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Gourmet food truck craze hits Tampa, but regulations stifle it in St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG — Every day, Sam and Cindy Dudding drive across the bay to offer their gourmet food truck menu to eager Tampa lunchgoers.

They'd rather not make the trip, but the Duddings' Fire Monkey truck is not welcome in their own town.

"There is literally no place for us to go in St. Petersburg," said Sam Dudding.

Everywhere else, food trucks are on a roll.

In Tampa, where thousands turned out for the city's first food truck rally last month, Mayor Bob Buckhorn plans his own monthly event downtown: the Mayor's Food Truck Fiesta. In Largo, city leaders are planning the city's first food truck event next month. And in Orlando and Miami, the food truck scene has exploded in the past year.

For cities like Los Angeles and New York, it's nothing new.

Chefs turned to food trucks as a low-cost way of building a business. Foodies looking for casual, inexpensive, quality eats embraced the trend, driven largely by social media.

Because their locations change frequently, most food trucks use websites like Twitter and Facebook to keep their fans in the loop.

Rallies, in which a dozen or more trucks converge on one location, focused public attention on the phenomenon in Miami and Orlando, where vendors roll out dishes such as Korean bulgogi tacos, pork belly sandwiches and dim sum fare.

The result: more and more food trucks hitting the streets. The same phenomenon is beginning in Tampa, where the number of trucks already has multiplied since the first rally last month.

Eat St., the Cooking Channel show devoted to food trucks, was in Tampa recently to document the burgeoning scene.

"It's a great city, there's a great culture there, and they've been very friendly to food trucks," said Todd Sturtz, rally organizer and food blogger. "And for people who love food, it's a great reason to come for a visit."

But in St. Petersburg, the trend can't find traction. City regulations prohibit food trucks virtually everywhere, even on private property.

The St. Petersburg City Council plans to discuss the issue today.

After weeks of letters, e-mails and an online petition signed by nearly 300 people, food truck owners and fans hope the city will loosen the regulations.

But it could take months.

Buckhorn didn't wait for permission.

"I'm sure there are some arcane regulations on the books, but if we're going to be a hip city, we've got to be flexible and we can't let the bureaucracy get in the way," the mayor said. "It's good to be the mayor because you can make things happen for your city."

Food trucks are cool, colorful, creative and delicious, Buckhorn said. "I can't think of a better way to spend an afternoon."

More than 3,000 people showed up for Tampa's first food truck rally Sept. 24 at Hyde Park Presbyterian Church. The lines were long and the 10 trucks soon ran out of food. And the city is hungry for more.

Tampa's second food truck rally is Saturday at Seminole Heights Christ Fellowship Church. This time, 30 trucks are expected.

"It's just so exciting," said Teresa Brydon, economic developmental manager for the city of Largo. "We saw how successful they were in Tampa, and we said, 'Yeah! We want to do that, too.' "

Largo is still working out the details for its first rally, but Brydon said a bigger plan is under way: a new ordinance to encourage food trucks. The plan would permit up to 15 food trucks for a year on private property.

"We think it will bring about a true urban feel, and really enhance our market," she said.

Stephen Micklo said he thought food trucks could do the same for St. Petersburg. So he invited Sturtz to organize a rally at his church. But the city said no, Micklo said, citing zoning regulations and crowd concerns.

"I just don't understand the city's resistance to this. It seems like such a great thing," Micklo said.

St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster said he hadn't heard about that but thinks there just might be room in St. Petersburg for food trucks. Community input is key, he said.

"Anything that we can do to make St. Petersburg more accessible to business and hipper, without selling our souls to tackiness, we ought to look into it," Foster said. "You can't just put them anywhere. There's a place and a time for everything. But if the community wants it enough, I think we can find a way to accommodate."

Gourmet food truck craze hits Tampa, but regulations stifle it in St. Petersburg 10/19/11 [Last modified: Thursday, October 20, 2011 12:37am]

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