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Wheels get a little wobbly on food-truck culture

A little air has gone out of the tires of the social-media-fueled, counter-culture revolution on wheels.

Stringent government regulations, increasing consumer sophistication and the reality of long, hard hours have cooled the food truck frenzy, both for starry-eyed would-be vendors and the hungry hoards they serve.

Since June 2, Craigslist.com has listed 21 used food trucks for sale in the Tampa Bay area. If you broaden that search to Central Florida, several dozen more trucks crowd the list board, from Blue Bird school buses to workhorse Grumman Olson vans. The requirements of compostable cutlery and detailed business plans have also dampened some of the fervor of rogue upstarts in cities like Vancouver, British Columbia, and Los Angeles.

Sure, there are plenty of Tampa Bay trucks doing a robust business, like Wicked Wiches, which now has three trucks, and cult favorite Burger Culture. The granddaddy of them all, Taco Bus, which boasts four brick-and-mortar spots and a mobile unit, is known nationally among food truck aficionados.

But others haven't fared as well.

Jeremy Gomez ticks off names of Tampa's original food trucks that have already closed or changed hands: Fire Monkey lasted only nine months; the Hogfather BBQ truck is for sale; Keeping it Reel recently sold, as did American Wiener. Gomez is one of the organizers of an August rally at the Florida Fairgrounds that's attempting to break a world record by gathering 100 trucks.

Rallies draw big crowds, but things are tougher here for individual trucks on the streets. The Tampa Bay area is a car culture spread out across a broad metro area, and food trucks rely on foot traffic. Even the most intrepid local pedestrian may falter in summer's heat, humidity and afternoon storms. Plus, said Gomez, Tampa diners have a long tradition of patronizing chains and familiar fast-food giants.

Born in Los Angeles in 2009 and amped up with shows like the Food Network's Great Food Truck Race, the mobile food movement swiftly became a feverish national preoccupation. But the reality of running a truck can be daunting.

"At first I was full of energy. That was two years ago. I'm worn out. I'd be getting up at 6 in the morning doing the marketing on Facebook," said Kevin Dunn, who sold his American Wiener truck earlier this year. "And the paperwork started stressing me out. I couldn't continue to do it all," he said. "I never meant to work so hard."

Going establishment

Vancouver, one of North America's most vital food truck cities, had 29 applications for 15 new food trucks licenses in 2013, down from 59 in 2012. In that city, there are 114 licensed food trucks.

Vancouver Deputy City Manager Sadhu Johnston said the craze isn't cooling, just evolving.

"It's still explosive, with a huge appetite from our public," he said. "And we've seen more tourists making the food trucks a part of their visit. Conference organizers request food trucks, and virtually every festival, parade and out-of-doors activity involves food trucks in Vancouver."

Then what accounts for the drop in applications?

It's about the level of rigor that's expected in the applications, Johnston says. In 2010 it was a one-page form and there were 800 applications. Now the city requires a menu and a business plan that has been vetted, all of it evaluated by a panel of food experts, from food critics to business plan experts and the city's most famous chefs. He says regulations have been adopted that establish standards that encourage healthy options and the use of local foods, and that food trucks are required to use compostable cutlery and plates.

Matt Geller, CEO of Southern California's Mobile Food Vendors Association, sees regulation as a double-edged sword. While he's in favor of regulations for public safety and public health, he points to food truck codes that have seriously hampered growth in some cities.

"In Chicago a food truck can't be within 200 feet of a restaurant, in Philly there's a ban in the most densely populated part of the city and in San Francisco there's a lengthy permitting process. New York has a cap on permits and there's a 15-year waiting list."

He says Los Angeles County has 40,000 licensed restaurants and 2,600 food trucks and trailers. By comparison, Michael Blasco, CEO of promotion company Tampa Bay Food Truck Rally, estimates that he works with between 55 and 60 trucks at Tampa Bay area rallies.

A lot of hard work

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn has embraced food trucks, even lending his support to the Mayor's Food Truck Fiesta at Lykes Gaslight Square Park on the first Wednesday of the month. He's bullish about the August rally at the fairgrounds.

"It's been a pure joy to watch their growth as a result of the city of Tampa's willingness to embrace them, honor them and celebrate them," he said.

And after some initially restrictive regulations, Pinellas County was subsequently more enthusiastic about food trucks. Still, even if it manages to hold the world's largest rally, the Tampa Bay area may have some additional challenges to maintaining a robust food truck scene.

"To me, the market got oversaturated with trucks that weren't very good and that hurt the industry here," said Sam Dudding, owner of the defunct Fire Monkey. "While there were a few trucks that were nice and with good food, all of a sudden the market exploded with trucks that weren't very nice and had awful food."

As with brick-and-mortar restaurants, food truck culture appears to be a meritocracy. Even with the potted-plant paradigm (move it into a sunny spot), only the strong survive.

Laura Reiley can be reached at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow her on Twitter @lreiley.

Wheels get a little wobbly on food-truck culture 07/29/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 30, 2013 12:24am]

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