So, we’re trying to find something that we can make a signature annual event. And food trucks fit the bill, because they provide a festival atmosphere for the family, with reasonable prices. And everybody loves food.”
While Brevard’s cities welcome food trucks for events, most don’t allow them on a permanent basis.
Titusville, for example, doesn’t allow food trucks in its historic downtown, while Melbourne doesn’t allow them anywhere within its city limits.
Food trucks like Dimitriou’s and the taco truck stationed at La Preferida store on Aurora Road are actually in unincorporated Brevard, which doesn’t regulate such “roving vendors,” except to require that they operate on the property of a business that is running, not vacant.