by Andrea Richard | Sun-Sentinel.com
Giselle Pinto remembers not only the moment her life changed, but what she was eating when it did. Nearly two years ago, Pinto was working in Austin, Texas, as an account director for an advertising agency whose clients included Subway, Mars and Burger King. Junk food paid the bills, but the 37-year-old Venezuelan favored less-pedestrian cuisine. She had become a fan of the city’s burgeoning food-truck scene, in which culinary entrepreneurs congregate in Austin parks and parking lots to serve gourmet food from trucks and vans retrofitted to act as traveling restaurants. At the time, the scene included roughly 20 trucks.
“There was the truck that served foie gras in a cone. There was another truck that was all about juices,” Pinto remembers. “Another one served Vietnamese food, focused on noodles. Holy Cacao served desserts. The concepts were awesome.”
The trucks became fixtures at the city’s biggest cultural events, including the Austin City Limits and South by Southwest music festivals. At one such gathering of food trucks, known as “roundups,” Pinto realized that she wanted to do more than just patronize these mobile eateries. She wanted a truck of her own.
“ ‘Oh, my God, I’m eating foie gras that was sold from a food truck on the street,’ ” she recalls thinking. “I went home and began researching the [industry].”
She considered operating a truck that specialized in Venezuelan food. “I did all the homework, worked on the concept,” she says. “[But] there were too many trucks in Austin.”
Pinto soon left her advertising job to do consulting work and then to serve as the deputy director of food services for the public-school system in Washington, D.C. But the food trucks still beckoned, so she quit the job in Washington and began to visit cities where the movement had taken hold, including Chicago, Los Angeles and New York.
“I spent a week in each city and followed the trucks all day,” she says. “I wanted to see what the big time was for the trucks. In NYC, people would stand in the cold if the food was good. In Chicago, the cold weather wouldn’t stop them, either.”
In October 2009, Pinto arrived in Miami with the idea of opening a dessert truck. “I had no doubt I wanted to do cake pops,” she says of the baked, lollipoplike dessert. Her first truck, Sugar Yummy Mama, hit the road the following February.
About 50 gourmet-food trucks now operate in Miami-Dade County, serving restaurant-worthy dim sum, crepes, fish tacos and farm-raised vegetables, among other fare. Most items cost less than $10, and events such as the Biscayne Triangle Truck Roundup have been estimated to draw more than 3,000 people.
Yet trucks such as Pinto’s have had little success finding a customer base in Broward and Palm Beach counties.
“People are not that familiar with the food trucks up here like they are in Miami,” says Jochen Esser, a food-truck enthusiast from Deerfield Beach. “In Miami, you have events going on almost every day.”
Esser would like to see the same thing happen north of the county line, so he’s organized a roundup to take place May 11 in Boca Raton. The Gourmet Truck Expo will feature 25 trucks, including Pinto’s Sugar Yummy Mama, from 6 to 10:30 p.m. at the Boomers at 3100 Airport Road. The restaurants Sir Pizza and Bru’s Room will participate, as will specialty operations such as Chef on Wheels, whose menu includes veal-churrasco burgers; Dog Eat Dog Food Truck, which, of course, serves hot dogs; and even a truck that caters to fans of the so-called slow-food movement.
“I wanted to organize an event to see what we can get going in Palm Beach County,” Esser says.
Troy Thomas doesn’t believe the county is quite ready for an invasion of food trucks. In July 2010, he began hawking jerk-chicken sandwiches in Delray Beach and Boynton Beach from a truck he named the Rolling Stove. But the business attracted few customers, and after Thomas was invited to participate that October in a roundup in Miami, he gave up on Palm Beach.
“The population there doesn’t get it,” he argues. “I couldn’t grow anymore up north. The Miami crowd is hip.”
He’s not, however, entirely ruling out Broward and Palm Beach. “It will take awhile,” he says, “six to 12 months for it get up there.”
Sef Gonzalez posts reviews of food trucks and lists their appearances on his Miami-based blog, Burgerbeast.com. He believes the reason the scene hasn’t caught on in Broward or Palm Beach has less to do with residents’ allegedly unsophisticated tastes and more to do with the lack of a popular truck.
“There needs to be a truck of mass appeal, who goes out there and says, ‘I’m the one to follow,’ ” Gonzalez says. “Someone needs to be the one who breaks down the walls. It’s a lot of work, and no one has stepped up.”
He says the low turnout for a roundup this past February at the Boomers in Dania Beach may have turned off food-truck operators based in Miami-Dade. “It might explain why the trucks are fearful to make a trek farther north,” he says.
But even Miami-Dade is not the be all and end all of the food-truck scene, says Ross Resnick, whose Los Angeles-based Roaminghunger.com follows food-truck operations in 14 cities across the country, including Miami.
“Miami is an emerging market. It’s still up-and-coming,” he says. “[Expect] a really big wave in the next three to six months. In the fall, I think you’ll see a lot of trucks launch.
“There is no way to eat awesome quality food for less money,” he adds. “To me, nobody is going to want that to go away. The alternative for eight bucks is to walk into a Quiznos.”