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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Food truck owners discuss ups and downs of the booming industry

Over 70 food trucks can be found in Gainesville, more are expected to open

Midpoint Park & Eatery offers a family-friendly outdoor dining area with a variety of food trucks to choose from on Sept. 2, 2023.
Midpoint Park & Eatery offers a family-friendly outdoor dining area with a variety of food trucks to choose from on Sept. 2, 2023.

From juice bars to funnel cakes to Venezuelan-styled sandwiches, food trucks provide easy access to various dishes and flavors and introduce new cultures and cooking styles to customers. 

The food truck industry is a growing business in Gainesville, with many mobile kitchens collecting near apartment complexes and busy streets. According to the Florida Department of Business Professional Regulation, 94 food truck owners are licensed in Alachua County and have made it their home as of Sept. 2023, parking their wheels with hopes of finding success among the college students and busy nightlife. 

The growing popularity of the food truck industry is visible at Midpoint Park and Eatery, located at 931 SW Second Ave., which features four food trucks seven days a week. 

Sam Ebadzadsahraei, owner of the Mediterranean-style food truck Kebab on the Wheels, recently moved his truck to a parking lot directly across from UF campus, located at the corner of West University Avenue and Northwest 16th Street.

Ebadzadsahraei traveled throughout Gainesville looking for the perfect location and chose the spot near campus because of the vast amount of students, he said. 

“Students are used to eating frozen meals, and they want something warm to eat,” Ebadzadsahraei said. 

Aside from the bustling student life to bring business to local food trucks, many Gainsville truck owners said they decided to open a food truck because of the smaller expenses and upkeep costs. 

Restaurants can be anywhere from 800 square feet to 7,000 square feet, causing yearly payments to be extremely expensive for larger spaces. The average rent for a brick-and-mortar restaurant in Gainesville can range from $20 per square feet per year to $30 for newer construction buildings, according to Jason Hurst, associate vice president of the Gainesville real estate agency Colliers. 

“Second-generation restaurant space is typically pretty hard to come by in Gainesville, particularly if it’s well-located,” Rick Cain, a principal at the real estate company Avison Young, said.

Eros Puentos, owner of the Venezuelan-style food truck La Maracucha, said he and his family chose to open a food truck because sit-down restaurants are extremely expensive. 

Puentos first began the business in Miami with his wife, but they decided to move to Gainesville in March 2020 because of the expensive Miami rent and traffic. The family was able to finance the truck for $30,000, which is much less than paying rent each year for a brick-and-mortar building. 

Parked in front of the Ace Hardware — located at 3727 W. University Ave. — the truck has improved the financial success of its neighboring businesses. 

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The Ace Hardware manager was friends with Puentos and allowed him to park out front without paying. Given that this would attract customers, his friend’s boss allowed them to remain at the location because she realized it improved their sales, with sales hitting a million that year, Puentos said. 

However, the Venezuelan business has experienced its financial ups and downs, which has proved to be an ongoing challenge for food truck owners.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Puentos family had to pay $1,700 a month, yet they were making almost under $50 a week. Puentos said this led them to move the truck to The Backyard, an outdoor space in downtown Gainesville, for two months before moving back to its original location. 

Luckily, the mobility of food trucks allows owners to travel to where business is strongest — a freedom brick-and-mortar restaurant owners lack.

Anthony Johnson, owner of the truck Conch and More, which is located at 204 NE Waldo Road, opened a food truck because it allows him to travel for business, he said. 

Johnson moves his business between Ocala, Gainesville, Wildwood and Leesberg, going wherever he knows business will be best on that day. 

“With brick-and-mortar, you can have a good spot, but you don’t know if every day you’re going to have a good spot,” Johnson said. “Every day I know where it’s going to be a good day, so I can go there, and I know I can make a decent amount of money on that day. I know it’s not going to be a constant business every day here.” 

Similarly, Emily Fournere, who owns the food truck El Meson Y Mas with her husband, said she moves the food truck between different locations, switching between Gainesivlle and Bronson.

Fournere originally started the business in Kissimmee with her husband, yet they moved to their new Gainesville location — 514 N. Main St. — in February this year. 

“We’re always looking for new places with new Latin culture and new people and a new customer base,” Fournere said. “It was my husband’s dream to open a food truck.” 

Contact Alexandra Burns at aburns@alligator.org. Follow her on Twitter @alexaburnsuf.

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