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Mobile Munchies: The food truck craze cruises into Sarasota

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(See also our guide to local food trucks.)

Call it a movement. Call it a fad. Call it a revolution. Call it whatever you want. But Sarasota — late to the party as always — can finally lay claim to a small but vibrant food truck scene, assisted by the arrival and success of downtown’s food truck oasis, Ringling Picnic, and two very well-attended Beer and Food Truck Festivals in SRQ and Bradenton. The area has seen new trucks posting up on street corners and in bar parking lots, serving everything from barbecue and burgers to fresh Baja-style fish tacos and Thai soups.

Once known almost exclusively for ethnic foods in urban centers, in the last decade food trucks have become the new hot thing for ambitious but cash-strapped restaurateurs. For anywhere from $10,000 to $200,000 you can get a fully-functioning truck up and running.

Kelly Drost, in the Airstream that will house her Brown Bag Provisions.

Kelly Drost, owner of Brown Bag Provisions, a twice-weekly lunch delivery, recently purchased a 25-foot Airstream RV and has been gutting it with her husband, Chris. Kelly decided to go the food truck route to avoid the overhead and stress of a brick-and-mortar location. But even a food truck isn’t without its difficulties.

“It’s a lot of work,” Kelly says. “It’s like buying a fixer-upper house. You go into it thinking, ‘This is going to take X-amount of work and time,' and very soon you realize how much there is to do. But I didn’t want to get in over my head with a brick-and-mortar. We can pack the whole thing up if we want to, and go on vacation. It’ll be much easier for us.”

Kelly hopes to have the Airstream up and running by summer’s end. She says she has been throwing around the idea of covering the floor of the Airstream with a clear epoxy with plastic cockroaches underneath (she notes that Chris is not as fond of the idea as she is), as a little ribbing to the commonly held belief that food trucks are dirty “roach coaches.” As Kelly has found out, all trucks must be up to state health codes, which “are pretty intense.”

And then there is the issue of where to park the things. City ordinances in both Manatee and Sarasota counties all but ban them on city streets, requiring the trucks to be exiled to the private lots of local businesses and bars with a soft spot for a truck’s particular cuisine.

In mid-February, local food truckers were given asylum on the corner of Ringling and Links, at Ringling Picnic. Mindy Kaufman had spent a year getting the little urban oasis approved by the city. Mindy had recently returned to Sarasota, after living in Austin, where she had a "food truck food court" close at hand. "I was a little grumpy about being back," Mindy says, "and I thought, 'This will be fun.' Locating the space was easy; getting the permit was the difficult part. But it's the first of its kind, and the only of its kind, in Sarasota, and so the City was conservative about it. But they could have just said no, and they didn't."

The City was concerned about loitering and trash. And noise, of course. But in the end they went for Mindy's idea, and the reception has been popular in spite of the fact that the space often hosts just two or three trucks. Next week, Ringling Picnic will close up for the summer, and reopen sometime in September bigger than ever. Mindy will be keeping fans up to date on the trucks' summer movements on Ringling Picnic's Facebook page.

"One of the big reasons people own food trucks is they can pack up and take off," Mindy says.

Sarasota's food trucks, to my mind, split pretty nicely into two varieties: Lunch Trucks and Drunk Trucks. Let me explain.

Lunch Trucks usually service high traffic areas, commerce centers, office buildings, and downtowns. Ringling Picnic is a perfect example of this. Other Lunch Trucks move around during the week, keeping people on their toes, feeding into the hype machine and the mystique of the mobile eatery, keeping people hungry for their grub. Fans follow their Facebook and Twitter feeds religiously, tracking the trucks' movements.

Drunk Trucks are an entirely different animal. These can usually be found outside of local watering holes, in the parking lots of cowboy bars and hipster haunts — places like Tacos to Go, which posts up outside of the Rusty Hook and stays open “until last call.”

“Any place open past midnight is awesome,” Kelly says. “But the fact that Tacos to Go is true Mexican, that you can get beef tongue or tripe, it’s just perfection.”

Doña Betty’s taco truck, which hangs its hat outside of Joyland on North Tamiami Trail, is another example. Drunk Trucks capitalize on the voracious appetites of the inebriated, and oh how we love them for it. Swing by either of the aforementioned taco trucks on a weekend night and you’ll find lines of swaying, salivating patrons with the mucnhies, waiting for orders of tacos with beef cheek or lengua.

As far as Sarasota’s food truck scene has come, it still has a long way to go to catch up to more progressive cities like Brooklyn or Austin. But it's only a matter of time.

"Since February," Mindy says, "I've talked to probably 50 people who are working on starting one up."

"It’s just the beginning here," Kelly says.  "And that’s good in itself. Just that we’ve had the beginning.”

Last modified: May 30, 2012
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