By Dusty Ricketts | NWF Daily News
A new niche industry is taking hold in Northwest Florida.
Food carts and mobile food vendors, which hardly existed in Okaloosa County 10 years ago, now can be found at busy intersections and high-traffic areas. And their numbers are growing.
In the past few years, Northwest Florida and Okaloosa County in particular have seen a dramatic increase in mobile food vendors.
“The whole food truck scene has really gained popularity over the last several years, and people are starting to see it as more of a gourmet place to eat rather than just carnival-style food,” said Brooks Hammet, one of the owners of the Burrito del Sol food truck on Destin Harbor. “It’s really gained popularity throughout the United States, especially in cities such as New York, Portland, Ore., Austin, Texas, and even Atlanta and Miami.”
In 2003, Okaloosa County had just five mobile food vendors licensed with the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation. That number has grown steadily, peaking last year with 26 licensed businesses. There are 24 this year.
While Santa Rosa and Walton counties also have food carts, neither has seen the growth Okaloosa County has over the past 10 years.
The Department of Business and Professional Regulation inspects the vendors with the same standards as normal brick-and-mortar restaurants. Florida requires food carts to have a commissary or a standard brick-and-mortar business backing their license.
Locally, vendors serve just about any style of food, including a gyro cart in Crestview and taco stands in Destin.
Tom Garner, owner of the Tommy Mattonie’s restaurant on Eglin Parkway, has sampled many of the food carts.
“I highly recommend people give them a try,” he said.
Garner even considered opening Tommy Mattonie’s as a food cart before opting to open his traditional restaurant.
“I respect anyone that attempts to run a mobile food service, as it is just as challenging as running a normal restaurant,” Garner said. “You trade off the employee issues for regulatory issues, as most brick-and-mortar restaurants do not want the competition, so they get their political friends to make runs prohibiting them. These hard-working individuals can be drowned in red tape.”
Hammet and his brother, Evans Hammet, opened Burrito del Sol in June of last year in a heavily modified and renovated 1968 Airstream trailer. Operating out of a trailer significantly cut startup costs for their Baja-style Mexican restaurant, but there were other reasons they chose the Airstream.
They liked the portability of it, knowing they could move their business to safety if a hurricane was to bear down.
“We didn’t want a typical fair-style truck that you would see at a carnival,” Hammet said. “We wanted something with more character so it would be perceived differently.
“I think the food trucks allow a business to really hone in and specialize on a certain type of food,” he added. “Just due to the lower overhead and the nature of them, I think you have to pick just a handful of items and do them really well as opposed to offering a whole plethora of different options that aren’t as tailored and specialized to a certain style.”
Dave Horvaph built his food trailer and opened The Philly Cheesesteak Factory in May. One downside he discovered is that the carts are affected by the weather a lot more than traditional restaurants.
Horvaph said he has noticed a sharp decline in customers when the temperature reaches 90 degrees or higher because they prefer air conditioning.
However, one of the major advantages is that he is not tied to one location. Horvaph, who moves his cart around the Fort Walton Beach area, announces where he plans to be each day on his business’ Facebook page.
“You can really appeal to different locations,” Horvaph said. “If you break up the town into four different quadrants, you can rotate through those quadrants throughout the week and capture the markets. If a brick-and-mortar structure is located in Mary Esther, the people that are traveling that Racetrack-Eglin area aren’t necessarily going to be coming to it.”
Ideas for food carts can come from anywhere. Horvaph initially wanted to open a one that sold fresh seafood, but decided against it because of the cost. Instead, he remembered an incredible cheesesteak sandwich that was on the menu at an Orlando seafood restaurant he worked at about 20 years ago and knew it go over well here.
Tucker Duke’s Lunchbox is a popular restaurant in Valparaiso. When the owners were thinking about ways to expand, they decided to open a food truck in February called Tucker Duke’s Street Food Division to offer burgers and specialty sandwiches.
“We move around quite a bit. We’re on Eglin Air Force Base two days a week. We are out on Okaloosa Island two nights a week for the late-night business,” said Chris Cartenuto, who runs the food truck. “We’re always looking for new and different places.”
Cartenuto said reaction to the Tucker Duke’s food truck has been great and business is strong.
“The good thing we see, especially to be on Okaloosa Island or Destin, is a lot of tourists are used to seeing food trucks in their cities and they’re excited to see them here when they’re vacationing.
“I think we’ll be able to keep going all year round,” Cartenuto added. “The locations may change, but we’re looking for truck No. 2 and seeing what other offerings we can make to the community.”