Margaret Loflin really isn't quite sure how much fuel it takes to fill her fire-engine red Maggie on the Move food truck. She has never topped off the tank.
With prices at the gas pump soaring, Loflin only puts $25 in at a time, just enough to get the mobile kitchen from her home in Treasure Island to wherever she'll be serving that day, and back.
Last week, when the lock on the truck's gas cap wouldn't budge, she couldn't go anywhere, because she wasn't sure how much fuel she had left. She and husband Ray, who started operating the truck in December after serving food from a tent at downtown markets and festivals, finally broke the cap off so they could go make money.
Such are the headaches that come with serving food on wheels. With the American Automobile Association pegging the national average price of a gallon of gasoline at $3.86 last week — up from $3.28 on Jan. 1 — every added penny per gallon forces vendors to decide how to protect their profit margin.
For the Loflins, the fuel price surge meant increasing the price of drinks by 50 cents because they didn't want to raise food prices. They also added smaller, less-expensive items to their Mediterranean-flavored menu, using more budget-friendly ingredients such as pork and eggs.
Higher fuel costs also pushed Ray Loflin back to working as a bartender again three nights a week at Z Grille in downtown St. Petersburg.
"We, thought we would transition to a truck from a tent with no problem," Margaret Loflin says. "We didn't take the fuel costs into consideration. We didn't think it through."
The area's mobile food scene exploded late last summer, when gas was hovering around $3 a gallon. Now that it's considerably higher, the trucks are being forced to use different business strategies than what they did when they first started operations. A recent permanent food truck square on Platt Street in Tampa folded two weeks ago. It was created with the intention of offering a steady place for trucks to make money.
Enrico Mastrangelo, who operates the Mr. Empanada food trailer, says gas prices "seem to be the elephant in the room" among vendors.
Mastrangelo used to work six days per week, but he cut back to three or four and became more selective about the events and lunches he works.
Between operating the generator and driving to the event, he spends about $75 a day on gas, depending on the location and duration of the event. If he were to operate six days a week, the cost would be similar to running a brick-and-mortar restaurant.
For food trucks in Pinellas County, the financial pressure is more acute. Vendors must drive to Hillsborough County or to northern Pinellas County to sell at the most lucrative and better organized events, because St. Petersburg city code prohibits most food trucks.
Tampa provides almost 75 percent of Kevin Dunn's business as owner and chef of the Americanweiner truck,
If he drives to Tampa from his home in Kenneth City to sell hot dogs, it costs him $100 a day in gas and insurance and up to $300 in food and supplies. He can lose money if he has a slow day of sales, so he sticks to proven locations, such as the Fourth Friday Food Truck Festival held each month on Corey Avenue in downtown St. Pete Beach.
"Corey is great," Dunn says. "We get a great crowd. But I love going to Tampa. The people are more hip and aware of what we're doing. If I have to blow 60 bucks to make a thousand in Tampa, I'm fine with that."
To compensate for higher fuel costs, Dunn shops at bargain groceries for items like sauerkraut. He also hits up ethnic markets to buy lamb shoulder, which he uses to make "The Greek," a gourmet hot dog made with lamb confit, sweet onion, tomato, feta and a key lime and Mideast honey yogurt sauce. All that running around for ingredients means more fuel and another $50 to $60 a week in extra gas.
"I am really trying hard to stay in Pinellas, but there are not many premium events here, yet," Dunn says. "Street food is meant to be affordable. It kills me to jack up prices."