Pensacola’s food truck scene flourishes 2020 despite COVID-19 pandemic
This story has been updated to correct a mistake that appeared in the original version. The name of the Greek’s Catering and Events food truck co-owner is Stelios Peterson.
Food trucks were a bit taboo in Pensacola five years ago. Now, they’re everywhere in the city in 2021, representative of a shift in the restaurant industry, at least temporarily.
Today, you’ll find food trucks morning, noon and night serving customers at neighborhood subdivisions and apartment complexes and in the parking lots of bars, breweries and other businesses all across Northwest Florida.
But in 2015 and 2016, food trucks were so foreign to the city’s ecosystem that their regulation was constantly in question and their very existence was contentiously debated by some local businesses.
“The restaurants were all up in arms against them and everything, and food truck ordinances were being passed around and passed on by City Council over and over again,” recalled Randy Russell, who opened his Nomadic Eats truck in 2015 and is one of the forces that launched Pensacola’s food truck scene. “It is kind of crazy to see how it’s turned around now.”
No formal food truck ordinance was ever enacted, according to the city, but former Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward’s allowance for food trucks to operate from City Hall in 2016 demonstrated the city’s acceptance from the top down. The floodgates opened after that.
“I remember when (Hayward) said that, that was the turning point,” Russell said. “I was operating outside of city limits until that point to avoid any controversy.”
The sheer volume of new trucks has rapidly increased ever since. In fact, the number of mobile food vendor licenses approved by the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties combined almost doubled from 2019 to 2020.
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“I’ve pretty much seen it go from no food trucks allowed in Pensacola to just don’t block traffic and you’re good,” said Eric Pommerening, who also has been a model of longevity in the food truck scene after opening his Two Birds Street Food truck in 2016.
Downtown specifically, food trucks have carved out a niche by partnering with local breweries. Since food trucks try to set up in spots with ample foot traffic and most Pensacola breweries are without kitchens, the businesses have paired as well together as a brisket birria taco and an American IPA.
Pommerening’s Two Birds Street Food spends most of its evenings parked outside of Odd Colony Brewing Co. on North Palafox Street.
“It’s kind of a two-way street where I’ve had customers come to me because they were already specifically going to Odd Colony that night,” said Pommerening. “And then I’ve had people come and say, ‘I came here for your food but your beer is fantastic.'”
But the food truck scene’s general growth during the past few years is modest compared to the true boom the industry saw in Pensacola in 2020.
In 2019, 49 mobile vendor licenses were requested, a number that was increased by close to 50% in 2020 when 73 were requested.
After the COVID-19 pandemic broke out in the U.S. last year and forced a statewide shutdown of restaurants, food trucks became a major beneficiary. Customers flocked to them as the only game in town, entrepreneurs who already owned food trucks saw a sizable spike in business and even some brick-and-mortar restaurant owners began stroking their chins and weighing the pros and cons of downsizing.
Cristin Peterson, who runs Greek’s Catering & Events alongside her husband, Stelios Peterson, saw such an increase in business that the family expanded to open a second truck and has plans to open a third by the middle of 2021.
“I think for one, typical options that people would go for weren’t available, and then secondly, people felt more comfortable and more safe eating at a food truck,” Peterson said. “There’s a lot less contact and they’re out in the fresh air. It just seemed like a good alternative.”
Elected officials recognized the increased value in food trucks, too.
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In April 2020, Escambia County Commissioner Jeff Bergosh launched an initiative to bring food trucks to Beulah’s Equestrian Center. The county even waived the $75 vendor fee to be stationed at the park.
A coronavirus casualty, Boneheads restaurant closed down in May 2020 after more than four years in business on North Davis Highway. That was during the heart of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ restaurant shutdown mandate, and owner Kendrick Hobbs was feeling the brunt of so many days without revenue.
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He tried to get ahead of the curve and ultimately decided to close Boneheads, with a plan in mind to switch gears to food truck ownership.
“It’s been great, it’s definitely been the best business decision move of my novice entrepreneurial career,” said Hobbs, who opened his new Melt food truck in June 2020. “It’s been a great opportunity for me to go from a franchise that’s brick-and-mortar that was on the up and up until the pandemic hit. Then to pivot to what I see is a more ‘new normal’-style business model.”
At least one restaurant owner in Pensacola said if it weren’t for operating a brick-and-mortar and a food truck at the same time in 2020, his physical restaurant may not have made it.
Kevin Richardson, franchisee of the Wacked Out Weiner on Pine Forest Road, said his food truck basically bankrolled his restaurant last spring.
“I was getting calls and calls and messages, asking, ‘Can you come to our neighborhood, and our business and our apartment complex?'” Richardson recalled of the peak of the shutdown. “With the decrease in sales at the restaurant, I had to find another way. To keep it open, to help it survive.”
As the red and gold Wacked Out Weiner zoomed all over town, Richardson said he had more than just himself in mind as he assembled gourmet hot dog and fry concoctions. Even after restaurants were allowed to reopen, a 25% capacity maximum combined with a pocket of the population that was still weary to dine out meant that most restaurants would struggle to make up for lost time.
But Richardson’s food truck was still a hot commodity well into April and May 2020, and the business owner said he hustled to take advantage of that.
“With the increased demand of the food truck, I put that thing on the road seven days a week for lunch and dinner,” Richardson said. “And I made enough money where I was able to keep three of my employees employed almost full-time. So it was such a life saver.”
While Russell at Nomadic Eats did see a big increase in sales as soon as the pandemic touched down in Pensacola, he said his 2020 had more of a storybook start than a storybook ending. Russell actually closed in April 2020 when his designated stationary spot on East Gregory Street in downtown Pensacola became deserted.
“We took a big dive. It got to where there was just no one downtown,” Russell said. “No businesses were open, no one was down here, no one was in their offices. There was no traffic.”
At that time Russell drew up a few ways to completely change his service model to cater to the COVID-cautious crowd. Russell took a second truck he owned and dedicated it to serving tamales. The food concept of The Tamale Truck was strategic.
“I thought to add a tamale food truck and open it once or twice a week because it’s the fastest food you can serve in this setting,” he said. “Once you prep them and steam them off, somebody orders them and you hand it to them right away. There’s no cook time on them. It’s really a good model of food for the times we’re in right now.”
It’s been four months since DeSantis lifted all capacity restrictions at Florida restaurants and while many are coming out of their cocoon and getting back to their dine-out routines, food truck owners realize that their model is still heavily depended on by the community.
With uncertainty still afoot in the near future, some food truck chefs who might have been thinking about expanding into a brick-and-mortar pre-pandemic are now experiencing pause.
“Originally my dream was a five-year-plan, which would be coming up right around now, and then I would transition to brick-and-mortar,” said Pommerening, with Two Birds Street Food truck. “But the whole situation in 2020 really showed me that I didn’t have to lay off employees the way I operate now, I didn’t have to make any big structural business changes. And pretty much, low overhead was a blessing. Because as long as I had propane and product, I’m good to go.”
Already on social media sites in 2021, food trucks with Vietnamese, German, gumbo and fried chicken concepts have announced their imminent debuts in Pensacola. Pandemic or not, the future of the Pensacola food truck landscape appears promising.
As one of the area’s founding food truck fathers, Russell said a healthy, free market is what he’s always wanted to see.
“I believe that making food trucks more available and with a platform you’re going to have a lot more food trucks. You’re going to have bad ones, you’re going to have good ones but no matter what it’s going to elevate the whole food scene,” Russell said. “It’s going to push other more established food trucks, it’s going to push restaurants. The more competition we have, the better our scene is going to get.”
Jake Newby can be reached at [email protected] or 850-435-8538.