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A Moveable Feast

It’s hard to describe how hot it is inside the Sidecar Kitchen food truck. Have you ever cranked up your oven to like 500 degrees and then opened it real quick to throw in a pizza? That. It feels that hot. Oven-in-the-face hot.

“You can’t leave the marshmallows out. They will melt in like a minute,” Hector Lopez says, in another fine way to describe how hot it is. “Where are the marshmallows?”

He opens the fridge and the cabinet and then back to the fridge. No marshmallows.

“I’ll be right back,” Lopez’s business partner, Adam Irvin, says, grabbing money from the cash drawer and running to the Winn-Dixie down the block. They’re parked in front of the Crown Wine & Spirits on Cordova Road in Fort Lauderdale, so luckily they have a supermarket nearby.

Lopez keeps going. He drops tostones and fries into hot oil. Ham gets seared on the griddle. Placing the potato-chip-crisp tostones on the counter, he adds Swiss and a smear of mustard relish. Ham and pork go next, before it all becomes a sandwich.

“There it is, my Cuban,” Lopez says, loading it into a Styrofoam container. He tosses the fries in garlic-Parmesan and adds them to the to-go carton.

His Cuban is a glorious thing. An original invention. Tostones sit in for the bread, adding an incredible crunch. His mojo-braised pork – it melts on your tongue.

“I had a woman tell me the other day it was the best thing she has ever put in her mouth,” Lopez says. He laughs, and his shaking belly makes his whole body seem like it’s giggling. It’s a laugh that’ll make you laugh. “And she was Cuban.”

If you recognize Lopez’s name, maybe it’s no surprise to hear how good his take on the Cuban is. He used to be the chef at The Grateful Palate, back when it was one of the best restaurants around.

Once Irvin has returned with the marshmallows, Lopez skewers one of them. He cranks one of the stove’s industrial-strength burners to high. The heat from it is like a blow-dryer, on the death-ray setting, upping the temperature in the truck, which is no bigger than a UPS delivery van. Once the marshmallow is toasted, Lopez sandwiches it between two graham crackers, along with a peanut butter cup and strawberry jelly.

The PB&J s’mores sandwich is also his creation. And it could solve all the world’s problems, it’s so good.

The customer, their first one of the day, takes two boxes and is off, back to his job at Office Depot.

“He comes all the time,” Irvin says. “I see him like every day.”

It has been like that for the Sidecar Kitchen since it opened on July 22 at the Oakland Park green market. Steady crowds, a loyal following and money coming in.

It’s the Great Food Truck Dream. And almost always, it’s so not how things go.

To be fair, South Florida has always had food trucks. More than not, the lunch wagons of old, hawked cheap burgers and tacos cooked previously, perhaps quite previously. They summoned men at construction sites with horns that bellowed the tune from “La Cucaracha,” which, it’s worth noting, is a song about a dancing cockroach.

The idea of an upscale food truck began in 2008 out in Los Angeles when Chef Roy Choi started selling tacos stuffed with Korean barbecue outside Sunset Strip bars. The idea quickly went nuts in cities like Austin and Portland, where hundreds of food carts and trucks now roam the cities or post up in designated parks.

Gourmet food trucks first came to South Florida in November 2009, when one of the best, gastroPod, started showing up to events. Within the next year, another nine trucks joined it.

That’s when Sef Gonzalez got involved. You might know him by the Burger Beast, also the name of the blog he runs. He was writing a lot about food trucks in those early days, so the Miami Herald asked him to curate an event at the Arsht Center in September 2011. Hundreds of people showed up. Who knows? Maybe thousands. Every one of the 10 trucks had down-the-block lines.

Gonzalez recalls: “I had no idea what I was getting into, I’ll be honest.”

Gonzalez soon made a steady side business out of organizing food truck events. He’d charge the trucks to participate and then bring in customers by writing it up on his blog. He organized weekly meet-ups, and two months later, there were about 50 trucks working South Florida.

The business of food trucks soon got big. Companies that outfit vans into food trucks now charge anywhere from $25,000 to more than six figures. That’s still far cheaper than the build-out on a traditional restaurant, but it also means a food truck owner has to have high volume sales to make up for those expenses.

There’s now somewhere near 170 food trucks from Jupiter to Miami. With so many on the road, finding a good one can sometimes be a culinary crapshoot. When the City of Fort Lauderdale shut down part of Himmarshee one night in July 2011 to bring in food trucks to Esplanade Park, people lined up for an hour or more at every truck in sight. For some, their time was rewarded with glorified junk food at restaurant prices, while others found their new favorite food in spicy Cuban burgers called fritas or gourmet grilled cheeses. That initial run on food trucks cooled within just a few months, and the owners of a lot of bad ones found a new line of work, Gonzalez recalls.

Every single day, about five people call Steve Simon to ask if they ought to open a food truck. Simon runs a company called Food Truck Invasion that also organizes roundups from Miami to Stuart.

“First thing I tell them is, ‘Don’t. Don’t start a food truck,’” Simon says.

Seems odd coming from a guy who makes a living organizing events for food trucks. But Simon knows almost nobody makes money at it. Few of them understand the insane levels of marketing that are needed.

If they open a truck anyway, Simon gives them the how-to. Find a regular lunch spot. Work a late-night location near where bars are closing. And constantly, compulsively, post to social networking. Post updates about where you’ll be and when you’ll arrive; upload your menu daily; and bombard social media with hipster-quality photos of the food.

“If you do all those things, maybe you’ll make it,” Simon says. “But probably not.”

The thing is, food trucks still need to move a lot of product to make it worthwhile. Consider the costs involved in just showing up in front of a liquor store at lunch – the food, the gas for the generator, the loan on the truck, and then maybe a salary for the chef. In short, it takes a lot of frito pies to make a living.

Troy Thomas has been able to find that balance for more than four years now with his Delray Beach-based truck, The Rolling Stove. He often attracts lines at food truck rallies for his barbecue, jerk chicken and burgers.

But he’s also seen a decline in the last couple years. “The problem with food trucks now is that, at a lot of them, the food is no good,” Thomas says. “You get people just buying bulk chicken fingers and dropping them in the fryer. That hurts the trucks like mine where we make everything from scratch.”

City governments have also made it tougher. Hollywood now requires a $250 permit, Boca Raton wants trucks to carry costly insurance, and Delray Beach allows them only on the west side of town, Thomas says.

All of that means many food trucks die an early death. Consider the Stocked N Loaded food truck that opened in Palm Beach County in 2013 by former Café Boulud Chef David Rashty. That kind of culinary pedigree would seem to assure success, but a lack of promotion put him out of business months later.

Bobby Piegel is one of the food truck owners who’s figuring out how tough it can be. He opened his Outside the Box food truck in Boca Raton last summer. He worked in production for major events like Art Basel, 
so he figured selling sandwiches from a food truck would be nothing.

“It’s been good,” Piegel says, with a tone that suggests otherwise. Then he adds, “There have been a lot of obstacles. You face more problems than a brick-and-mortar restaurant, that’s for sure.”

The main issue is figuring out the time to manage social networking, Piegel says. He can’t cut back on prep time, and he doesn’t have the money to hire a marketing person, so it’s often the tweeting that gets forgotten. “Yeah, I’m still working out doing all that,” he says. “There’s just so many things that hit me all at once.”

There is something on the horizon that could help struggling trucks. Simon has plans to open three food truck parks, one each in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. There will be places with playgrounds for the kids, places to sit and a rotating collection of about 10 food trucks. He’s planning a Kickstarter campaign to help fund it, and he’s also applying for bank loans.

Something similar is likely coming to the Riverwalk in Fort Lauderdale, where the Riverwalk Trust is building a permanent food-truck-like stand near the Andrews Avenue bridge. It’ll include three vendors, and one of them is expected to be Aaron Byers, owner of the wildly popular Nacho Bizness food truck.

Byers has been at it for more than four years now, and if you haven’t had his food, it just might be your new favorite taco. Byers was a yacht chef and wanted a food truck so that he didn’t have to disappear at sea for so much of his life. He loves the flexibility of it, setting when and where he works, but it’s hard for him to remember a day where he really just stopped working. “The hours are ridiculous,” Byers says. “It’s definitely not easy.”

By 8 in the morning, Byers is usually parked somewhere around Fort Lauderdale, prepping for lunch. He breaks down the stand by 4 p.m., and then often heads out somewhere that night to catch the late-night crowd.

It’s not just the killer tacos that have allowed him to outlast dozens of other deceased food trucks. Byers says it’s the 15,000 followers on social networking, a group he has cultivated and recognized as his reason for making it.

But then there’s also just his passion for the food. Ask him about his new sesame-soy, seared ahi tuna burrito with wakame seaweed salad, and you can hear the excitement in his voice. “Oh, it’s so good,” Byers says, letting the “so” out slowly. “You have to try it. I swear, people are going crazy for it.”

If you don’t believe him, just start following the Nacho Bizness page on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, where you’ll see photos of that beautiful tuna taco taken from every possible angle.

There’s a hotel tray in the fridge of the Sidecar Kitchen full of freshly rolled empanadas. Lopez displays it like someone showing their precious Hummel collection. “Cheesesteak empanadas,” Lopez says, his head nodding and his eyes widening. “People go crazy for these.”

Lopez knows he could just buy empanadas from a food purveyor like Sysco or something, but that’s not his way. He butchers his own meat and orders a special grind for the burger that includes wagyu beef. No shortcuts here.

He has been cooking since he was 16, when his family had to move back to Argentina due to some U.S. immigration loophole. He had to become the family breadwinner then, working at a café that served taxi drivers. He had no idea how to cook, so the taxi drivers would come in and show him how things were made.

Lopez ended up at culinary school after he came back to Fort Lauderdale. He worked his way up for years, until landing the top gig at The Grateful Palate. That’s where he met Irvin, the restaurant’s general manager.

They started talking about opening a food truck earlier this year, although really it’s just another way to start a catering business. They use the truck as a mobile kitchen a few times a week for catering gigs, which is where the real money is. A non-stop day from lunch to dinner just can’t compare to the cash they make on a buffet or sit-down dinner. For those, they park in the client’s driveway and call it a mobile kitchen instead of a food truck.

While they work lunch, the arrangement becomes clear: Lopez cooks and Irvin takes orders. Irvin also works social networking, which is a big reason why Sidecar Kitchen has been so successful in just a few months. “Oh, it’s a lot of it,” Irvin says. “I learned early on you can use Instagram to post to Twitter and Facebook. That was huge. And the hashtags. You have to be up on your hashtags.”

Maybe the best part? You don’t need to do restaurant hours on a food truck.

“In restaurants, you miss every holiday and every big event,” Irvin explains, during a lull at lunch. “Hector was missing his daughter’s birthdays before this, and now we can just take a day off.”

Lopez shakes his head, his finger outstretched to make a point. “You can’t beat that,” he says. “But at the end of the day? At the end of all of it? This is mine. We own this, and we can do what we want with it.”

Adam takes a call on his mobile phone. “Uh huh” and “OK,” he says a few times. “Sit-down? We can do that.” And then, “Two-hundred people? Sure.”

Just like that.