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Written by Erik Bojnansky   
January 2011

No tables, no chairs, no reservations: Food-truck culture has arrived

FoodTrucks_1The temperature is 45 degrees, but with the wind chill this December night feels even colder. In spite of the arctic conditions (for Miamians), dozens wander among 12 decorated trucks. It looks like a carnival, but there are no rides, no games, no clowns, no carnies. There is, however, plenty of food, from Asian-inspired pork dishes to apple-and-grilled-cheese sandwiches.

Welcome to the Biscayne Triangle Truck Round-Up, a Tuesday-night food fair where, from 5:30 to 9:00 p.m., mobile food kitchens park along a triangle-shaped stretch of publicly owned land in unincorporated Miami-Dade at 109th Street and Biscayne Boulevard.

“It brings out the Christmas spirit,” says Robert Williams, a retired veteran and Miami Shores resident visiting the Round-Up for the second time with his wife, Linda. “It gives you options, a variety of trucks, a variety of foods, and it’s right here in the neighborhood.”

Jack Garabedian, owner of the food truck Jefe’s Original Fish Tacos & Burgers, launched the event in December as a way to expose area residents to the latest trend in casual, open-air dining. “I feel there is a need for food trucks where we can all gather, particularly on the north end,” says Garabedian, a 30-year veteran of the culinary industry who has been serving fish tacos, cheeseburgers, and other comfort foods for two years from his orange, white, and green truck.

The operating strategy of the “Biscayne Triangle Truck Round-Up,” and other food-truck events popping up all over the county, is simple: strength in numbers. “Some trucks don’t want to be with other trucks, but the smart ones stick together,” says Troy Thomas, owner of The Rolling Stove, a motorized restaurant with red-flame decals that serves up grilled burgers, fresh-cut fries, and jerk chicken sandwiches. “We’re a big family. We try not to step on anyone’s toes, and everyone gets along.”

Cooperation gives customers more choices, allowing them to indulge in a food-tasting frenzy. During these evening gatherings, the phrase “Have you tried this place?” is as commonly heard as the sound of humming engines and generators. On this particular night, trucks were serving burgers, gelato, chicken wings, crepes, cheese, fruits, Asian grill items, shish kabobs, and even a spiral-sliced potato that is spiced, fried, and served skewered on a long wooden stick.

FoodTrucks_2The Round-Up’s collaborative efforts may soon have some direct competition. Tanya Ramirez, president of mobile-kitchen manufacturer Food Cart USA and co-organizer of the well-established “Miami Street Food Court” at Bird Road and SW 65th Street, plans to introduce a new food-truck event the second week of January at the Biscayne Plaza shopping center (Biscayne Boulevard and NE 79th Street). She says trucks will gather there from 7:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. weekdays and from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. Saturdays. They’ll also be open for business Tuesdays and Thursdays from 6:00 to 9:00 p.m.

Garadedian learns (from the BT) that Ramirez is planning a competing event just two miles away. “She’s trying to do it on Tuesday and Thursday nights when I am doing it down the road?” he says with a laugh. “Whatever she wants to do. Wow. That is interesting.”

Ramirez is equally perplexed to learn that Garabedian, who bought his wheeled kitchen from her and participates in her Bird Road food court, has organized a gathering on his own, without partnering with a property owner. “The thing is,” she warns, “if you don’t have permission of property management or a land owner, I don’t know how long it [the Round-Up] is going to be staying there.”

Garabedian knows the risks food trucks face when operating in South Florida. His county license gives him permission to stay in one spot for only 45 minutes while serving patrons. And food trucks are accepted only in some cities and neighborhoods. For example, while Wynwood property owners have welcomed the arrival of Jefe’s and its culinary compatriots during its Second Saturday gallery nights, Garabedian says Miami code enforcement officers harass him in downtown Miami and Brickell. Mobile kitchens are forbidden in West Miami, Miami Beach, and Aventura, and barely tolerated in North Miami -- if their signage is modest, Garabedian explains. The unincorporated patch of land he’s claimed at 109th Street was an oasis in a region that generally has been hostile to food trucks. “I started parking there and nobody bothered me,” he shrugs.

The uneven acceptance of mobile food trucks may be the result of the fact that, until a few years ago, the motorized food servers traveling around the county were their more primitive ancestors, “roach coaches” and ice cream trucks offering prepared morsels at construction sites and in child-infested neighborhoods.

Garabedian credits a poor economy for the proliferation of kitchen-equipped food trucks that enable chefs to prepare meals on-site. “People are looking for alternative choices and inexpensive food and convenience,” he ventures.

It’s also cheaper to own a food truck than a restaurant. Ramirez reports that she sells food trucks for between $45,000 and $120,000. Garabedian, meanwhile, says the start-up cost for a “brick and mortar” restaurant is around $300,000.

Also aiding the food trucks is technology. Thanks to Twitter and Facebook, mobile restaurants can advertise their locations to the entire world. A burgeoning foodie culture being fueled in part by television’s Food Network can’t be hurting business either.

Seth Gonzalez earns a paycheck as a manager at a retail store he declines to name, but the rotund Miamian is also known by many local foodies as the man behind BurgerBeast.com, a website dedicated to the South Florida comfort-food scene. Lately food trucks have been attracting more and more of his coverage. “Every week or week and a half there’s a new food truck,” says Gonzalez, who estimates that some 25 trucks are now operating in Miami-Dade. Aside from handing out “Burger Beast Approved” awards to restaurants and trucks he truly enjoys, Gonzalez also has begun listing food truck schedules and promoting new events.

He has even volunteered to coordinate food-truck fetes, including for Ramirez’s Bird Road get-together. One of his responsibilities is scheduling which vendors appear on which day. “You have to make sure you have the right mix of trucks every night,” he notes. “You want to avoid having the same style of food, like three trucks serving burgers or tacos or Asian grill.” Approved vendors currently pay nothing to attend, but Ramirez says they’ll soon be required to pay a $75 fee to the Bird Road property owner, who promises enhancements to the site.

Biscayne Round-Up participants, however, rebel against such structure. Here all trucks can park free of charge whenever they wish, even if it means that two cheese trucks or two burger joints show up. Raymond Delgado, owner of the Grill Master truck, which serves Cuban burgers and homemade potato slices as part of its menu, prefers the Round-Up to Ramirez’s style. “The way she does things, it makes me feel like I’m working for her,” says Delgado, an electrician who converted an old Port of Miami maintenance vehicle into a food truck seven months ago. “I don’t like that.”

Gonzalez of BurgerBeast.com believes there’s plenty of room for both the Round-Up and Ramirez’s new “Miami Food Court” on Tuesday nights. “I don’t think it’s a big deal, to be honest with you,” he says. Meanwhile he’s teamed up with La Ley Enterprises, a local real estate and mortgage agency, and the Miami Herald to create yet another food truck event along the Biscayne Corridor. This one will be called “Street Food Fridays.” It’ll be located between N. Bayshore Drive and Herald Plaza, and is set to open on January 7 from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

In spite of his initial surprise over Ramirez’s expansion plans, Garabedian wishes her luck, just as he welcomes the growth of this tasty food-truck trend and hopes it leads to more widespread acceptance of mobile kitchens. “I really would like whoever is making the business [zoning] decisions to let us in,” he says. “We pay taxes and we’re doing a service for people.”

 

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