Episode 9: Food Truck Talk with Taco Grilla

September 19, 2019

We are having a conversation between Mark Baratto and Amy Clarke-Van Schoor

INTRO ~ Welcome to the Backyards of Key West Podcast with your host Mark Baratto. 

MARK:           Welcome to the Backyards of Key West podcast and I’m sitting outside in a parking lot and you can probably hear cars going by so I’m going to be extra loud today into this microphone. One of the cool things is that I have a beautiful view of the ocean and the reason I’m in a parking lot is because I am outside of the famous Taco Grilla, not taco gorilla, not taco grill, Taco Grilla with my guest Amy. And Amy, welcome to the show.

AMY:              Thank you!

MARK:           Tell me first, the name, I think it’s very catchy. Who came up with it? Who is the branding expert here with Grilla? 

AMY:              We were bouncing off a lot of different names, and there’s four of us, and we couldn’t all agree on one name. And it’s actually my friend’s dad who came up with it. 

MARK:           Really? And you’re just like, well we are taco grillin’ and we’re doing this, and he’s like, how about grilla?

AMY:              It was going to be Yobro Grill, I don’t know, we wanted to do something with taco and his dad just came up with Taco Grilla. Then we were like, yeah, and we all agreed so it fit. 

MARK:           The logo? What about that cool…

AMY:             The gorilla, again that was a combination of, and this time it was the three of us and our good friend and myself and the other chef Riaan, we all just kinda had different specs of ideas that we wanted to put in and we had a friend draw it up for us.

MARK:           And here you are. How long have you been in Key West? Let’s start there.  

AMY:              I’ve been in Key West for 12 years.

MARK:           What about this business, how did you get into this? Was this a dream? Did you just fall into it? I need this whole scoop here, it’s just too cool. 

AMY:              My husband Riaan, he’s the chef and he has a culinary degree and we were both kind of in between jobs and I always told him that, and he always told me actually, if he ever worked in a kitchen again, he wanted to have his own. He didn’t want to be working below anybody else. 

MARK:           It’s like a dream of every chef. As an artist. 

AMY:              It was the most financially smart thing we could do at the time because opening a restaurant takes loads and loads of money. 

MARK:           Yes, super risky, yes. 

AMY:              Yes, it’s super risky and this just seemed a little bit more up our alley, that we could do. 

MARK:           And when did you start this?  

AMY:              We started looking for the truck in January of 2017. Then we were open in May of 2017. 

MARK:           You are in between jobs and he’s like listen, I want to do my own thing, we don’t want to do the restaurant thing because that’s crazy to do, it’s like really ballsy and you need a lot of cash to burn through for years. And he’s like, so how did that conversation go? Was it like, well… should we do a food truck? Or did that just come out of nowhere?  

AMY:             That’s basically how the conversation went, I was like “well what should we do?” He said we could do a food truck because that’s just us. Nobody else. And I’m like, all right and then we just started looking online for food trucks for sale. 

MARK:           And where?

AMY:             Miami, we were looking at Miami. Then we contacted a few online places and then we found this one in Miami and the lady told us that somebody, well the bank had foreclosed on it, or the bank had took it back and it was going for really really cheap. Cheaper than what it should be and then we went and looked at it and we were like; all right let’s do it. 

MARK:           And you just bought the thing and drove it down. How quickly, well was it like an overhaul, you know you’ve seen movies where it’s like a gut job on the inside. 

AMY:             No, it was beautiful. It was beautiful and they had a bathroom in there and we actually got them to take that out because we knew that we weren’t going to be traveling and it’s a great thing to have, but whoever put it in was really really smart because they knew what they were going to be doing. 

MARK:           Yeah, they may have even been living in there, too. 

AMY:              But we wanted the bathroom out and we just wanted more storage space. 

MARK:           Right, that’s awesome. You got the truck, and quicker than any restaurant were able to open. What about the menu? Was this something that you both worked on together? What’s your role? I can tell you are the creative genius with that smirk, so tell me your ….

AMY:             I am more of the, well my husband calls me the experimental chef? Because I put a lot of stuff together that he wasn’t taught that would go together in his French cuisine culinary school that he went to, so we just bounce things off of each other. I make a chai tea pineapple and spinach smoothie. And when I first told him I was like, oh give me that chai, I’m going to put it in the blender and he was like, eww gross. Then he tried it and he was like, it’s really good. And I’m like, yeah! 

MARK:           That’s great. Why Key West? Why did you first come down here? Tell me that story. 

AMY:             The first time I was here was on a cruise ship thanks to my parents. They bought us kids tickets to go on a cruise ship as a family trip and I basically just stuck to Duval walked around, and as the cruise ship was starting to leave, my brother and I were standing at the back and it’s like, “I want to live in a place like this.” Not thinking that I would eventually come back here. Then less than a year later I came back with somebody whose mom was down here writing a book, so it was just a connection. Then I just kept coming back and then I got a job at a bar and then I met people and then I had a place to stay.

MARK:           It kinda swallowed you up. Key West swallowed you up!

AMY:             The next thing I knew it was four years later and then I met Riaan and then it was another six years later and now we have the food truck. 

MARK:           Wow, I love that. I mean that’s why I love doing these podcasts to learn the business of why people are doing these things. I mean, it’s kind of a business’y podcast in the way that we are in Key West but there’s still people here, there’s not everybody just drinkin’ and lying on the beach. There’s people living their dream, whatever that dream is, and it’s so exciting to hear from so many people that they are just going for it. You wouldn’t think that, you know this isn’t New York and we’re not in LA, we are not in Miami, we are in this small-town Key West. Big town in its own way and people are really going for it down here and my hat’s off to you for that. 

AMY:             Well, thank you!

MARK:           Tell me about the food truck business. Me coming from Miami, and I’m new to Key West and in Wynwood there’s food trucks everywhere and because the population is so big, they don’t usually stay in one place, they go wherever the people are and show up and open the doors and everybody comes. Are you allowed to do that, can you cruise Duval with this and park? 

AMY:             No.

MARK:           I didn’t think so, I figured you would be doing that. 

AMY:             I think you’ll notice most of the food trucks in Key West are all stationary. And I just think that’s because of the size of Key West because we are so small and everything is so tight, there’s not a lot of places that you can just pull up and park your food truck to serve.

MARK:           Right. During two cruise ships parked and if you went and found a parking spot, which I doubt you would, but if you did and pulled this up there, what would happen? The police would come and ticket you or you are not allowed to do that?

AMY:             No, you have to have the right permit, I believe. And there’s only a certain amount of them given to do food vending, like what they do at the beach where they pull up and park there and I’m not 100% sure, but I know they are really expensive and there’s not very many of them. 

MARK:           What you have is just a regular permit to serve food? 

AMY:              Yeah, I have a food vending permit from the city to be at the Liquid 8 Pawn Shop.

MARK:           At that location only and if you wanted to move, like you were at a location before, you had to reregister and go through all this paperwork?  

AMY:             I probably just had to change the address. I got the permit for serving food and I think that’s all that I need. It actually wasn’t as complicated as I was worried that it was going to be. The city was really really helpful. 

MARK:           Awesome, cause I don’t know. I’m getting permits for stuff in my house and it’s like taking forever, so I figured wow – you just got the permit a year ago and you started in 2012, right? But that’s good that they are wanting a lot more of that because I think it’s great, food truck popularity is growing. People like to come and do that and we are in a town where people go to the beach and they are always on the move and it’s like less about sometimes going and sitting and having dinner and more like, let’s grab a quick bite and go and this is the perfect thing for it. You are right on North Roosevelt over here. We are on 1970 North Roosevelt and this is the hub. You come into Key West, make a right, and you go down this road to Old Town and guess what you are gonna see? You are gonna see your food truck. Do you get a lot of local? I mean it’s gotta be all locals, or do you get a lot of tourists too? Tell me about that percentage wise.  

AMY:             I feel like, maybe 60/40 tourist depending on the season. I mean 60 for locals and 40 for tourists and I don’t know how good I am about guessing that, but March it definitely picks up a lot with more tourists for us. March is like our busiest month and that was on Stock Island, so I’m excited to see what it’s going to do. 

MARK:           I wonder if that was people coming in or coming out of Key West, whereas now this has appeal because we have all the hotels in the New Town section and then people coming to Old Town and vice versa. They are coming by this all the time and before it used to be Old Town or bust, now it’s like the whole island. So, I think you are in a prime spot here and if people want to sell pawn stuff, you’re definitely in the right spot for it. I mean, just the traffic and you can hear it coming by, this is like – and you know – you pay for this, but you got lucky to have such a great spot. And, there’s parking, which is another thing.  

AMY:             It’s amazing, the parking is really really good to have. 

MARK:           I know you were talking about restaurant possibly, is that something maybe in the future? Or you’re like? 

AMY:             Maybe? I have some crazy restaurant ideas that Riaan, and we butt heads on and he’s like, not right now Amy.  I know, but wouldn’t that be cool, if? And same for him, maybe Taco Grilla will move into a building one day, I don’t, we don’t really know. 

MARK:           Or staying in Key West? Is that the plan? Or moving because you are mobile, right? You can go to New Orleans or go to other places. Is that ever in the cards toying with that? 

AMY:             You know, whatever comes our way, we are going to take. This being here at Liquid 8 Pawn Shop, this came our way, we didn’t have to go out hunting for it which is really great. I think that’s how it should be. 

MARK:           Yeah, that’s like the free spirit in me. I’m going to get all excited and all right, if I buy that food truck, I’d be driving across country from festival to festival. 

AMY:              I think the thing is, that we don’t even have a vehicle that can pull this.

MARK:           There’s no engine in the front. 

AMY:             No, there’s no engine we can tow it, but we don’t have a vehicle strong enough to tow it. 

MARK:           Right, I see a bicycle and maybe a motorcycle. 

AMY:             I have a scooter and a bicycle and a Honda Element and neither of those can pull them. 

MARK:           That’s like a long ride to Austin with that right there. Well, you never know, I mean we can see you in a multitude of places. We just need the vehicle to help get you there and if that comes your way, then it’s meant to be then. What advice would you give someone looking to get into this business? Now that you are kinda wet behind the ears with it. 

AMY:             Ummm, don’t give up, I guess? 

MARK:           How was the beginning? Was it super rocky? Give me a little bit of that. 

AMY:             It was a little confusing because they were like, well you need this permit but to get this permit you need to have this permit. And then to get this permit you need to have that permit, then you need that permit, and I was just kinda like “ugh!” 

MARK:           But I just want to serve food. 

AMY:             Yeah, but there’s ways around it and honestly, Miami was a huge help probably because it is a lot bigger and the place we got the food truck at, they were really helpful with getting our licenses and helping us figure out how to get it registered.

MARK:           Because you have to start with a state license? Or is it a whole new?

AMY:             Yeah.

MARK:           So, Miami helped with the state and then when you got here, was it county too?

AMY:             County was up on Stock Island. Then it was a different license for Key West. 

MARK:           So, you have three licenses. 

AMY:             Yeah, so don’t feel overwhelmed once you do start if this what you want to do. Don’t – and you’re gonna feel overwhelmed – but just breathe through it and know that it is just day by day and just keep plucking away and little things will eventually give you the big end product that you’re looking for. 

MARK:           What about inventory? It’s like, okay we are going to start, what do we do for inventory? What do we do for marketing? Tell me that.  

AMY:              So much. Inventory is everything. The timing of it, when you want to get it because when you’re going to open and you don’t want stuff to go bad too soon. 

MARK:           When you first started, were you just going, okay we may have over ordered and we are having tacos for breakfast, lunch and dinner the next couple of weeks.  

AMY:             No. Fortunately, I have to give credit to Riaan for so much, everything. He does so much in this food truck.

MARK:           Well, having that degree it’s not just cooking, there’s other aspects that they teach in there, right? The running of the business. 

AMY:             Measuring, costs, how much it takes to even make a taco. How much your taco is gonna cost. Then how to sell it to people.

MARK:           And at the end of the month, you’re like we’re doing great! And you are like, well then why is our bank negative, right? There’s a lot that goes into that. 

AMY:             And I’m learning a lot. A lot. This is the first time, and I’ve been a server, bartender, but this is the first time I’ve been in the kitchen. I was like…

MARK:           And learning the business part of it, too. You are looking at the numbers so you have to know we have to have this amount to buy for so many weeks or months in advance for certain things, right? So, you need to take care of that too.

AMY:              Yeah, just making sure that what you’re buying and you’re not getting ripped off on it. How much for this avocado? Is it worth it? We just shop around and that’s the big thing down here is that we go to all the grocery stores. And we order from Cheney Brothers. Daily. I have my spots for things like cilantro, and avocados I get it here. Vegan cheese I get it here. Purple cabbage I get it over here. 

MARK:           You are running all over the place. You don’t need to go to the gym, you are on that bicycle all over the place. 

AMY:              I scooter for that stuff. 

MARK:           Tell me in preparing everything and getting everything ready and he’s got the experience being a chef and everything, and you’re getting ready to open, how did you prepare? The window opens and what? Tell me about the first day.

AMY:             We just crossed our fingers and we were like; well I hope people come! 

MARK:           You just tell them, well was it a line of friends that came at first to support? 

AMY:             Honestly, we are kind of really bad at having grand openings. We didn’t really want to, we were just kinda like let’s just open and we’ll post it on Instagram and the people who see that message and want to come down and get food, then they can come down and get food. Fortunately, we created a nice little following of people who really really enjoy our food which makes us super proud and happy about it. To see their faces again and for them to tell us like, “oh wow you’re back open?” It’s a really nice feeling. 

MARK:           I saw you guys on Stock Island because I always go to Fit Gym as well, and then I had a couple of friends down here, me being new to the island, but I have a couple of friends and they are posting these pictures, and like Oh they are back in Key West!  Proper Key West, not on Stock Island anymore. And I was like, wow, I’ve gotta go have this food. And we went today for the first time and it was amazing, it really was, it was excellent. So, hat’s off to you that the food lives up to all of the hype from everybody on social that loves to post and talk about it. My friends were like, you just gotta go, I’m so happy they are here because I’d ride a bicycle past there every day and now, I can go and eat. 

AMY:             Yeah!

MARK:           You are giving back to the island yourself and living the dream. 

AMY:             Good thank you. That was our goal, honestly, we wanted to create good, healthy, affordable, fast food for people. 

MARK:           That’s what I was saying, in Miami in Wynwood, if I were to get what I got for lunch today, for half of that would have been that price. And it wasn’t like one shrimp, it was like buttloads of shrimp on each taco and I was like, wow I got some chips going on over here, I got a side of rice and beans going on, too. I got more than I expected. 

AMY:             Good, that’s what we aim for. 

MARK:           That’s great. Name something people that know you, don’t know about what you do?  Like friends or anybody, they are like, oh she’s got that food truck, but what else? 

AMY:              I’m a professional cilantro picker now.  

MARK:           Are you gonna grow it? Are you going to grow the cilantro? 

AMY:             I tried growing it up on Stock Island and the iguanas ate it. 

MARK:           They are crazy, they will eat everything. 

AMY:             Now there’s no garden over here. 

MARK:           Well you could do something on the roof. 

AMY:              Not right now, it’s leaking actually. That rain, this past rain, oh no!

MARK:           It’s crazy rain, it was like a flood everywhere. But that’s another challenge of the food truck business. You have a leaky roof. 

AMY:             Exactly, just think of a food truck as owning a boat, ya’ know? It’s just one thing after the next. Except for, honestly, I think the food truck is better than the boat? In that aspect because I feel like the boat there’s always something wrong and here it’s just little hiccups every now and then. 

MARK:           You can get some mechanic or somebody over here to help this, where there it’s an extra couple of hundred bucks just to get there.  

AMY:             Bring on another thousand. 

MARK:           Exactly, right? We have learned a little bit about the business’y side about what you’ve got going on, now we go to the very important detailed questions, the personal questions. So they are really not that crazy, they are pretty simple. What’s your favorite event to attend here in Key West?  

AMY:              Well it has to be Fantasy Fest. 

MARK:           What part? We all know that. 

AMY:             What part? Umm.

MARK:           Is it the Zombie Bike Ride? Is it the Local Parade? 

AMY:              I ummm… 

MARK:           Or is it that you start on day one and then on day ten you wake up? You’re so hungover you don’t know what to do. 

AMY:              My typical schedule is, well because I bartend. So, when Fantasy Fest rolls around I am getting ready to bartend and…

MARK:           Yeah and you’re like slammed. 

AMY:             What I like to do is that I like to join in the Zombie Bike Ride on my way to work and then I get off and I go work. 

MARK:           With the gear? Like do you have the full paint? 

AMY:             Yeah, I mean I’ll try and do my best, but I get a little dressed up and then I go to work. I also really enjoy the Tutu party. I had the privilege of bartending last year for that and I really had fun bartending there. It was before I knew, it was 4:30a.m.

MARK:           It’s gotta be characters. The stories you could probably tell on the people that you meet and see, and the age groups of these people doing these things. But that’s for another podcast. What about favorite restaurant to go to? 

AMY:             It’s new, Moondog Café. I really enjoy their food.

MARK:           I like their food, too. They have those muffins in there and every time I come by, I say “I’m here for the muffins again.” And they are just like, all right. We are going to supply these muffins just for you dude because you keep coming back every day. They have great food, too. Great pizza and other things too that I have to try there. What about hidden local spot? Could be a bar, could be a restaurant, could be a park? 

AMY:              Hidden local spot.

MARK:           Yeah, that not many tourists will go to.

AMY:              Well, I like Mary Ellen’s, but that’s kinda getting’ hyped up for tourists, too now. They’ve got a scene in there, and I like it. I still enjoy Green Parrot which is again really popular. I don’t go out much, though. 

MARK:           And you’re busy doing this, or if you’re bartending, right? That’s your going out. 

AMY:              That’s my going out, yeah. 

MARK:           What about favorite place for live music?

AMY:            Favorite place for live music, again I’m gonna have to say Green Parrot.

MARK:           Green Parrot, yeah. They have great jazz on Sundays. 

AMY:             I really enjoy their space.

MARK:           It’s nice because you can kinda hang out with the open windows if you want to get deep you can, if you want to stay on the edges you can. 

AMY:             Yeah, I like free popcorn.

MARK:           Free popcorn is always good, always a good thing a little snack action. What about for happy hour? 

AMY:              For happy hour, ummm it’s on the tip of my tongue, and I just went there the other day I feel like. 

MARK:           Is it because of the deals or because of the location. Sometimes I like going to the happy hour because I get the good 2-for-1. Sometimes I go and it’s not the best price wise but the view is nice. 

AMY:             Man, I can’t think of one right now. 

MARK:           Okay, we can come back to that one. You can tweet that, or put it on Instagram after this comes out. Oh yeah, I remembered it, here’s what it is!

AMY:              Oh! I thought of it! The Orchid Bar. I love that little bar. 

MARK:           And where is that? I’ve never been there yet. 

AMY:              I think it’s at the Orchid Inn, right on Duval. Again, that’s probably my favorite tucked away hiding spot that tourists don’t know. 

MARK:           Awesome, well I’m going to hit that this weekend. 

AMY:              They are local friendly and they make awesome craft drinks and it’s a beautiful little bar. 

MARK:           Love that. Tourist attraction that, like when people come from out of town and they are like, okay I gotta take you here. 

AMY:              That would definitely be the Southernmost buoy thing. But early, early, early in the morning before that crazy line starts.

MARK:           That’s like locals know that and I go by that all the time and there’s nobody ever there. 

AMY:              I’m like, okay let’s go take our picture! 

MARK:           But every tourist goes and it’s like 20 minutes deep just to get there and I’m like, no – get up at 7 and go when there’s nobody there. Like on a Saturday, nobody’s there let alone on a Tuesday. You can go there all day and nobody’s there.  The personal questions, they weren’t that difficult, you made it through. What about where people can, obviously we know where to find you address wise, but websites, social media, I’ll put it all in the show notes, but also tell me. 

AMY:              Everything is at Tacogrilla. 


MARK:           What about on the Snapchat, are you hipster with the Snapchat yet? 

AMY:              Personally, I am, but Taco Grilla doesn’t understand Snapchat, he has issues. 

MARK:           He’s too beefy.

AMY:              His fingers get stuck on the buttons; he gets too confused. 

MARK:           Well that was great. I loved talking to you and I loved learning more about this and I know that we are at the end of the day here. We are closing in on sunset and we gotta go watch the sunset down at Mallory Square and you’ve had a long day. So, I really appreciate you coming out and doing this in the parking lot on a time when you could be relaxing, and thank you very much. It was great. 

AMY:              No, thank you. It was really fun. 

MARK:           Thanks.  

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