Food trucks: Some moving to permanent spots, others enjoy the mobility

Food trucks: Some moving to permanent spots, others enjoy the mobility
Anthony Hashem talks to a worker in his Happy Grill Cheese truck.

To Anthony Hashem it’s a natural progression – start out with a food truck, build the brand for his tasty edible offerings by driving to wherever he can find hungry diners and then transition to a brick and mortar location where his now loyal customers can come any day of the week.

For the Bishop Kenny High School graduate who grew up working in his family’s small restaurant on Beach Boulevard, the food truck gave him a chance to gradually develop his idea of “gourmet grilled cheese.”

The move to a permanent spot happened much quicker.

“It was dictated by the (success of the) business,” Hashem said while sitting near his colorfully decorated truck. “I had a five-year plan to get a restaurant but ended up signing a lease just a year and a half in. It was just out of necessity.”

Now that his food truck, Happy Grilled Cheese, is doing well he’s moving into 5 Points with hopes the demand for grilled cheese only increases. Others who began with a food truck and made the same transition, such as Corner Taco owner Christopher Dickerson, say Hashem is making the right choice and will benefit. But some food truck operators say moving each day is part of the allure and they don’t plan to leave their kitchens on wheels to just stay in one place.

It’s an interesting dilemma that’s just playing out for Jacksonville restauranteurs who began on four wheels.

A restaurant background 

Hashem knows quite a bit about working in a traditional restaurant. His father, uncle and grandmother operated Desert Sands sandwich shop in St. Nicholas for 35 years.

Serving traditional Lebanese American style food including tabouleh and pita sandwiches for breakfast and lunch, the business gave Hashem a chance to see how running a restaurant becomes a way of life.

“I would get dropped off here after school instead of home. I did all my homework on the cutting board in the backroom next to the slicer,” said Hashem, whose grandmother always seemed to pick him for chores. “I never realized she was trying to teach me, I guess, about the business.”

But there was another influence, though, having just as much impact on how he thought about food preparation. During summer trips to Austin, Texas with family Hashem often stopped at that city’s many food trucks.

“I grew up every summer eating at food trucks in Austin but knowing they were illegal in Jacksonville,” he said.

Officially, they weren’t illegal here, just forbidden from operating within one mile of an established restaurant. However, since the city dropped that restriction to 300 feet about three years ago (and to 50 feet in 2014), there’s been a proliferation of food trucks.

Currently there are more than 70 food trucks operating locally.

“I was ready, and as soon as they legalized food trucks I had three business plans waiting. The grilled cheese concept was the first of the three,” he said. “I walked out of a corporate job with a cellphone carrier and was ready to go.”

In late February, Hashem was putting the finishing touches on renovations to Happy Grilled Cheese at 1029 Park St. The 2,300-square-foot restaurant will have outdoor dining areas in front and back and serve beer and wine.

As for the food truck, it will keep rolling even after the restaurant opens.

“I am excited to keep the food truck going. One of the good things about the restaurant is the kind of product we can put in the food truck, specials we can put on, the type of ingredients we can use.

Corner Taco transition

Corner Taco is about one year ahead of Happy Grilled Cheese in its move to opening a storefront in Riverside. In Dickerson’s case, he started out with a small stand in a Neptune Beach bar before moving to a food truck in 2012.

The truck was a way to “get in front of people who are more ingredient conscious,” he said.

These days, there’s no negative stigma connected to a food truck, unlike in years past where they may have been seen as having poor quality or less-than-perfect sanitary conditions.

“Food trucks are much more high class now. There are some cooks who have worked in some very nice places now doing food trucks. They want to have fun cooking and the trucks give them the opportunity to do that,” Dickerson said.

The food truck operators also are passionate about their product, said Dickerson, a Riverside resident. “It’s a good way to test your label in different markets and find out how it does. 5 Points is different than Riverside and Riverside is different from Downtown. Then you can pick which (location) is best for you.”

Dickerson credits the local craft beer operations Intuition Ale Works, Bold City and others for launching the food truck explosion here. “I really believe the food movement is following the local beer crafters. They got things going here in Jacksonville and the food movement is following.”

In Corner Taco’s case, the 1965 Airstream trailer that served the hand-made tortillas and all natural ingredients for more than two years is used mainly for special events, such as The Players Championship, or catering events.

“We don’t do the truck as much as we once did. It’s a lot of work to get both it and the restaurant prepared,” he said.

Sticking with food truck

If there’s one thing Jennifer Kline knows it’s that her food truck, Up in Smoke BBQ, will keep rolling every day.

“We’re going to stick with the food truck,” Kline said when asked if she and partner Tom Wilbers will open a restaurant. “I love that we can move every day; I love the diversity of a food truck.”

Wilbers operated two brick and mortar restaurants in Georgia several years ago and has no interest in going back. Now he’s so convinced that food trucks are the hot trend he plans to build and sell them to food entrepreneurs.

“We will have the first ‘green’ food truck in Jacksonville next month – no generator,” Kline said.

Up in Smoke BBQ is one of the oldest trucks operating in the city and stays busy doing special events, going to the Riverside Arts Market and seeking out parking spots to connect with new customers.

“It’s like a puzzle every day, a challenge,” she said. “We love the food truck scene. Every truck has its own niche.”

St. Nicholas food truck court

Hashem’s Happy Grilled Cheese is also a familiar sight in St. Nicholas.

It’s often parked at the Jax Food Court on Beach Boulevard along with three or four other trucks that rent a spot in front of the former Desert Sand restaurant. Hashem says he’s happy to help the truck owners by giving them a semi-permanent lunchtime spot once a week and give St. Nicholas a little economic boost.

“Doing this is more important for the neighborhood,” he said of the food court that also has an indoor eating area. “It’s an older area of town, kind of blighted. We want to bring some life back into it.”

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