The days of the roach coach are over, and the era of the gourmet food truck has arrived.
The wildly popular roving restaurants that serve everything from cheese curds to doughnuts pull into Palm Beach County municipalities at least once a month, plying their sweet and savory treats. Many of the food truck round-ups are organized by outside companies that cities hire.
Palm Beach County has 228 food trucks that serve everything from fancy hot dogs to Hong Kong-style egg waffles, according to the state department that that regulates them. In Florida, only four counties have more food trucks. Miami-Dade County leads the way with more than 650, according to a recent analysis by The Palm Beach Post.
Joe and June Robidoux, of West Palm Beach, are always on the lookout for weekend food truck events where they can bring their dog.
“It’s just a novelty, that they have different choices. If you go to a restaurant, you can’t necessarily afford it, but if you go to a food truck, you can,” June Robidoux said.
Florida ranked third on a Forbes list of states with the most food trucks, trailing California and New York.
Fried food and fine cuisine
Trendy mobile kitchens have come a long way since the traditional hot dog carts and ice cream trucks of yesteryear. They have their roots in the years immediately after the Civil War, when cowboys ate three meals a day from traveling chuck wagons, according to the History Channel.
In cities, garment makers and construction workers got their lunches from the trucks.
The modern food truck craze has its roots in Los Angeles, where a now-famous Korean BBQ truck launched in 2008, according to the National Food Truck Association. Customers were looking for good food cheap as the economy slumped. Entreprenuers who wanted to get into the business started scooping up old taco trucks that lost their clientele at construction sites when the real estate market crashed.
Social media sites such as Twitter allowed food truck owners to update followers on their whereabouts in real time.
Locally, food truck event planners use Facebook and Twitter to post which trucks will appear at their regular roundups.
Redd Johnson owns four food trucks, including PS561 (hot dogs), Dough Dough’s Donuts and Best French Fries. He says there are two types of trucks those that serve gourmet fare and those that heat up frozen food from a wholesale store.
Operating a food truck is a 16- to 18-hour a day job. People who treat it like a part-time gig or a hobby don’t usually last long, he said.
October is his busiest month of the year, with 119 fall festivals, carnivals and Halloween office parties. He averages about 25 events a month.
Lack of exposure can kill a brick-and-mortar business with a bad location, but that’s not a problem for Johnson’s food trucks that are always on the move. Dough Dough’s Donuts has a reach as far north as Sanford and to the south, just north of the Florida Keys, he said. The donut truck also goes to Fort Myers on the west coast, he said.
Having food trucks has paid off for the wildly popular Tacos Al Carbon restaurant. Seven food trucks, one of which is parked near Palm Beach Atlantic University and the Norton Museum of Art, sell its tacos, owner Eloisa Gonzalez said. A food truck may generate more income in three hours than the restaurant makes all day, Gonzalez said.
At a food festival, car show and outdoor concer at John D. MacArthur Beach State Park, Joe and June Robidoux said they gravitate toward the comfort food and barbecue trucks. The fried Twinkies that the Fry Daddy food truck was serving up at the Cruisin’ Food Fest were a hit. A group of friends sharing a picnic table with them was devouring fried Oreos.
June Wilson, of Hobe Sound, found the sausage, pepper and onion sandwich a bit spicy for her taste. She said she doesn’t normally eat at food trucks, but because there were several at the car show and outdoor concert, she decided to take advantage.
“You just pick out the truck that you like, the food that they’re offering, and you go to it,” she said.
PGA National Resort & Spa invested in a food truck at the beginning of the craze in 2013, Director of Public Relations Karen Cantor said. Guests can hire the iTRUCK as part of a gourmet catering package for meetings, weddings and group events. It never leaves the resort property, she said.
The menu includes park sliders, shrimp, truffle fries, crab fritters and fish tacos. Other foods are available based on custom orders, she said.
Challenges: Wet weather, hodgepodge of regulations
Fickle weather discourages customers and threatens to force coordinators to cancel food truck events. North Palm Beach had to call off a Halloween Food Truck Frenzy in October because of heavy rain and a tornado warning. Rain put a damper on a monthly Cruisin’ Food Fest at John D. MacArthur Beach State Park. An hours-long downpour didn’t stop a food truck festival at Downtown Abacoa this month, but it didn’t help attendance.
Not only is it unpleasant for customers, it’s dangerous for the trucks to be on the move when it’s very wet or windy, Johnson, the food truck owner, said.
“Weather is our worst enemy. Florida only has two seasons. It’s either wet or dry,” Johnson said. “When it’s too hot, people are not coming out, either. If it’s not raining, we stand a better a chance.”
Then there’s the challenge of following all the rules. Broward County has the strictest regulations, Johnson said. If he gets his trucks to comply with their standards, he’s usually in the clear to operate anywhere else, he said. The permits he buys cost $25 to $150.
In Palm Beach County, keeping tabs on the food trucks varies city-by-city. There is no one-size-fits-all permit.
“The biggest problem I’m finding is that people think you make a million dollars a day,” he said. “Everybody wants to put their hand in the pocket. That’s what it’s becoming.”
Palm Beach Gardens recently changed the rules to require the food trucks to apply for a decal and get a fire inspection once a year. The whole package costs $85. It’s cheaper than the $110 special event permit and $50 code enforcement fee the trucks previously paid for each appearance.
The city’s earlier code made it difficult for large office buildings to host food trucks at lunch breaks, Fire Marshal Dave DeRita said.
Fire Rescue officials want to make sure both the people eating from food trucks and working on them are safe, he said. Inspectors check the hood suppression system, make sure there’s no buildup of grease that could catch fire and keep an eye out for leaks in the propane lines, he said.
Propane tanks should be outside the truck, surrounded by crash-protection bollards. They must not be tied on with rope or bungee cords, DeRita said.
A surveillance video of a food truck explosion in Philadelphia three years ago explains why. The propane tank was inside the truck, and a white vapor leaked from the truck before it burst into flames, DeRita said.
“A food truck is basically a restaurant on wheels. We’re going to inspect it just as we do any other restaurant in the city,” he said.
The city inspections are strictly for fire safety; the health department handles the food safety checks. After a truck passes the inspection, the city issues a sticker that changes color and design every year.
Two weeks into October, 20 food trucks had already gone through the procedure, DeRita said.
Jupiter requires food truck event coordinators to have a $100 permit, and the hours are limited to 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. The Feast of Little Italy, ArtiGras, the Jupiter Jubilee and several other Jupiter events feature an assortment of food trucks.
Single food trucks must get a special, $700 permit from the Town Council, which sets the hours, according to Jupiter records.
The Boynton Beach City Commission relaxed the rules for food trucks in March 2015 to allow the trucks to park in more areas. The only approved sites are associated with breweries or special events such as Music on the Rocks, an outdoor concert at the Ocean Avenue Amphitheatre, Director of Development Andrew Mack said.
Unlike other cities that hire an outside company to put on the invasions, North Palm Beach staff coordinates food truck frenzies four times a year. Families can also watch a movie at the frenzies in October and January when it gets dark out earlier.
The village charges $50 a truck, Recreation Superintendent Nancy Hensler said.
On a good day, about 4,000 people will show up — depending on the weather.
“That’s the whole key,” Hensler said.
Data reporter Mike Stucka and staff writers Alexandra Seltzer, Bill DiPaolo, Kevin Thompson and Kristina Webb contributed to this report.
Palm Beach County’s big food truck events
Music on the Rocks: Third Friday of each month, November through June. 6 to 9 p.m. at the Ocean Avenue Amphitheatre, 129 East Ocean Ave. Outdoor concert and cocktails
Food Truck Invasion: Second Friday of every month at Downtown Abacoa’s Town Center Drive. 5:30 to 10 p.m. DJ spins in the Abacoa Amphitheater
Food Truck Invasion: Second Monday of the month at the Cultural Plaza, 414 Lake Ave. 6 to 10 p.m.
North Palm Beach
Food Truck Frenzy: In January, April, August and October
Cruisin’ Food Fest: Car show and food truck festival at John D. MacArthur Beach State Park the second Saturday of each month, Noon to 4 p.m.
Palm Beach Gardens
Movie Nights & Food Truck Bites, check City of Palm Beach Gardens Recreation page for dates
Royal Palm Beach
Movie Night & Food Truck Invasion, or Concert in the Park & Food Truck Invasion. Check website for dates
Food Truck Invasion: Typically 2nd Thursday of the month. Check Food Truck Invasion Facebook for dates
West Palm Beach
Food Truck Invasion: Second Tuesday of each month in Howard Park, 1302 Parker Ave. 5 p.m.