While food trucks have become wildly popular in Jacksonville in recent years, on the other side of the ditch, they've not been so welcome. But last week, after a two-year campaign by food-truck advocates, the Jacksonville Beach City Council finally agreed to allow the trucks to operate within city limits, at least during a 14-month pilot program.
There are limitations: Food trucks have to get permission from property owners to set up shop (they can't use vacant or noncommercial land), and they can't do so within 100 feet of brick-and-mortar restaurants. They have to apply for a permit at City Hall and pay an annual business tax ($79.20). They have to shut down by 3 a.m., or by 10 p.m. if they're close to residential properties.
But at least it's something. "There is so much creativity coming out of these food trucks, and there is some really, really good food," says Councilwoman Chris Hoffman, who championed the food truck cause.
She's right — and I've tasted it firsthand. On The Fly Sandwiches ‘n' Stuff chef Andrew Ferenc serves freshly seared ahi tuna over crunchy napa cabbage slaw that's topped with pickled ginger and a sweet chili sauce. Chew Chew has a flavor-packed Korean short rib melt with smoked provolone and diced kimchi slaw. And just last week I tried beet fries (yes, that's a thing) from Funkadelic. Verdict? Delicious. And it's just the beginning. Jax Beach residents will soon have all kinds of innovative culinary options to choose from, and that has foodies like me chomping at the bit.
(Disclosure: My fiancé Mike Field and I manage the Jax Truckies Facebook group.)
That's because food trucks offer room for experimentation. Consider this: Long-time Beaches resident John Stanford and his brother Jeff opened a food truck in the summer of 2012 in an effort to get the name of their then-under-construction brick-and-mortar restaurant, The Salty Fig (now The Blind Fig), out to the masses. The Blind Fig's wildly popular pork belly and fried oyster sandwich first debuted on the food truck. Now it's served in the restaurant, as are other items that got their start on board. One of the best things about a truck is that chefs can change the menu frequently, since they're not buying in bulk like at a restaurant.
"Our customers aren't looking for the restaurant experience," says Patrick O'Grady, who opened Driftwood BBQ truck in 2011. "They're looking for a good, quick meal."
Driftwood is one of my favorite BBQ trucks. The ribs are so perfectly tender and seasoned that I've placed two separate catering orders for mass quantities for a picnic and a retirement party. When people ask where they're from (as they lick their fingers clean), I give props not to some well-established joint with white tablecloths and a highbrow whiskey selection, but to a humble food truck.
"There's a synergy that's created when you put trucks' and restaurants' strengths together," John Stanford says. "Some people fear the food trucks will take away job opportunities and sales revenue [from nearby restaurants]. But really, the guys and gals operating these trucks are all local people looking to start their own kitchens and design their own menus and concept without the huge cost of building out a full-scale restaurant. I think there is a market for every kind of kitchen.
"It just gives more options but doesn't mean the brick-and-mortars should fear that. Competition is healthy in any industry, [and] gives the businesses even more of a reason to produce a better product and continue evolving."
Competition does make the world go 'round — and the foodie world is no different. If you own a hot dog shop and feel threatened by a taco truck, step up your game, or at least embrace the fact that not everyone wants to eat hot dogs all the time. I predict we'll soon see an increase in innovative choices available all around the beaches, providing a bigger assortment of options to residents and tourists alike.