Food trucks are the fastest growing business in Florida

Food trucks are growing at a rate of 10.5 percent — much faster than traditional restaurants, which only grew 1.5 percent last year.

It's a Thursday night in Tallahassee and Rebecca Kelly is making a lot of grilled cheese.

The 38-year-old is making the classic sandwich with four kinds of cheese, fresh basil, tomato and sourdough bread — plus bacon if you want some meat on it. She calls it "cheesy goodness in your hand."

Kelly is among a growing number of entrepreneurs who are starting new eateries across the state. Except there is one key difference that sets Kelly's roadside café apart from other dining hot spots in the region. Her restaurant is on wheels.

It's a food truck she bought in 2011. She calls it "Stella" and it took "every penny I had" to purchase.

Kelly's business, Street Chefs, is not unique to Northwest Florida.

According to the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation, food trucks were the fastest growing business in the state in 2011, outpacing their brick and mortar brethren.

From November 2010 to November 2011 there was a 10.5 percent growth in the number of food trucks, or as the state calls them, mobile food dispensing vehicles.

At that same time, an 18-county region covering North Florida from Escambia to Madison County saw the number of food trucks grow from 173 to 205, an increase of 18.5 percent. In comparison, traditional restaurants only saw a 2.1 percent growth in that area.

But the trucks are hardly the little hot dog stands you might see on the beach or on a city street corner. They're full-scale kitchens on the move.

"As the economy has struggled, people are looking for more inventive ways and different ways to start a business," said Steve von Bodungen, deputy bureau chief of inspections for DBPR. "And this is probably the purest form of that."

Across Florida's northwestern counties, the movement has slowly grown over the past two to three years.

Some of the new entrepreneurs crisscrossing the region with their movable diners want to own full-scale restaurants one day.

Some simply were looking for the best way to start a business and make money in a down economy. Others were intrigued by the idea and spurred on by the success of food trucks in other cities across the country — not to mention the popularity of  "The Great Food Truck Race" on the Food network.

The state and the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association are hoping the trend continues.

Last December and again in May, DBPR held a food truck event in its parking lot, inviting the region's food truck operators to showcase their cuisine in the state's capital city and promote the new type of business. Many of the trucks have a niche, whether it's focusing on a particular type of food, focusing on local ingredients or only offering organic food.

"There's a lot of creativity that goes into these things," von Bodungen said.

He said the event let people see that the trucks had to undergo inspection just like a restaurant and that the trucks must really have a full-scale kitchen. They are required to have a three-compartment sink, fresh water, plus storage for wastewater. Proper refrigeration and a power hookup are also a must.

Carol Dover, president of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, said that her organization's membership staff is working on bringing in food truck chefs as members. The group isn't worried about food trucks taking away business from traditional restaurants, she said.

As long as the truck operators understand they need to pass inspection, just like a regular restaurant, her board wants them in the state.

"Some of them are amazing," she said. "We showcased them at our food show this year. It was just unbelievable."

In 2009, 148 miles from Tallahassee in Seaside, Fla., Jenny and James Murphy were one of the first food truck operators in Florida to break the mold of the traditional hot dog or ice cream truck.

James, 44, had worked in the restaurant industry for 25 years as a manager and bartender, which included a stint managing a barbecue restaurant in St. Thomas. Jenny, 41, also had experience tending bar and doing bookkeeping for a restaurant but had recently switched careers and was working as a massage therapist and wellness coach.

James had been toying with the idea of opening a restaurant, but saw a picture on Google of a man who had converted an 18-wheeler into a barbecue joint. Jenny said she doubted the ritzy coastal town would go for that but suggested an Airstream trailer as an alternative.

A $250,000 loan, one Airstream trailer and a DBPR approval later, they were in business, setting up their trailer on the 30A in an area that would later be frequented by additional food trucks and trailers. Their name: Barefoot BBQ.

They just finished paying off their equipment loan and were able to turn a small profit by the second year, even when many of the region's businesses suffered because of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

"We're blessed," she said.

At the height of the tourism season, they employ 17 people. James does most of the day-to-day work, while Jenny focuses on the bookkeeping and social marketing side.

She works a few shifts as well though, helping her husband serve lunch and dinner for less than $10 to tourists and local residents. There's barbecued ribs, pork sandwiches and mac 'n' cheese.

"It's one of those careers where you never sleep on it," she said.

Barefoot BBQ has opted to stay in one place, with Murphy noting it would take a lot of work to move their trailer. But now, they're not the only ones in the area cooking up food inside of a trailer or food truck.

"The great thing is many other businesses have gotten on the bandwagon," she said.

The Melt Down on 30A is famous in the area for its grilled cheeses, and Wild Bill's Beach Dogs produces free range hot dogs.

"While it's significantly less expensive, faster and easier to make mass-produced food, we just don't think it's the right thing to do," wrote Bill and Heavenly Dawson, a Seaside couple who also own four brick and mortar eateries, including Heavenly Shortcakes & Ice Cream and Pickle's Beachside Grill, on Facebook. "So no antibiotics or hormones go into our animals. No nitrites, filler or junk go into our dogs."

Breaking into the business may be the hardest part though.

Murphy said people frequently ask how much capital they need to start up a food truck business. Those inquiring usually estimate $40,000 to $60,000, and are surprised by the answer of $250,000.

"It's a much bigger project than people think," she said.

One of the newest locals trying to make a go of it is 26-year-old James Cullen. A South Florida native, he moved to Tallahassee to attend Florida State University and never left. But after graduating in 2010 with a criminal justice degree, he said he only found part time, dead-end jobs.

"I decided if I didn't find work, I'd make work," he said.

For about a year, Cullen stewed over the idea of starting a food truck business and finally took the plunge. He decided to focus on making several different types of grilled cheese. "I've always enjoyed cooking," he said.

One sandwich, the DanI, has goat cheese, gouda, sautéed onions, fresh basil and tomatoes. Another, Momma Lambdin, has artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes, fresh basil, pepper jack and mozzarella. You can add on items such as prosciutto or grilled onions.

He also has dessert — grilled cheeses that feature fruit and nutella.

"Grilled cheese is almost an endless possibility," he said. "Everyone remembers grilled cheese from when they were little, their mom making it."

The hardest part for Cullen was getting the financing, he said. Banks wouldn't even look at him. "I never envisioned it was that difficult to start a business from that standpoint," he said. "It's a cold system."

In addition to putting some of his own money toward it, Cullen hooked up with a Las Vegas group called Seed Capital that focuses on helping start-ups get cash. The group helped him get the business credit lines to pay for his bright yellow and red truck. From there, he hit the ground running, setting up a website and social media networks to promote himself, even months before the business' March debut.

"As my dad would term it, it's getting the real life MBA," he said.

He's now trying to get into a regular pattern, showing up at events around the city as often as possible to showcase his food.

"I want my food to be accessible to everybody," he said.

Social media has been a crucial part to both Cullen's operation so far and to the food truck movement across the country in general.

Food-Trucks-2In Tallahassee, Kelly and several other food truck operators set up shop in an empty lot next to a Burger King on Tharpe Street for an event called Food Truck Thursday. There's a pizza truck, which has outfitted its truck with a full brick oven, plus another that serves Filipino cuisine. The popular "Cravings Truck" serves up plates of chicken and waffles, its specialty.

They dish out meals while customers sit at picnic tables or mill about from truck to truck, listening to whatever music group is playing there that night. And they rely on social media and word-of-mouth to help spread the word about other food truck events. They might be at First Friday events in Railroad Square near Florida State. Or they might be situated for a few hours in a downtown park trying to attract a lunchtime crowd.

"Social media is the food truck's best friend," Kelly said.

Many are still in the stages of paying off their loans and hoping that their entrepreneurial gambles will be huge successes.

"It's not gone as spectacularly as we'd hoped, but it's not gone as terribly as we'd feared," Kelly said.

Kelly, who unveiled her truck in May 2011 after nine months of planning and quitting her job as a manager at Bruegger's Bagels, focuses on comfort food.

Mac 'n' cheese and a shepherd's pie wrap with garlic mashed potatoes are on the menu. Sometimes she cooks her grandma's pierogies. Prices are typically in the $6 range.

Kelly said the food truckers are constantly seeing new faces at their gatherings, but they are also starting to get regulars. At first it was mostly a younger crowd, a lot of college students and hipsters. Now, as the trucks have become a regular presence at lunchtime in downtown Tallahassee, they're starting to see more families at events like Food Truck Thursday and First Friday as well.

Murphy said she thinks that though other cities have embraced the food truck trend as well — Orlando, Tampa, and South Florida also have large food truck gatherings — that it's a natural fit for Northwest Florida.

"It fits so well in the Panhandle because there's such a sense of nostalgia here, so the food trucks and the Airstreams are so well received," she said.

But Kelly and the Murphys at least, seem to have their eye on something bigger.

Jenny Murphy said though they love the food truck, it does have some pitfalls. It's dependent on the weather and it is difficult to get insurance to cover it. But, she said, it's been a great entry into the food business.

"Pretty much, every restaurant we create after this will be brick and mortar," she said.

Kelly, who is certified through the American Culinary Federation and has worked in the food industry for over a decade, said she has the general thought of a restaurant that cannot move from place to place as an option for her too.

"Owning your own business is like having a tattoo," she said. "Once you have one, you start thinking about the next one."

Categories: Along 30-A, Food & Drink, Tallahassee