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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.

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Zachary Fagenson is the restaurant critic for Miami New Times, and proud to report a cholesterol level of 172.
Contact: Zachary Fagenson

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