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.
Moms and dads dropped by for snacks before they went grocery shopping at the Publix. Groups of friends made a communal bench out of their cars’ open hatchbacks.
The gathering, which began around 5:30 p.m. and ended 4½ hours later, lacked permits, but the crowds loved it.
“If they shut us down, they shut us down,” said Garabedian, who used to organize food truck roundups at Biscayne Boulevard and 109th Street before complaints forced him and others to move.
Keysi Colina had driven down to the North Federal Highway location for dinner from North Miami after seeing an update on one of the many Facebook pages that track the trucks, which also have gathered at several events sponsored in part by The Miami Herald.
“It’s really good, especially for the price,” Colina, a culinary student at Johnson & Wales University in North Miami, said as she nibbled on an $8 Chinese chicken meal from Miso Hungry that came with vegetable fried rice and a cucumber. “I’m impressed with the attention to detail. I went to a Mexican truck once and was surprised to see glass bottles of Coke from Mexico.”
Food trucks have also come to Coconut Grove, where Ms. Cheezious serves lunch at the invitation of an ad agency that made its property available.
David Collins, who owns the Out of Africa arts store, said that if done right, the trucks could revitalize the Grove. But “if it gets out of hand I expect it to be shouted down by the restaurants,” says Collins, executive director of the Coconut Grove Business Improvement District.
Another increasingly popular roundup happens every second Saturday evening of the month during gallery art walks in Wynwood, where developer David Lombardi has started renting out spots in an empty lot he owns at 2234 NW Second Ave. Lombardi pays Miami for a permit and also foots the bill for a DJ, porta-potties and picnic tables. In turn, he charges food trucks a fee to park.
Gallery owners have complained about trucks generating noise and rowdiness, says Lombardi, but he blames that on trucks that park not in his lot but in other spots closer to the restaurants and galleries in the bourgeoning arts and nightlife district.
In the same vein, some downtown residents and developers are angry that trucks, some of which are affiliated with restaurants, show up at free downtown concerts and festivals, such as those near Bayfront Park. That undermines downtown restaurants, they say.
“The reason that there is such a proliferation of food trucks is that it is an extremely inexpensive way to get into the restaurant business. No impact or water sewer connection charges, no-build out costs, and no real estate taxes,” says Brad Knoefler, a community activist and developer in the Park West area of downtown Miami. That said, “there are areas like Wynwood and Park West/OMNI that have a shortage of restaurants.”
Some initially wary residents are coming around.
Louis Bordeau, the president of the Bayside Homeowners association, was at first against food trucks at the American Legion. But that was before he gave the food there a try.
“I think it’s a great thing,” he said. “I’ve met some really wonderful people there. The neighborhood comes alive.”