Jacksonville has grown fast and strong as one of Florida’s central street food cities, building its ranks with a solid lineup of owners peddling their delicious offerings. The city itself plays home to a couple of the state’s Truck Associations, showing its mobile use and relations with the nearby regions. For anyone going into the mobile vending business nearby, Jacksonville is THE place to aim for.
Only just a month ago the city set up a new food truck court near Beach Boulevard and Carmichael, where at least 25 businesses will set up on a regular basis, just to show an example of their growth. New food truck regulations were added earlier this year, and trucks abroad have taken part in their local media stories. Making a name here can mean a solid career in one’s food truck journey with great potential in future events, possibilities, even growth.
But getting into this scene, as with any city, isn’t always easy; it requires a lot of work and elbow grease to push in, and further time studying Jacksonville’s regulations. Which is why Fawn Turner from Cat’s Meow Catering truck is helping us get an idea on what the city is like through tales of their own start in the industry. She and her partner Kinter seem to have developed quite a few interesting moments in the city, and we’re very thankful to have them with us today to query about Jacksonville!
Question: Tell me a bit about yourself, your business, and how long you’ve been operating in your city?
Fawn:My name is Fawn, like a baby deer. My partner is Kinter, yes, like Winter with a “K”…lol
I (Fawn) have worked in the service industry since I graduated high school, in 1993. I have worked in all types of dining establishments. Some of the most influential places I have worked, the ones that really started my love for all things culinary, were the Ritz Carlton in Amelia Island and an upscale Italian restaurant in Jax Beach named Giovanni’s. I worked for many years under the watchful eyes of the management and owners of both of these amazing places. I learned so much regarding service, wine, bartending, and culinary expression from both of these amazing locations. I attribute a lot of my skill set in the kitchen to the mere love of food and the understanding of flavor profiles and technique by constantly watching and asking questions.
Kinter, my best friend of 20 years, has had the amazing opportunity to travel the world and tastes cuisines and witness techniques from many different cultures. Wanting to hone in on her skills, she enrolled in and graduated magna cum laude from the Art Institute for Culinary in Jacksonville, FL. I still learn from her daily. She is my best friend, my support, and we are always one another’s dose of daily laughter.
Throughout the years Kinter and I have always dreamed of going into to business together as a catering company. Three years ago, after Kinter graduated from the Art institute, the Cats Meow Catering was born. As much as we love catering, making any event purrrfect for our clients and creating special menus based on their desires, we were left feeling not 100% fulfilled. This is when we realized that in addition to creating what others wanted us to, we were also compelled to take our culinary ideas to the next level by making what we wanted, when we wanted, while having fun the entire way. In February of 2014, The Cats Meow Culinary Express (our food truck) was born. We are now able to operate on both sides of the spectrum, fulfilling others visions and serving great food to the amazing people of Jacksonville and the surrounding areas.
Q: How did you learn how to start a food truck in your area, and are there any resources you’d recommend for others to look into in those regards?
Fawn:Wow, now that is the million dollar question! The process is not an easy one, that is for sure. There are so many steps to take, so many insurances to acquire, many different permits and licenses. I tell you, as soon as we thought we had everything done and ready to go, there were 10 more steps needed to be able to operate.
We had a tremendous amount of help from an amazing association in Jacksonville. They have proven to be an ally in this whole quest. They helped us understand EVERYTHING we needed to be operational, they have even helped us book our very first event. They are JFT (Jacksonville Food truck Association), and if it was not for their understanding and help, this process would have been much more difficult and cumbersome. I would encourage any new truck to at least seek out one of their founders to consult with them.
Another association that has been as equally helpful in helping us find leads for events to book is Jax Truckies. I would urge any truck to be a member of both of these amazingly helpful associations. They are well connected to the community and well respected.
Q: What are some of the unique opportunities of operating a food truck in Jacksonville?
Fawn:Jacksonville and the surrounding areas host quite a few awesome festivals and events, such as the football games, various seasonal shows, new neighborhood amenity center events, car shows, boat shows, food festivals, beer festivals and the like.
Our favorites are definitely the ones in which we can express our creative side. For example, we were invited to be a part of the Folio Weekly Beer Fest. Since we do everything from scratch, we completely revamped our menu and created culinary expressions utilizing different beers in all of our menu items from the local breweries. It was a fantastic experience with an amazing response. Any festival we do will have a menu created based entirely on the festivals theme.
Q: What may be some of the particular challenges?
Fawn:There are several challenges that come to mind. First and foremost is that you have to be willing to change your business model. For example, we went into this venture believing that we were going to do lunches all over the city and just kill it, and our bank account would be on swole and we would be rolling in the dough. Well, that vision did not work out as we had planned. It is our personal experience that lunches are not profitable in Jacksonville. There are a few locations that are amazing, but those locations are hard to get into, as EVERY food truck wants to be there. We now only do lunches when invited to these profitable locations. Now we focus on big events and prepaid truck events, you know, the type that the event planner or business owner guarantees you your minimum will be met and if it is not, then they make up the difference. We absolutely love catered truck events. For example, we were hired to provide the food for an “Ultimate Tail Gate Event” for the FL/ GA game. We created a menu for the client, pulled up the truck and took orders and served from the window. It was a really cool event, the guests LOVED our food and we had a blast with everyone in attendance at the party.
Q: Very likely by now you’ve seen a few Jacksonville trucks that have started and ended up shutting down their business. Would you say there’s any commonality, or particular shared reasons why this may have been so, and how can new trucks avoid them?
Fawn: That is a hard question to answer, as I only have my own experience to go by. There are a number of well-seasoned trucks that have been around for quite a while who unknowingly mentor me. I constantly look toward them for advice, you learn allot form them by asking questions, casually chatting with them and listening to what they have to say, as well as, respecting them and understanding that they were the originals and are still around after a long time for a good reason. What I have learned from some of my favorite food truck owners around Jacksonville is that patience, perseverance and realistic S.M.A.R.T. goals are a must. You cannot go into this business expecting to become rich overnight. It is a definite struggle. You have to be able to have enough in savings to support your lifestyle for quite some time, if you go into this thinking you will make it right away, chances are, you probably will not make it.
Q: One of the most common challenges beginning food truck owners have is navigating city and regulations, including health and fire safety requirements. As you know these regulations vary considerably from county to county and city to city. Where should entrepreneurs go to find information about the local health code and fire safety regulations?
Fawn: So, we went into this venture with a 20′ x 8.5′ custom made trailer. The Trailer was brand new, beautiful and we were so excited. It was soon after the trailer was delivered, my partner, Kinter and I said “well goodness, how in the heck do we drive this thing?”. For the first couple of months we relied on my brother, my husband and Kinters boyfriend to get us to our functions. It was a definite challenge! They were all so supportive, however, we knew we had to be wearing out our resources. After all, we own this business and we NEEDED to own and conquer this trailer. It was time for us, well Kinter actually, to slay this beast! Our guys, VERY patiently, took us to large parking lots to give us much needed training. It ended up that Kinter would be our navigator. I, Mary Fawn Turner, have not once driven this trailer, it is Kinter all of the way. She was very nervous, but she kept at it, continued to practice and before you knew it, she was backing this thing up like a pro. So navigation, well, it has always been a source of great nervousness, at first it would not have mattered if it was an easy city to navigate or not, it was a hard thing to learn and very worrisome for us for quite some time. But now, we are two girls out there doing our thing constantly praying that we will never have to parallel park the beast we call the Cat’s Meow Culinary Express, although, if we ever have to, together, we will be able to do it, it just may take a while and may not be purrrfectly straight.
Health and fire safety requirements should never be viewed as burdensome. These requirements are put in place for a reason, they have been enacted to ensure that the public and the people operating the trucks are safe. We are not referred to as “Roach coaches” any more for good reason. We are inspected and held to a high standard by the state. These requirements are important and should be reviewed and followed to a tee. We had our trailer custom built for us with the latest fire suppression system available. We knew that by not skimping on that very important safety feature, we would be compliant anywhere.
The best resource to refer to for health and fire safety and regulation are your inspectors. They are informative and offer great advice.
Q: What’s the parking situation like in Jacksonville, and do you need a special permit to park or is it a free for all?
Fawn: The parking situation depends on the property. With Jacksonville being the largest city land mass wise in the US, we have all kinds of situations. You will always need permission from land owners or business management to use their properties. There are some locations that require city permits to park, those are mostly city owned properties, for example, the Equestrian center needs a city permit to park there. You must have a street vendor’s permit to serve from your truck, but usually not a special permit to actually park.
The fees are usually put in place by the company that has invited you to park or the land owner. We personally prefer to pay a percentage of sales opposed to a flat fee, as you don’t know how the event will turn out financially, so, it is always best to pay a 10% or so fee of proceeds than a high flat rate that could end up being a gamble on your overhead.
Q: If you had any last bit of advice to give to new Food Truck Owners near your area, what would it be?
Fawn: Do not go into this with unrealistic expectations, be patient and be respectful to the community of food truck owners. Food trucks need to have a good comradery, have respect for one another, and be friendly and helpful. We will only be a successful movement if we all work together and help one another out. Lastly, make sure you always laugh and have a good time.
ADDITIONAL RESOURCES AND READING MATERIAL
First Coast Food Truck Asociation – another group that covers the Jacksonille area, great for those who may be looking to travel outside the city
Eat. Drink. Jax. – they provide a complete guide of other Jacksonville trucks, do interviews, and have a few other resources that may help.
“Why Food Trucks have Taken Over Jacksonville”– a fun article
Mobile Food Vending Research Paper – a long table listing specific regulations, requirements, and other info for cities throughout Florida; good to study no matter where you’re starting out (Note: unsure how old this is, may be out of date)
A big thanks to Fawn for taking time and part to interview with me, and for providing some awesomely lengthy and fun answers to my questions! I wish you, and any newly starting Jacksonville Truck Entrepreneurs, the best of luck in the future to come.