It wasn’t long ago that Clint Steckly and Kyle Moon had a crazy idea.
They’d noticed that people, it seemed, liked food trucks. In fact, they seemed to love them; Fans of Steckly’s mobile Mexican restaurant Tianos Taco Truck had recently become obsessive, returning three days in a row, waxing poetic on the company’s Facebook page about succulent pulled pork, chorizo burritos, and daily specials like taziki-smothered Greek tacos. Then there was the recent run-in Steckly’d had with the Key West Art & Historical Society, the nonprofit responsible for nearby East Martello Fort. Wouldn’t the fort, mused Steckly and Moon, with its wide open grassy area, be the perfect place for a gathering of like-minded food truck fans? Steckly was sure he could convince a few fellow food truck purveyors to come along for the ride, and there could even be music — Moon, the lead singer of the reggae-rock hip-hop-hybrid Fish Out of Water band, might even be able to use his ties in the music industry to put together a day’s worth of entertainment. The whole thing could be family-friendly, something kids and adults could enjoy equally. Maybe there would be room for vendors selling jewelry and crafts. Heck, they could even sell tickets to the whole thing and donate the money to charity.
It’s been a year now, and the third annual Food Trucks in Paradise festival and concert series — presented as part of the Key West Art & Historical Society’s Music at Martello program — is well on its way to becoming a stalwart edition to the Key West festival scene. Steckly and Moon’s vision has grown to include several food trucks and a full day’s worth of live music.
It wasn’t difficult to convince his fellow mobile restauranteurs to participate in the festival, says Steckly, who loyally refuses to pick a favorite truck from amongst this year’s lineup. “We as food trucks are a tight-knit community.”
The draw of an impermanent eatery is different for chefs than consumers, explains Steckly. Purveyors are free to test the waters with adventurous or spontaneously conceived dishes, a luxury rarely offered to chefs just starting out in the business. Instead of slaving away as a line cook in a Michelin Star kitchen serving someone else’s recipes for years, all in the hopes of earning enough to one day run your own joint, a food truck offers immediate access to hungry patrons just waiting to discover the next “it” cuisine. Plus, there’s the cost—or rather, the lack of it. Compared to traditional brick and mortar restaurants, the barrier to entry metrics of the food truck industry are extremely low, with start-up costs for the average food truck estimated at around $90,000. Though permitting and regulatory fees can differ dramatically on a state-by-state business, a food truck remains for many aspiring professional food industry members the only economical way of entering the restaurant business, and can act as a reachable in-between rung on the ladder running from culinary school to eponymously named restaurants in the lobbies of Las Vegas casinos (hey, a chef can dream).
For many, the mission statement seems to be: Build your audience with a food truck, and they’ll follow you to a fixed location. Though of course, some who enter the food truck business do so precisely to avoid the stifling confines and uncontrollable variables involved in stationary dining. With traditional brick and mortar restaurants, a newer, hipper bistro opening down the street can equal empty tables and plummeting profits. For food trucks, it’s simply a matter of securing an even newer, hipper location than the one they’ve outgrown. Plus, to the average passerby, the notion that a truck might not ever be there again can be enough to spur a purchase; when performed en masse, the FOMO (Fear of Losing Out) variable can be enough to secure a truck the kind of lasting, authentic hipness often secured only through the hiring ludicrously expensive PR companies. Sure, the appeal of fast, economical food will always be enough to secure some type of an audience, but food trucks are magnets for a specific kind of consumer, one who thinks himself hyper-aware of trends, and therefore untethered to anything as corporeally boring as a restaurant with walls and tables. The food truck is cool in its untetheredness, even if in reality it, like so many trucks in Key West and elsewhere, tends to park in the same spot each day, making it not so different from a brick and mortar establishment. Fleeting, it seems, will always be cooler than final. Chefs can simply roll up, manifest the recipes they dreamed up the night before, then disappear into the dawn once the crowds subside, leaving customers with the feeling they may have just experienced something no one else will get to tomorrow — or ever.
And for chefs, if a dish happens to bomb, the appeal is the same: gage the customer’s reaction, disappear into the haze, then reappear tomorrow to try something new without the need to re-print dozens of menus. “It’s a whole different social scene,” says Steckly. “For me, it gave me an open door to make whatever the people like without someone telling me ‘no.’”
This year’s Food Trucks in Paradise festival is banking that attendees arrive hungry. In addition to Steckly’s own Trianon Taco Truck, he and Moon have arranged an all-star cast that offers something for every possible palate.
Last year, local truck Beach Bites was such a hit that it ran out of food only an hour and a half into the festival, perhaps due to the fact that all of the sandwiches, sliders, tacos and burritos on the menu boast meat that is slow cooked for a minimum of six hours straight. This year, the truck is better prepared for the hordes of hungry fans demanding a taste, and it will be in good company.
In addition to festival co-founder Kyle Moon’s Fish Out of Water band, the festival’s musical lineup looks especially strong, with appearances by bluegrass heavyweights Copper Tones, hiphop artist J-Sneez, Oracle Blue and Mi Primo. ¦
Food Trucks in Paradise Saturday, March 10, noon to 8 p. m. East Martello Fort Museum 3501 South Roosevelt Blvd.