Despite size and activity as one of Florida’s central cities, St Petersburg has grown a latecomer in the Food Truck Culture trend. With an administration and council that was severely opposed to the idea, likely with much leaning from area restaurants, it has become almost a miracle that food trucks are allowed at all. But with new administration members, new ideas, the urge to take advantage of people’s desires in this field, and other factors coming into play, the turnaround has been quite sudden and growing fast. Starting with allowances in 2013/14, new regulations then loosened even further last summer, and today, merely a year or so into it, the city has fully opened their arms to the new business.
The lineup of trucks is still rather small compared to other notable street food cities, but he area now hosts monthly scheduled Truck Rallies (I forget where). Already much improvement from the days when the few big gatherings that took place would have to include businesses from outside the city so as to fill its ranks. Not that others might not come onto their streets, and vice-versa; the city offers great transportation opportunities to travel all around the Tampa area for one’s street touring (of course dealing with different area permits then come into play, but it’s always a possible consideration). Currently, St Petersburg probably has the best opportunity in Florida to get into the ranks while they’re still small and growing, without having to deal with many of the insane regulations and parking issues usually hell-bent on destroying these business owner’s hopes and dreams (you know the ones we’re talking about). Not to mention there’s beach, who doesn’t love operating on a beach?
Wendy Gonzalez of the Latin Lunch Box has been with St Petersburg since even before the regulations started to loosen, and one of the few truly St Petersburg-based operations as of now. We’ve caught up with her recently to talk about the city’s regulations and new openness to the Food Truck culture and family. Here’s what she had to say.
(Note, some of this interview may not be exactly word for word, due to issues in the recording, I hope I did Wendy justice)
Question: Tell me a bit about yourself, your business, and how long you’ve been operating in St Petersburg.
Wendy: I started the Latin Lunch Box, a truck that serves Spanish cuisine in the St Petersburg area, and I have been doing this now for a little bit over a year. I started this because, you know, I love the food and bringing it to the intercity area.
Q: Tell me your thoughts on the changing regulations and opinions towards Food Trucks in the city, and what if anything do you think may still need to be done?
Wendy: When I initially worked in St Petersburg, there was some challenges at the time, the administration that was in office did not want any Food Trucks in the city. After some time, the new administration is now completely open to new Food Trucks, they regulations they have are not difficult at all, and the growth they brought to the city and the small business owners has been felt.
Q: What has it been like for those trying to start a food truck in the slowly loosening St Petersburg regulations, both in the past and nowadays?
Wendy: In the past again there just wasn’t any food trucks that could operate. With the new system implement, they have been extremely flexible, they’ve worked very hard to create a system where if anybody wants to start a food truck in St Petersburg, they can come up and provide all the information towards the regulations that they need to know. They’re not terrible with it at all, really flexible.
Q: Are there any resources you would suggest to be particularly helpful for a truck to start up and navigate St Petersburg properly and safely?
Wendy: Reach out to Food Truck Associations, the Gulf Bay and other nearby work a lot in the area. One thing I’ve learned is that the food truck family is exactly that. Everybody is extremely helpful and looks out for each other; if you really want to get things done, there’s nothing better.
The Zoning Department, the first place you want to go to, they know their rules and regulations, make sure that everybody is aware of what they are.
Q: What are some of the unique opportunities of operating a food truck in your city?
Wendy: I think one of the biggest opportunities, especially in St Petersburg, is particularly is that there’s an association called Keep it Local which many Food Truckers are a part of. He has food owners that work with each other so that whenever people need food or whenever they need a food truck, we’re the first people they call, we’re treated like a family. You can have a full time or part time schedule.
Q: Are there any difficulties at all for food trucks in following regulations, any that are easy to overlook?
Wendy: You know, they have been excellent with communications; when you go through Zoning, you are given everything you need to successfully operate a food truck in St Petersburg. Acquired signatures, credit card information, required permits; they’ve done it so well, the chances of somebody forgetting one thing is very slim.
Q: Just curious now, are you required to have a commissary kitchen in St Petersburg?
Wendy: All of us have to have a commissary kitchen, which everybody often finds and does independently.
Q: As there aren’t relatively that many trucks working in the city at the moment, have you all been setting up in one particular region or throughout St. Petersburg, is there any particularly good areas you might suggest?
Wendy: The entire Tampa Bay area is actually very open to food trucks, so you don’t have to limit it to one place alone. I think the best advice, just like any other business, is finding your target audience and figuring the best place to park from there.
Q: What’s the parking situation like, and does St Petersburg require permits or can you park in these locations?
Wendy: The city of St Petersburg requires that you have a business license if you want to operate, as for parking situation there are areas where you have a right-a-way, with parking meters, so you’re just parking like a normal vehicle for as long as the meter goes.
Q: Anything else newbie food truckers should know about starting a business in St. Petersburg?
Wendy: Start at the Top, go to the Zoning board and the city, ask some questions, find out the rules and regulations, see what they are and what you can actually abide by. From there on talk to other Food Trucks, say ‘Hey how’s it going?,’ ask questions. And above all know your city.
Thanks goes to Wendy and the Latin Lunch Box for taking the time to do this interview with us, with your help we were finally able to finish up our tour of Florida! We dearly hope that these articles have been able to help a majority of the Sunshine State’s new truck owners in starting up within their chosen major city. Good luck to you all, and have a great 2015 business season!