Every day, gourmet food trucks dishing up everything from mini-cupcakes and gelato to organic grilled cheese sandwiches crisscross South Florida streets, attracting long lines. You can find them in downtown Miami at lunchtime, and grouped in parking lots at night.
They go by clever names – Miso Hungry, CheeseMe, Nacho Mama’s – and have multiplied from a handful less than a year ago to more than 40 today. Tens of thousands of fans follow them on Twitter and Facebook, tracking their moves and menus.
But as Miami’s unfettered food truck scene has taken off, so have tensions. Between the trucks and residents concerned about noise and litter in their neighborhood. Between trucks and brick-and-mortar restaurants, whose operators pay rent and don’t like losing business to here-today, gone-tomorrow competitors.
And between the trucks and the city, which has taken to shooing them away for lack of proper permits.
“We’re just trying to get people out to have good food and have a good time,” says Jack Garabedian, owner of Jefe’s Original, a bright orange and yellow truck where a popular item is a $2.35 bite-size beer-battered fish taco served with fresh green cabbage, pica de gallo, Mexican sour cream and a lime wedge.
Garabedian spent 35 years in fine dining, but now, this is how he rolls: in a truck outfitted with a 50-pound, 375-degree fryer powered by two propane tanks. He employs seven.
“We’re creating alternative community space for families,” he says about the popular truck roundups he hosts and attends around Miami, where he serves 500 customers on a good night.
In one of several recent incidents, Miami police cited code violations and kicked Jefe’s and several other food trucks out of the parking lot of the American Legion post, 6445 NE Seventh Ave., last month. The post’s lot had become a popular weekly gathering spot. While the trucks had the blessing of the lot’s owners, they needed city permission to congregate.
Any restaurant operating in Florida needs a $550 license from the state. Also required: a food managers license, which can cost up to $200. After that it gets complicated, depending on the jurisdiction.
In Miami, which issued a list of do’s and don’ts for food trucks earlier this month, food-truck operators can buy a peddlers’ permit that allows them to move around like an ice cream truck. Or they can get a special event permit, which can be used twice per year on private property and 10 times per year on public land. Also available are permits (lasting between six months and two years) to use a vacant lot.
Most permits cost $153.50 each.
Other cities have their own rules. And now, Miami-Dade County is getting into the act. After shutting down food truck gatherings in unincorporated areas, including the popular Tamiami Truckers Food Court in West Kendall, it is drafting a set of regulations.
“Why can’t they make it a little easier for us to do business?” Garabedian asks.
“We’re not trying to go against the rules, but we need something that can actually work,” says Brian Mullins, who owns Ms. Cheezious, one of two grilled cheese sandwich trucks in South Florida.
On a recent evening, seven trucks gathered in an empty parking lot behind a Publix at Northeast 48th Street and North Federal Highway in Miami. They included Jefe’s, Ms. Cheezious, Caza Crepes, Dolci Peccati (the gelato-cupcake truck) and Latin Burger. Hip-hop and rock boomed from the trucks’ speakers, while customers stood to eat at painted ironing boards and sat at scattered roundtables.