The whirs and hisses of drills and welding torches carry outside a warehouse tucked away in a Fort Lauderdale office park. Inside, rows of step vans and delivery trucks are being reborn as food trucks.
As mobile eateries have flourished in South Florida in recent years, food truck builders have also shifted into high gear.
These mobile food truck factories — including Concession Nation in Fort Lauderdale, AAA Concession Trucks and Trailers in Davie, and FoodCart USA in Miami — scour the state for new and late-model Chevy, Ford and GMC step vans as well as used flower, fire and delivery trucks (and in one case, a shuttle van from NASA). They add fryers, refrigerators and stainless steel surfaces and turn them into rolling restaurants.
"Everybody wants one," said Alexander Alvarez, owner of Concession Nation, which completed 126 jobs in 2012, a 34 percent increase from 2011.
The weakened economy and high unemployment of the past few years have helped drive the local food truck boom. As people were laid off or considering job changes, some decided to become their own boss and invest in mobile units. Meanwhile, TV programs such as Food Network's "The Great Food Truck Race" and the Cooking Channel's "Eat Street" were showing contestants making thousands of dollars a day with a customized food truck.
Yes, food truck operators have costs such as gas, food inventory and permits. But these are "less expensive than brick-and-mortar facilities, making it easier to enter the food service business," said Ron Grimes, manager of environmental health programs at NSF International, a nonprofit that develops standards for equipment used in food service establishments such as food trucks.
"People don't have to pay rent [with a food truck], and they are not committed to one place," said Bruce Hicks, owner of AAA Concession Trucks and Trailers, adding that his business doubled to 30 trucks in 2012 from the previous year, from a mix of local and national clients.
He began to shift his business toward food truck building in the past two years after noticing a decline in RV-related jobs.
"I saw that [business] going away. People were in foreclosures and losing their homes,'' Hicks said.
These days, he's getting requests to create food trucks for freestanding businesses such as Popeye's fast-food chicken and Donna's Restaurant and Lounge, which has locations throughout Broward County.
He was also hired to outfit an all-white, 8-foot GMC step van for Gozen Yogurt, a self-service frozen yogurt company based in Philadelphia. It will be painted in orange, yellow and blue swirls and have a flat-screen TV, freezer and four self-serve yogurt machines. Once completed later this month, the truck will be ready to dispense sorbet, dulce de leche and caramel-flavored treats at corporate parties and festivals from Jupiter to Miami.
"The real advantage to having a food truck is that you will be able bring the entire frozen yogurt store experience to someone's home,'' said Adam Zell, the Florida partner for Gozen Yogurt.
Of course, none of this would be possible without the ever-growing popularity of food truck fare and events. The National Restaurant Association doesn't track the number of food trucks in the United States, but the group has found that consumers have been increasingly flocking to mobile eateries.
In a 2012 association survey, 43 percent of adults said they had bought items from a food truck.
The demand for food trucks, Concession Nation's Alvarez said, comes from a base of customers hungry for "fast-food but better quality. You get a homemade plate served to you in 10 minutes.''
At Concession Nation's offices and warehouse in Fort Lauderdale, calls pour in from throughout the country. The San Francisco 49ers football team, for example, had the company create a team-themed concession trailer.
And the Fontainebleau in Miami Beach recently hired Concession Nation to build an 18-foot food truck to sell some of the dishes found at the resorts' restaurants such as Gotham Steak and Scarpetta. The truck will roam the property, complete with three flatscreen monitors showing video of the hotel's amenities.
"It's a truck that we are going to use to feature lots of different venues in the resort,'' said Thomas Connell, the resort's executive chef. "We are going to use it for special events, barbecues, LIV [nightclub] after-hours … wherever our customers need it really."
Costs range per builder, but a used food truck can cost $3,000 to $20,000, depending on the mileage, year, condition and size, which can be 16 or 18 feet long. Fully-loaded new trucks can run as much as $100,000. Generally, vendors find the trucks for the client, but a customer can bring a truck to a contractor and have it outfitted with equipment.
Workers strip the rear (or the box) of the truck, install aluminum walls and diamond-plated flooring. They add stainless-steel counters, refrigerators, sinks and deep fryers, or whatever the client requests. Some owners add LED lights on their roofs and flat screens to promote their menus to potential passers-by.
Concession Nation, which features its work on fastfoodtruck.com, also wraps the exterior of the vehicle to brand the food and services.
"You have a brand-new truck inside and, plus, you have free advertising whenever you hit the road,'' said Monica Gonzalez, chief financial officer at Concession Nation. A typical job there lasts about five days.
"We realized there was as significant truck scene going on down in [Miami-Dade] but didn't see a lot of it in Palm Beach,'' he said.
So last year he sought the services of Concession Nation, which transformed a 2001 GMC 28-foot-long step van used for flower deliveries in Disney World into Lucille's on Wheels, a black food truck bedecked with the image of a smiling red-headed woman carrying a tray of food.
"We wanted to do something whimsical, slightly southern, slightly risque. The whole deal with the truck was to have fun,'' said Larson, whose mobile unit houses a three-compartment sink, two fryers and a 4-foot grill that makes barbecue chicken nachos and fries slicked in gravy. "It's a whole rebirth for that truck from what it did originally."