Tony and Cheri Bonasto got married on Siesta Key Beach three years ago, bought a home on Winding Way the following year and moved onto the canopy road full time in August.
They retired from careers as a police officer and teacher, respectively, in Houston and bought a food truck they found on eBay to kick-start a culinary road trip they hoped would end with a brick-and-mortar restaurant.
But, the couple may never have a home base for the truck in Siesta Key Village as they planned; they recently got an insider’s perspective of the complex balance between the interests of businesses and residents on the island.
During the first public hearing Oct. 23 to consider private use of a county-owned right of way in the Siesta Key Overlay District, the Sarasota County Commission voted unanimously to deny a permit for Gumbo Mojo Food Truck to operate in the Village.
The Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce, Siesta Key Association and Siesta Key Village Association wrote to commissioners the previous week that they were concerned about a food truck’s effect on pedestrian safety, unfair competition and aesthetics at the couple’s proposed location, on the corner of Canal Road and Calle Menorca.
Siesta organizations pushed for a 2011 amendment to the county code to allow outdoor vending during certain holidays. The county planning and development department determines whether to approve or deny a temporary-use permit, or present the application to the County Commission.
County land development staff gave preliminary approval to the permit after determining Gumbo Mojo wouldn’t affect pedestrian and vehicle safety at the intersection and Assistant Zoning Administrator Manager Donna Thompson recommended approval from the County Commission.
Opponents cited a myriad of other reasons why commissioners should reject the recommendation.
“There are already problems with litter,” County Commissioner Nora Patterson said after hearing. “There are already problems with parking, and there are already problems with noise.”
The food trucks would aggravate those problems, which are unique to a commercial district so close to residential zoning, said SKVA President Russell Matthes during the hearing.
“These issues have been on our plate for 20 years,” Matthes said.
The Bonastos held hands during interviews after the decision. They are working with a national food-truck organization for advice about appeal options but are currently focused on an unexpected boost in calls inquiring about catering and menu information.
“We anticipated being shot down,” Tony Bonasto said after the hearing. “But, we at least got all this publicity.”
Ready to roll
Last year, Oscar Mayer added a Wienermobile truck to its fleet, and Burger King announced a similar move earlier this year.
But, the mobile-food truck trend started at the grassroots level, with entrepreneurs filling a new niche and restaurant-owner hopefuls operating with tight budgets.
The Bonastos say they fall into the latter category. They bought their food truck after their daughters graduated from high school.
“We’re really on a shoestring budget,” Tony Bonasto said. “We’re not millionaires, so it was a lot more appealing to go with this plan.”
Cheri Bonasto conducted hundreds of culinary experiments, and the couple watched hours of Food Network programming while crafting the idea for mobile Cajun-Cuban cuisine. They even won a few gumbo competitions in Houston, where they said food trucks operate on nearly every block of dense districts.
Sometimes the couple’s daughters, and occasionally their dogs, found a dish too spicy. Or they thought a Cajun-Cuban eggroll was too experimental for public consumption. Tony Bonasto once fried an olive and found that not all fried foods are delicious.
They also found that constant monitoring was necessary to avoid burning a batch of roux, which is used in French sauces such as Hollandaise.
“Once it gets that burnt taste, it’s a goner,” Tony Bonasto said during an interview in the living room of the couple’s Siesta Isles house.
“We’re part of this community, and we’re trying to work within it,” he said.
The food truck’s menu is ever changing, they explained, and includes muffulettas, gumbo and hot dogs topped with Cuban ingredients. They have meals tailored for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and have been operating out of the parking lot of Frightmares, a haunted house south of the south Siesta Key Bridge.
“We’re trying to curtail the menu to where it pleases everyone,” Tony Bonasto said. If current restaurant owners and residents agree to support the permit — with Gumbo Mojo’s hours of operation restricted to avoid competition — the couple is ready to serve beignets for breakfast or gumbo for late dinners.
Although the island organizations presented valid grievances to county commissioners, Bonasto said, the couple feels like the county and other business owners singled Gumbo Mojo out because they serve meals on wheels.
“Come on, we’re not the devil here,” Bonasto said.
Driving into old issues
“We’re not against the idea,” said Siesta Key Association President Catherine Luckner during a phone interview. “It’s a matter of finding a good location for that kind of thing.”
The location in the Bonastos’ application is in the middle of the Siesta Key Village Public Improvement District, which acts as an agreement between property owners and the county for maintenance and beautification of the Village. In the most recent tax roll, 3 millage points were added, in addition to assessments for parking spaces in the municipal lot.
“I’m all for free enterprise, but it should be on a level playing field,” said Dave Stewart, who owns Captain Curt’s Crab & Oyster Bar, on south Siesta.
Village property owners paid $210,000 of additional property taxes for public and private maintenance of the district during the 2013 fiscal year. The county’s $97,000 contract with Championship Landscape Maintenance Professionals specifies that the Village be maintained at the upkeep level of a resort.
“Now, I’m not sure if a vendor truck is resort-like,” Matthes said.
Food-truck advocate and Flying Slider Food Truck owner Andrew Seely, during the hearing, said the mobile restaurant would attract people to the Village who may not have planned to visit the area.
“This is a food-truck craze occurring all over the nation,” Seely said. “And all that food trucks can do is help Sarasota and Siesta Key.”
Commissioners agreed unanimously that Gumbo Mojo would be welcomed elsewhere in the county but not on the proposed intersection.
“I hate to say no to such nice people,” Patterson said. “But, not very often do you see the residents organization, the Village Association and the chamber of commerce all chime in together.”