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A vacationer walks up and down the green carpet, beholding the scene in front of him. There are four food options flanking the north and five flanking the south side of Celebration Park in Naples, a pioneer in the burgeoning Southwest Florida food truck scene.

These are restaurants on wheels, and Tony Murgo—wearing a T-shirt, shorts and a University of Rhode Island Rams baseball cap—is hungry while visiting from Newport, where he hasn’t seen anything like this.

“They’ve got a lot of choices here,” Murgo says. “You can get whatever you want, and then you can go up to the bar and get a beer.”

That’s because at Celebration Park, 2880 Becca Ave., one of several adjacent parking lots leads to the green walkway, which leads to the trucks, which leads to the bar facing Haldeman Creek.

Murgo walks past the trucks on the left. They’re named Gyros2Go (Greek), Mega Sabor (Mexican), Dragonfly (Asian fusion) and Maine Shack (lobster rolls). He walks past the trucks on the right: Islands Seafood, Gigi Gourmet (burgers), Jimmy P’s Wagyu Hot Dogs, Say Cheese (grilled cheese sandwiches and mac and cheese) and J. Paul’s One Bite And You’ll Be Hooked! (Pittsburgh-style sandwiches).

Murgo settles on the Classic Mac, with three cheeses and Panko breadcrumbs, for $11.22.

The prices range from about that to as much as $24 for the Jamaican-style grilled snapper over shrimp-fried rice at Islands Seafood.

“We make an effort to have a variety,” says Kathleen Lewis, events manager for Celebration Park, which was founded by owner Rebecca Maddox five years ago. “I personally love it. Even before I was working here, I loved coming here. It’s a must-see place in Naples. It’s not just a restaurant; it’s an experience.”

It’s an experience that’s starting to take off across the region. Bonita Springs, Cape Coral, Fort Myers and south Fort Myers each have different food truck park concepts in the planning and construction stages, with most of them slated to open before the end of this year. A decade ago, the region hardly had any food trucks at all, let alone food truck parks.

Aspiring mobile restaurateurs can buy all the ingredients in the world, but to run a successful food truck business they all need their most important ingredient: the truck itself.

Keep on trucking

In 2010, Scott Sopher, originally from Philadelphia, did what many other food truck operators do: He left his job. Sopher had been a chef at various area restaurants during the preceding decade after moving from Asheville, North Carolina. But now he needed a truck.

“2008 to 2010 was when the idea started coming around,” Sopher says of food trucks taking off in the Miami area. That’s about when he paid $13,000 for a 1995 GMC P3500 truck. He emblazoned the sides of it with his logo and name: “The Nosh Truck,” one of the first food trucks in Southwest Florida.

“I bought it over in West Palm,” Sopher says. “It was actually already a food truck. It was sitting outside of a trucking yard. They were serving chicken. It didn’t move; it was just the place they kept it. I bought it over there used. It was still licensed.

“Nowadays, I see some used food trucks going for $30,000, $40,000, that are not as good as what I got for $13,000 back in the day. But that was back in the day. Everything’s kind of relative.”

Ozzy Acosta, owner of the Mambo Sandwich Co., had been a cook for 17 years across the state, including in Hollywood, Florida and later in Immokalee. He earned a bachelor’s degree in culinary arts and restaurant management from Johnson & Wales and decided to start his own food truck. He bought a tiny, 8-by-6-foot trailer and started serving Cuban fusion food. He marinates pork for 24 hours, then roasts it for six hours before selling it out of the trailer.

“We outgrew it in six months,” says Acosta, who then upgraded to a trailer 8 feet by 10 feet wide. He spent about $50,000 on the trailer and outfitting it with cooking equipment.

“It’s fully equipped,” he says. “It’s just me and my wife. A family affair. Every once in a while, somebody will help us. We’re going to have to get into an even bigger trailer, because we’ve outgrown this one.”

Howard Hilton left his job cooking meals at various assisted living facilities last August and started “Skew U,” a food truck specializing in skewers—steak, shrimp and/or chicken on a stick. It has proven quite popular, but Hilton needed a truck, or in his case, a trailer. Fully outfitted with kitchen equipment, his cost about $35,000.

Erika Fernandez-Barrabi and her husband Anibal Barrabi paid about $15,000 for their food trailer and another $15,000 to fill it with a cooking range, fire suppression hood, two burners, work tables and a refrigerator.

Together, they operate Tiny Bites, which is based in Cape Coral and also has made a lot of trips to Punta Gorda since opening in 2020. Their food fuses Korean, Cuban and Mexican flavors.

“You have to have a lot of discipline,” she says of making the business work. “Because when people expect you to be someplace at a certain time, your window must be open. You have your early birds who are waiting for you to be there. You have to have a passion. Don’t just cook to cook. It shows through your food.”

Staking a claim

Once a food truck owner has a vehicle, he or she needs a place to sell the food.

The forthcoming trend of food truck parks are but one option. Farmers markets, the parking lots—with permission—of busy corporations and other businesses such as breweries and medical marijuana dispensaries are proving to be typical sites, as are gated communities—again, with permission.

The gated community/food truck trend took off in 2020 after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The pandemic kind of blew it up,” Sopher says. “I think between the pandemic and the hurricane, a lot of restaurants had to close. Or a lot of people lost their jobs and moved to food trucks. Both for the same reasons; they were cheaper to operate. It’s one of the best ways to get back up and running.

“All the food trucks were going to gated communities, because no one was leaving their houses. All of the sudden, there was a need for food trucks, because they weren’t going to restaurants.”

Hilton said most of his business so far has been in various communities.

“We do Babcock Ranch,” he says. “I just did Calusa Palms this week. Laguna Lakes. There are so many communities, it’s hard to keep track of them all. Everybody has a different day of the week. Some are Mondays, some are Tuesdays. Everybody just picks a different day of the week, and that’s the night they have food trucks.”

Once a food trucker gets rolling and finds a routine, it’s tough to divert from that, said A.J. Bordelon, who owns Viet Yum with his wife, Christina. Since the end of 2019, they have been cooking Vietnamese fusion cuisine; a tribute to A.J.’s mother, who is Vietnamese.

“Breweries, private events, public events,” A.J. Bordelon says. “You identify the coordinator. If they’re willing to host food trucks, then you’re pretty much a go. We’re at a place in our operations with the truck right now where we’re not actively trying to get new accounts. A lot of it is just going back to existing locations. In our first year, it was just scouting out where food trucks were already.”

Knowing the territory

Different municipalities have different codes and rules and laws for food truck operators. Some of them are yet to be written, with the concept still growing.

The city of Cape Coral, for example, enacted a new law April 25 that had been voted upon in January. It made life more challenging for food truck operators, as now they must move their vehicle and equipment by the end of each night, display hours with notarized permission from each location’s property owner, draw power from a portable generator only, not park on grass and keep all vending items inside the vehicle.

Food trucks in Cape Coral are also forbidden from providing seating, tables or furniture, using permanent water or wastewater connections and selling alcohol. Exemptions are made for special events.

Bonita Springs has a similar ordinance.

The Lee County government has only a few regulations that were adopted Jan. 18, 2022, by the Lee Board of County Commissioners. There are just six of them, such as not allowing operation on undeveloped lots, mitigating safety hazards and not blocking street rights-of-way and landscape buffers.

The Cape Coral and Bonita Springs regulations will put a dent into how food truckers operate, Hilton said.

“That’s going to put a big toll on the food trucks in Cape Coral,” Hilton says. “There’s five or six food trucks on Del Prado, and that’s where they are. They never moved.”

Now, they have to.

Selling the concept

The Bordelons didn’t choose Vietnamese cuisine just because of the heritage behind it. They realized no one else in the market was cooking that kind of food. It set them apart, which helped … and, for a time, also hurt.

“It was interesting, because we’re an Asian food truck,” Bordelon says. “So there was a little bit of a stigma attached to us. There was a little bit of resistance to us.”

Hilton went with skewers for the same reason; no one else seemed to specialize in them.

“It’s easy to eat, and it’s walk-around food,” Hilton says. “You don’t have to have a table to sit down and eat. And kids are really picky with food in general. But when it comes to the idea of food on a stick, they like that. Whether it’s corn dogs or steak or shrimp, they just love it. And then they get to play with the stick afterward.”

Sharing the concepts

The rise of food trucks has various entrepreneurs across Southwest Florida looking to cash in on it, with Maddox the first to do so at Celebration Park.

Rooftop at Riverside is taking shape at 27333 Old 41 Road in Bonita Springs, where owner Chris Magnus is excited about the possibilities. Like Celebration Park, there will be space for up to eight food trucks. But there will be a two-story bar, from which diners can survey the scene below and around them, with views of treetops, a park and Old 41.

“I think that the concept is taking off, because you have the ability to have several kitchens in one place,” Magnus says. “Your customers have the choice for what they’re in the mood for. If everybody wants something different, everyone can get what they want. It’s great for family, for friends and business meetings.”

Adding amenities to the mix draws more people, which makes it a winning combination for both the food truck owners and the venue owners, Magnus said.

John Mann and Matthew Baum agree. They are the owners and creators of Backyard Social, another food truck park that will be at the busy northwest corner of Alico Road and Ben Hill Griffin Parkway. It should open sometime this summer, with eight food trucks clustered around a concrete-block building that will be full of entertainment and games to draw people there, just north of the Twin Peaks restaurant.

“We will be the ultimate food truck location,” Mann says. “We’ve got a 10,000-square-foot, open-air building.”

Backyard Social will have tabletop shuffleboard, three lanes of dartboards with a camera-tracking system and more.

“We’ll have four lanes of duck-pin bowling,” Baum says. “It’s 30 feet instead of 90 feet. The ball you hold in your hand has no holes in it. It’s more conducive to adults and a night out without having to get into the hoopla of renting shoes and renting a lane and finding the right bowling ball.”

There are pros and cons for food truck owners to operate at food truck parks, several owners said. The pros include having easy access to propane gas and electricity and customers.

“I love it, because we treat it like a restaurant,” says Oran Townsend, owner of Islands Seafood at Celebration Park. He’s a native of Jamaica and a culinary graduate of the Runaway Bar Heart Hotel and Training Institute in St. Ann, Jamaica. “It’s an open environment. The food is as good as anything cooked up in a restaurant. But I don’t have to worry about paying servers.”

The cons include having to pay fees to the venue owners that can cut into profit margins, and having more of a fixed schedule, which was a reason why many owners left their day jobs to begin with.

“There are certain people who want to work when they want and make their own schedule,” Mann says. “This is much more along the lines of a brick-and-mortar restaurant operator. It’s a lot more demanding in terms of schedule and time. But as you talk to these people, it can be a lot more lucrative.”

Where craft meets business

Mann and Baum make for a perfect match in that Mann has a lot of business experience, and Baum has a lot of restaurant experience.

Successful food truck owners must master both the cooking and the business side, or they won’t last long, Sopher said.

Food truck profit margins can be 30%, a lot more than at restaurants, he said, but that’s after the owner has figured out what he or she is doing.

“A restaurant is going to be 10% and under,” Sopher says. “Maybe there are some other ones that are doing better. Obviously, a food truck is pretty appealing. You get a much higher profit margin. But if someone is not doing it right—if someone hires someone to run a truck for them—they’re not going to make the money they want to make. The whole model is designed to be owner and operator. It’s not really meant for other people to run it.

“The challenges are having to go and get your product. Even if the truck isn’t out seven days a week, you’re working seven days a week. You’re working full time. Most truckers I know spend a day to go and shop. You’ve got to go to three or four places to pick up things.”

Sopher used Gordon Foods Service off Colonial Boulevard.

“We bought all our ground beef from them,” he says. “When I outsourced from other places, my customers knew. Other places, it may have been cheaper, but the product wasn’t very consistent.”

Hilton sources most of his food from the Restaurant Depot. During each trip, he’ll buy about 40 pounds of chicken and 13-14 pounds of steak. That will cost him between $300 and $400, but it will yield him $3,000 worth of sales. The typical take from serving dinners for three hours in a gated community is about $750, minus expenses.

But it’s not as easy as it sounds.

“There’s a ton of trucks,” Hilton says. “Lee County is saturated in trucks. There are hundreds of them. But if you look online, every day, people are selling them. Because they didn’t realize it’s a ton of work.”

Acosta loves not being locked into a 9-to-5 job. But again, it’s not as easy as it sounds.

“I work 24/7,” Acosta says. “I always tell people, thank God for my wife. Typically, honestly, it’s 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. It never really stops. You’ve got to buy the food. You’ve got to prep. Then there’s the things you don’t think about. Oil changes. Flat tires. Then there’s the administrative side of it; figuring out your calendar. It’s all on Facebook and Instagram.

“For the most part, it’s somewhere in the $250 to $350 an hour of revenue. If you’re in that range, it’s good. It’s profitable. But just in gas alone, you’re spending at least $40 a day for the truck and the generators.”

Bordelon from Viet Yum had a background in banking as a branch manager prior to starting the food truck. That helped, he said.

“We do see a lot of new food trucks opening,” Bordelon said. “But we also see a fair amount of food trucks closing. The recipe for success seems to be a mix of business experience and food experience. If you can’t run your business, you can have great food, but you can go out of business in six months. But if you really have good business sense, but you have no idea how to run a stove, you won’t develop enough of a following.”

Sopher, the food truck pioneer, no longer has his. The Nosh Truck bit the dust during Hurricane Ian, as the Sept. 28 storm washed out the transmission. Sopher tried repairing it to no avail. And then he decided to move onward to a different opportunity after serving food in the truck for about 13 years.

“Do I miss it?” Sopher says. “There are certain things about it that I miss. But I do not miss the heat. It’s insane how hot it gets in those trucks. I’ll be 50 this year. Standing in the truck in the middle of the summer, pumping out the hamburgers, it’s hard.

“I’m hearing how people are leaving their jobs to start food trucks. They think they’re only going to work on weekends and make tons of money. They’re mistaken. It is a brutal business.”

Brews and bites

As the Fort Myers Brewing Co. celebrated its 10th birthday, it did so with about five times as many food trucks on hand in 2023 as it had in 2013.

Back then, it had two: The Nosh Truck and King Karl’s.

“Rob and I knew we wanted to have food trucks on our site,” says Jen Whyte, co-owner of the brewery with her husband, Rob Whyte. “That we needed food, and we didn’t want to own the food. The food trucks were a natural solution to that.

“At the time, we didn’t know how few food trucks there were in the area.”

The Nosh Truck, owned by Scott Sopher, sold out of food at the brewery’s grand opening. Eventually, Sopher couldn’t keep up with the demand at the brewery, which enlisted more food trucks. It showed the natural synergy that exists between the two businesses. Many microbreweries don’t have the expertise to provide food, and they don’t want to learn how. Food trucks are looking for a stream of customers. By inviting the food trucks, both businesses reap the rewards.

“It’s been incredible,” Jen Whyte says of the evolution of the food truck business across Southwest Florida. “The people who opened their trucks, they’re living their dreams. For some of them, it determines whether they want to get into the restaurant world.”

Sopher later tweaked his menu and devised the Pad Thai burger. It became his truck’s biggest seller, and it became so popular, the brewery ended up making Wednesdays “burger night” after more food trucks began flocking there.

Mambo Sandwich Co. owner Ozzy Acosta cooks and serves Cuban fusion food and said the brewery remains his go-to spot to find business.

“We bounce around,” Acosta says. “We do weddings, festivals, Taste of the Town, Bacon Jam, concerts at the Luminary in downtown Fort Myers. Gulf Coast Hospital, Golisano, Cape Coral, the cancer center. Word of mouth. People will call us.

“But our biggest spot is the brewery.”

The Fort Myers Brewing Co. plans to build a new headquarters. When they do, the Whytes do not plan on turning it into their own kitchen.

“We’re sticking with the food trucks,” Jen Whyte says. “Because it’s a great relationship. It allows us to have a variety of cuisine. You can come out every day of the week and have something different.”

Food truck finds

Celebration Park

Concept: A congregation of eight different food trucks, all of which have put on the brakes for extended stays. Entering this summer, the trucks are: Gyros 2 Go (Greek), Mega Sabor (Mexican), Dragonfly (Asian fusion), Maine Shack (lobster rolls), Islands Seafood, Gigi Gourmet (burgers), Say Cheese (grilled cheese sandwiches and mac and cheese), J. Paul’s (pizza and sandwiches)

Owner: Rebecca Maddox

Where to find: 2880 Becca Ave., Naples

Beau’s BBQ

Concept: Barbecue ribs, brisket and pulled pork

Owner: Tyler Goguen

Where to find:

King’s Tacos & Burritos

Concept: Assortment of burritos, quesadillas, tostadas, etc.

Owner: Tomas Ronquillo

Where to find: On Facebook at King’s Tacooos and Burritooos

Mad Brunch

Concept: Burgers, wraps, sandwiches, etc.

Owner: Maddie Balassie

Where to find: and on Facebook at Mad Brunch Southwest Florida

Mambo! Sandwich Co.

Concept: Cuban fusion. Recent menu had quesadillas, Cuban sandwiches, chicken sandwiches and the Bariga Buster Burrito (overstuffed burrito with roasted pork or chicken with rice, beans and more)

Owner: Ozzy Acosta

Where to find: Facebook at MAMBO

Skew U

Concept: Pork, chicken, steak, shrimp, etc., on a skewer. Recent menu had parmesan-crusted chicken, lemon garlic shrimp, marinated steak and meatballs

Owner: Howard Hilton

Where to find: Facebook at Skew U Food Truck

Tiny Bites

Concept: Fusion food with Korean, Cuban and Mexican flavor. Recent menu had crunchy Korean BBQ tacos, twisted elote (Mexican street corn with a twist) and Cuban sandwich

Owner: Erica Fernandez-Barrabi and Anibal Barrabi

Where to find: Facebook at Tiny Bites Good Eats

Viet Yum

Concept: Vietnamese fusion cuisine. Recent menu had a Banh Mi bowl, Vietnamese curry and char siu wok-fired chicken thighs

Owner: A.J. and Christina Bordelon

Where to find: and Facebook at Viet Yum

Wicked Streatery

Concept: Fusion food. Recent menu had New Orleans shrimp and grits, Southern comfort stack (fried green tomatoes, pulled pork, corn bread) and the Big Irish (corned beef with onions and Swiss on a toasted hoagie)

Owner: Jeremy Playford

Where to find: Facebook at Wicked Streatery

Coming soon:

Rooftops at Riverside: 27333 Old 41 Road in Bonita Springs. There will be an anchor building to host eight food trucks, with a rooftop bar overlooking Old 41 and the adjacent park.

Backyard Social: 16371 Corporate Commerce Way in south Fort Myers, at the northwest corner of Ben Hill Griffin Road and Alico Road. There will be an anchor building to host eight food trucks with a bar and various outdoor games, activities and entertainment.

Copyright 2024 Gulfshore Life Media, LLC All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without prior written consent.

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