Mobile Eateries Hit the Streets
There was a time when street food could only be found in America’s biggest cities, where populations are constantly on the move and time is of the essence. The old food truck model still exists in places like New York, L.A., Boston and Philadelphia, but the food truck culture in the U.S. is morphing from on-the-go hot dogs and pretzels to mobile restaurants, especially in Gainesville and across Central Florida. More and more trucks are parking on street corners, outside of bars and gathering at food truck rallies with the intention of serving fresh, made-to-order gourmet food from a tiny kitchen on wheels. Food trucks are just one more way the culinary landscape of Gainesville is growing, and the portability and manageable start up costs of food trucks present new opportunities for food-based small businesses to thrive.
Pelican Bros. started parking outside of High Dive (formerly Common Grounds) over three years ago. As one of the first trucks in Gainesville, it set a high standard for the scene in general with a delicious rotating menu and friendly service. Patrons of High Dive had the luxury of walking up to the window and ordering wonderfully fresh sandwiches, tacos, hand-cut French fries and more, without leaving the front patio. Before the emergence of Pelican Bros., locally sourced late-night food was scare outside of Flaco’s Cuban Bakery in the downtown area. New owners Stephanie Norman, 25, Charlie Brown, 25, and Pattee Green, 36 carry on the Pelican Bros. tradition every Wednesday through Sunday at High Dive.
“We’ve tried to bring our own spin to the truck,” Norman said. “We have a lot of vegan and vegetarian friends that support the truck, so we’ve included more of those items on the menu, as well as gluten-free items. We’re not a themed truck, so we’re able to cater to our customers.”
The Chicken Waffle slider is the signature dish on the menu, and guests can find other decadent items like Bacon Grilled Cheese, Sausage and Artichoke Bolognese and a Black Bean Burger made from scratch.
Norman says with the food truck culture is expanding thanks to shows like Eat Street on the Cooking Channel, a show that highlights truck owners and their sometimes-outlandish recipes. Food truck culture encourages small businesses to work together and support each other, especially since there’s something for everyone. Food trucks, unlike the traditional restaurant business, benefit from the collective, which is why rallies, or large gatherings of trucks, have become the norm in many cities in America.
The most recent Food Truck Rally in Gainesville, hosted by Pelican Bros., featured real pit barbecue from Black Beard’s BBQ, shaved ice from Charlie’s Snow Shack, woodfired pizza from Humble Pie, Cuban-style quesadillas from Go Go Stuff Yourself, pulled pork mac & cheese from Soup To Nuts and even gourmet treats for pets from Earth Pet’s Doggie Treat Truck. The rallies are designed to get as many different vendors in one place and show the variety of food community. Families and students alike all flock to the rallies to get a sampling because food is a wonderful way to bring people together.
Local musician Ashley Wilkinson, 25, loves the idea Gainesville’s mobile eateries. “Food trucks are crucial when you are hanging out with friends,” he said. “They serve a purpose in the sense that for me, a complete day of enjoying yourself must include a drink, good music and great food. Now that more and more food truck things come together.”
In the culinary world, upward mobility is often a slow-moving process complete with long hours in a kitchen. For many young cooks and chefs, the capital and experience required to open a restaurant the old-fashioned way can be a daunting mountain to climb. However, Norman, Brown and Green were just three roommates following different academic and professional endeavors before they bought the Pelican Bros.
Truck. Now, they work nights together and instead of working under corporate restaurant structures, they are operating a small business.
“We spend a lot of time at home, trying recipes and figuring out how to do things. There’s a lot of experimentation that goes on,” Norman said. “We are learning the business just like a lot of other trucks.”
Joe Garrick, 27, is a chef at Mildred’s Big City Food and has worked in Gainesville restaurants for almost five years. He says food trucks around the country are sort of in a “wild west” phase. Outside of urban areas, food trucks are new and fun, and the trucks that stand out the most and deliver the best products will survive. Garrick believes that eventually legislation and permitting will reduce the mobility and visibility of food trucks, but for now it’s an opportunity that most young chefs relish.
“Food trucks are a great way for younger chefs to discover their place in the culinary world, to cook the food that inspires them,” he said. “They [food trucks] represent liberation from the status quo, and that spirit is carried into the cuisine.”
Many of Gainesville’s trucks are active on social media and post regularly to Facebook and Twitter about upcoming events. Seekers can also count on Cymplify Market, which hosts a food truck rally the first Friday of every month, where food, music, craft beer, wine and ice cream are available for families to enjoy.