South Florida Food Trucks Move from Roundups to Restaurants
The line stretching toward the door at Blue Willy's Barbecue Market is three years in the making. More than a dozen people tap their feet impatiently as Will Banks stands before a heavy wood chopping block, cleaving off smoke-ringed ribs and cutting juicy slices from a hulking brisket displaying a dark, crispy crust.
It's late August -- only a couple of weeks since Banks moved into his permanent location on Federal Highway in Pompano Beach.
"The intent was always to use the truck to client-build for a period of time until the economy turned around," he says later by phone. "At that point, we'd move to brick and mortar."
In May, he closed his apple-red trailer that had sat on a downtown Fort Lauderdale street corner since 2010. Banks was unable to keep up with its long lines while also preparing a permanent home for his juicy ribs and briskets.
Blue Willy's is a no-frills kind of place. A sign reading only "Barbecue" hangs outside above the front door. Inside, there's a black-and-white picture of a butcher proudly showing off a large pig's head. Hungry customers sit at communal tables in a weathered wood and corrugated-steel dining room waiting for their number to be called. It's reminiscent of the Texas butcher shop Banks' grandfather once owned in Tyler, about 130 miles southeast of Dallas.
For Banks, 2007 marked the end of more than two decades working in corporate security and the beginning of the hunt for a restaurant. Yet with the economy in freefall and restaurants shuttering left and right, Banks, at the insistence of his brother, took a two-week trip up and down the West Coast to investigate the food truck business.
"By the time I got back," he says, "I was a believer."
He says he never believed that there was a profitable, long-term business selling his dry-rubbed, Texas-style barbecue out of a truck but that the mobile eatery could be a stepping stone toward a permanent restaurant. Being mobile, he could develop a built-in customer base that would be waiting when he flung open the doors to a restaurant.
He's just one of several South Florida food truck owners who are now moving into brick-and-mortar restaurants. While the trucks enjoyed a huge wave of popularity, they've also come with hassles: legal headaches, competing restaurants that complain the trucks steal business and parking, and simple annoying logistics. Some vendors are selling off their trucks, while others are keeping them as catering trucks and handy marketing tools.
A big problem is that permitting laws make it hard for trucks to serve lunch on street corners and in parking lots. Rules and regulations vary from city to city and aren't enforced evenly across Broward County. Years after the first trucks began rolling, a handful of trucks have struck deals with property owners and bought permits allowing them to set up in empty lots. But most trucks plod up and down Interstate 95 on their way from roundup to roundup, shelling out hundreds of dollars to promoters and hoping to at least break even.
To operate in Fort Lauderdale, for example, food truck owners must have either a mobile vendor's license like the ones given to ice cream trucks, a stationary vending license that has to be approved by the city's planning and zoning department, or a one-time special event permit that requires a $100 fee.
"In the City of Fort Lauderdale, the code says you can be mobile but you have to leave after your last sale, which comes from the ice cream trucks days," Banks says. "So they say on one hand 'Yes, you can vend,' but then they won't let you sit anywhere."
Food trucks were practically outlawed in Sunrise due to a longtime ban on outdoor sales, though the city's commission in August gave a one-time permit for the city's first roundup, now slated for September 18.
Yet, at roundups, competition can be cutthroat as long lines of trucks vie for a hungry customer's business. Because trucks are small, they also sell out of popular items on busy days. And conversely, they're vulnerable to poor weather and turnout. An unlucky owner might stock up for the day only to arrive at an event that's a rained-out dud. What's left is a stockpile of rotting food with limited space to store it.
"We used to donate all of our leftover stuff to Covenant House," said Elena Pezzo, co-owner of Green Bar & Kitchen, a popular vegan café near downtown Fort Lauderdale that began in 2011 as the Zenergy truck. "With brick and mortar, you can figure out how many people you're going to serve."
He had been mostly unaware of the growing fleets of food trucks across the country until 2010, when the Food Network aired the first season of The Great Food Truck Race. It was Chiavari's father, Rick, a 30-year veteran of running country club kitchens, who pushed him to open the truck even though the cost, $80,000, turned out to surpass the $50,000 it took to open the Davie café in April.
"We found a restaurant that was already built out, so we didn't have to do any construction," Chiavari explains.
His food became a fast favorite early on as the truck became a regular at roundups from Jupiter to Miami. Fans flocked for Americanized tacos with Neolithic names. The Cave Dweller wraps a chicken caesar salad inside a hard corn tortilla or a soft flour one, while the Gatherer combines a crispy fried avocado wedge with lettuce, shredded mozzarella cheese, and a spicy mayo.
From University Drive, BC Cafe is barely visible inside a gray professional plaza filled with medical and legal offices. That's not by mistake. After having to hunt for customers for so long, he's glad to have a built-in base.
"The property management company told us that they're at about 75 percent occupancy in the building, and we thought we could appeal to them," he says. "It's nice that you get to see people on a regular basis and build that relationship."
Chiavari never fails to mention how it's a short distance from Broward College and FAU's Davie campus. On weekdays, he closes at 4 p.m. On weekends, he opens at 10 a.m., offering breakfast standbys and "tacos for breakfast" with bacon or steak, eggs, and cheese wrapped in a flour tortilla. The Caveman burger, a specialty on the truck, is available at the café, though it isn't offered on the menu. A quarter pound of burger meat, steak, and braised beef short ribs is topped with lettuce and cheddar cheese, then sandwiched between two hard taco shells and wrapped in a flour tortilla à la Taco Bell's Crunchwrap Supreme.
The truck itself remains a regular at roundups, though Chiavari says he prefers to use it as a mobile catering kitchen.
"If we could be booked up with catering every day of the month, I'd be thrilled," he says. "We've done birthday parties, cocktail hours with passed hors d'oeuvres. I've got a couple of weddings booked in March."
Meanwhile, Elena Pezzo's early plan was to have a fleet of vegan trucks rolling across Florida, not a permanent restaurant.
"If you would have told me a year ago I would have a successful café on 17th Street, I would've told you you had a better chance of hitting the lottery," says Pezzo, of Green Bar & Kitchen. "Broward is not like Manhattan, where you can park in one spot every day. You have to bounce around, and people asked, 'Can you go somewhere where we'll know where you are every single day?' "
After running a food truck for a little more than a year, she and her life partner, Charles Grippo, with investment from one of Tap 42's owners, found a permanent home.
This day, their airy, all-white café in a teal two-story building is packed with beautiful, silky-skinned people clad in yoga outfits. They sip Kombucha, a fizzy fermented green tea packed with vitamins, and nosh on spicy satisfying Buffalo tempeh sandwiches that can convince the most dedicated carnivores to add soy-based protein to their diets.
In retrospect, Pezzo says that having the truck before the restaurant turned out to be great. It let them find customers throughout South Florida while testing the waters for business without signing a lease. Some of the truck's "groupies," as Pezzo calls them, now man the juice and smoothie bar, which turns out drinks packed with superfoods like maca (a ground-up Peruvian root vegetable that's said to be an aphrodisiac) and goji berries (said to be one of nature's most nutrient-dense foods).
Two months ago, the pair sold the $55,000 truck.
"It was too much," she says.
For more follow Zach on Twitter @ZachIsWeird.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to South Florida dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.