South Florida Food Trucks Move from Roundups to Restaurants
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.
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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."
Still, roundups are "the only way" for trucks to survive, says Brett Chiavari, owner of the powder-blue BC Tacos truck and its brick-and-mortar counterpart, BC Cafe in Davie.
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."
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