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Wednesday, Apr 18, 2018
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Food truck industry in Tampa evolves

— It’s lunchtime on a Tuesday, so Margaret Loflin is where she usually is, at the prep table in her Maggie on the Move food truck.

One customer wants a heaping My Big Fat Greek Salad. Another needs a crabcake-filled Crabby Gyro. Someone else craves a giant hunk of sticky, crispy Bacon Baklava.

For National Nurse’s Day, Brandon Health Care and Rehabilitation hired Loflin to park there to make lunches for the nurses.

The food truck business is more of a daily operation now than it was four summers ago, when the culinary street-food frenzy hit Tampa after first landing in Los Angeles; New York City; Portland, Ore.; and Austin, Texas.

In December 2011, when Loflin started Maggie on the Move, her business was focused on serving at weekend rallies where thousands of customers would feast on funky foods from dozens of trucks.

The rallies still happen — Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s monthly food truck fiesta took place again Wednesday at Lykes Gaslight Park — but the business has evolved as mainstream acceptance has grown.

The food truck scene’s dynamics shifted in February, when Loflin and three other trucks formed the nonprofit Gulf to Bay Food Truck Association.

The original group of four — Loflin, Bryan Goodell of Wicked ‘Wiches, Damion and Heather Davis of Hott Mess and Jon and Joi Escobar of Enjoi Sweets — quickly grew to about 50 members.

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For years, the 130 local trucks working from Brooksville to Sarasota relied on two competing promoters, Tampa Bay Food Truck Rally and Generation Food Truck, for steady bookings. The cost for being booked was a percentage of sales at each event.

As crowds grew into the thousands, Tampa Bay Food Truck Rally geared its business toward creating huge events in Tampa, Brandon and Lakeland while battling St. Petersburg’s stringent street-vendor regulations.

At about the same time, Tampa Bay Markets, which manages several local farmers’ markets, organized the Flicks & Food Trucks event in Tampa’s Channel District on the third Thursday of each month. Rallies began cropping up in Pinellas, too, on St. Pete Beach and beyond St. Petersburg city limits.

The scene got a boost in 2012, when Wicked ‘Wiches and Taco Bus were featured on the Cooking Channel street-food show “Eat Street.”

Entertainment spots such as Busch Gardens and the MidFlorida Amphitheatre began hiring trucks to serve during Howl-O-Scream and concerts.

Goodell is perhaps the most successful local owner. He operates two Wicked ‘Wiches trucks, a Slow & Low Barbeque truck, an Urban Taqueria vehicle, the Five Buck Truck on MacDill Air Force Base, and Soda Kart, which features handcrafted sodas.

Generation Food Truck (generationfoodtruck.com), formed two years ago by Jeremy Gomez, became a rival to Tampa Bay Food Truck Rally.

Gomez organized two World’s Largest Food Truck Rally events at the Florida State Fairgrounds in addition to supplying trucks to local events.

Pinned between the two promoters, the Gulf to Bay association formed to give truck owners a voice and to relieve tensions, Loflin said.

As the number of food trucks grew over the years, some accused promoters of playing favorites and booking only a small percentage of trucks.

“There was such a separation of food trucks,” she said. “Some owners wouldn’t even talk to each other because they were taking sides between Generation Food Truck and Tampa Bay Food Trucks.”

The new group charges an annual $75 fee to belong and does not take a sales cut. Members are listed at GulfToBayFTA.org so that those looking to hire trucks can contact them. Truck owners also share resources for repairs, business advice and referrals.

“We’re individual owners,” Loflin said. “We’re not employees of either company. We came together to alleviate costs. Ten percent here, 10 percent there; it really adds up.”

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Loflin says she doesn’t see a conflict brewing between the promoters and the association.

Some trucks belonging to Gulf to Bay still get booked by Tampa Bay Food Truck Rally, she said. Gulf to Bay is more geared to individual bookings and small events, she said, while Tampa Bay Food Trucks has a much broader scope of services.

Michael Blasco, owner of Tampa Bay Food Truck Rally (tampabay foodtruckrally.com), agreed, saying his company accommodates a variety of clients, from daily lunch service requests and corporate dining experiences to catering for as many as 6,000 people.

“We’re not set up for one-hit wonders,” Blasco said. “We’re set up for bigger events and clients. The utility of being able to feed anyone, anywhere, is beautiful and so useful.”

The type of clients who book food trucks — a General Electric subsidiary called Wednesday, Blasco said — reflects the trend’s growing acceptance.

As for claims that Tampa Bay Food Truck Rally plays favorites, Blasco said politics isn’t involved.

Even if he booked a 20-truck event, he said, that would leave another 110 trucks out in the cold.

He picks the trucks he knows will best fit a specific event and audience, he says.

“We want to work with people who are positive and treat customers well,” he said. “If someone does something wrong, it affects all food trucks and reflects upon us.”

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Although the food-truck scene is more crowded than ever, there’s still room for enormous growth, Loflin said.

She’s been lobbying St. Petersburg officials to loosen restrictions on mobile vendors downtown.

New regulations the city is considering would allow trucks to operate on public rights of way and private property, except in an area east of First Street North and First Street South that includes Beach Drive.

The city’s bar and restaurant area along Central Avenue east of Fifth Street also would be off-limits.

Loflin said she can envision a permanent food truck lot adjacent to that zone where a rotation of truck owners could work.

St. Petersburg’s reluctance under Mayor Bill Foster to craft a compromise between downtown restaurants and mobile vendors stunted growth.

Only a half-dozen trucks, including Maggie on the Move, are based in St. Petersburg. Gas prices make it costly to drive to Tampa events.

“We want the industry to grow in the Tampa and St. Pete area,” she said.

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On Friday, the Gulf to Bay Food Truck Association will organize its first event, the Food Trucks on Fig rally at West Fig Street and North Rome Avenue in Tampa.

The rally will include 15 to 20 trucks, children’s games and activities, 12-year-old DJ Jake de la Cruz and several non-food vendors. Admission is free.

Wicked ‘Wiches owner Goodell says the association has an advantage in that customers know money spent at each truck is going into the owner’s pockets instead of shared with an organizer.

“But by the same token, if Tampa Bay Food Trucks didn’t exist, there would be a huge hole in the market,” Goodell said. “We actually could use two or three more promoters. We’re all just trying to feed the beast we all created.”

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