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A search for a place to park their 20-foot New Orleans trolley led a Jacksonville couple to establish a family-friendly food truck park in historic Springfield.
Cherron Johnson and her husband, Hector Zayas Sr., hope to open Main Street Food Park on Oct. 9 at an old used-car lot at 1352 N. Main St. near Fourth Street that they are renovating.
“We want to create a family of truckies that we can support and all benefit from making money,” Johnson said of the food park.
The couple owns and operates NOLA’s Snoballs, Sweets & Savory Eats — an authentic retired New Orleans streetcar that’s been converted into a food truck.
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An extension of their snoball business, the park also is an opportunity to serve the community, said Johnson, a nurse anesthetist, and Zayas, who’s retired from the U.S. Navy but works as a civilian contractor.
“We will be rotating food trucks Friday through Sunday,” Johnson said. “We will have outdoor seating, live entertainment, family-friendly games, a full kitchen on the inside, conditioning, a front deck and public restrooms.”
Johnson said they are working out the price for food trucks to use the park. They are putting the available dates on a Facebook page for food trucks, and the operators can message back about when they want to be there.
The couple has been doing much of the renovations themselves after working at their regular full-time jobs and on the weekends to ready the food park.
“It’s a lot to do, but we’ve been getting it done slowly but surely,” she said.
Brightly colored murals cover the exterior concrete block walls of the former dealership office. They recently completed a stage. The landscaping is underway and fencing has been fabricated.
Snoballs are a childhood staple that Johnson never outgrew.
“Snoballs are so much different than just a regular snow cone,” she said. “I grew up with snoballs. I spent many summers in Mississippi and New Orleans and that is where I got the idea to do snoballs.”
Johnson initially planned to get a small trailer that she and her three children would run. But that plan went out the window a year ago when she came across the old New Orleans trolley in Ponte Vedra Beach.
The trolley’s former owner was going to convert it into a pizza food truck but subsequently abandoned the idea.
It was love at first sight for Johnson.
“I saw it and was in love with the uniqueness of it instantly,” she said. “There’s no other food truck in Jacksonville like it.”
Dating back to the 1930s, snoballs are a signature New Orleans summertime treat. The confection is crafted from fluffy, finely shaved ice flavored with cane sugar syrup, according to the official New Orleans website.
Snoballs top the menu, but Johnson said their trolley offers more — a lot more.
“I had to add a little bit more of a New Orleans-style flair to it,” she said. “We not only do snoballs but also New Orleans-style shrimp po’boys, muffalettas, jambalaya, and this fall we’re going to be bringing out the gumbo, red beans and rice and etouffee.”
Johnson said finding the trolley was like a trip back in time.
“It just brings back so many memories of spending summers with my grandmother,” she said.
Her grandmother cooked by taste and experience. She never wrote down any of her recipes. Johnson recreated many of her favorite dishes from memory as well as trial and error.
The couple launched NOLA’s Snoballs, Sweets & Savory Eats in May. The trolley did well at ball games, special events and other gatherings. But they faced one more challenge — finding a permanent site for the trolley to set up shop.
“I wanted a place where I could actually park the truck, it’s a little over a 26-foot trolley,” she said. “I wanted a place where I could actually go and serve food and set up some tables and things like that.”
Amid their search for a parking place, Johnson had been eyeing the North Main Street property for about two years, a site that had been vacant for several years.
She and the landowner talked off-and-on, but it wasn’t until earlier this year that the property became available, Johnson said.
When the renovations are finished, half of the site will be for food trucks to set up shop, while the other half will be dedicated to family activities.
“We’re looking to have at least five to seven food trucks at a time including our own,” Johnson said.
She said initially the food park will be open Friday through Sunday. Once they’re more established with it, she said they will extend their hours.
An Aug. 26 Facebook post announcing the food park garnered at least 100 responses — many from food truck owners voicing interest in booking a space.
“Let us know the first weekend availability,” posted the operator of an Asian food truck. Another operator posted “this is such great news.”
Food truck popularity
Food trucks generally have become more popular over the years despite the COVID-19 pandemic, according to industry data.
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There are about 32,287 food truck businesses nationwide including at least 502 in Florida. Only California and Texas have more food trucks, according to data from IBISWorld, an industry research and analysis company. The number of food trucks in the United States grew 11.7 percent this year.
Jacksonville has at least 120 food trucks, according to Roaming Hunger, a nationwide online food truck catering listing service.
Catering, local food truck operators say, has helped them survive the pandemic. They hit the road to cater outdoor weddings, neighborhood gatherings, community events and other socially distanced outdoor events.
“Food trucks are more popular than they once were. … Since we had our food truck over the summer, every weekend there’s a community that is doing ‘Food Truck Fridays’ from Nocatee to Oakleaf and Oceanway,” Johnson said.
She said so many food trucks have inquired about coming to the food park that she’s struggled to respond to them all.
Most of the exterior work is complete at the park. The couple is in the final stages of transforming the old dealership office into a full kitchen.
They plan to prepare their desserts in that kitchen, while their other menu items will be done on the trolley, which will be parked with the other food trucks, they said.
Jacksonville food truck community
“I’d like people to know that the food park is a great way to network,” Johnson said. “I think it’s a great way to bring the community together. Not just the community here in Springfield but all of our surrounding and neighboring communities as well.”
She wants people from the Beaches to Riverside and elsewhere to come out and “just have a good time.”
“Food trucks are always fun,” she said, noting that she and Zayas had food trucks at their wedding. Food trucks offer a break from the norm. A break from having to be inside a restaurant, she said.
“People can grab a bite to eat, play some games and sit down and listen to music,” she said. “I think that is what we need right now with everything we’re all going through right now.”
The opening of Main Street Food Park next month also will kick off a fall festival and Pumpkin Patch.
The food park’s regular hours will be from 5 to 8 p.m. Fridays, noon to 8 p.m. Saturdays and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays, Johnson posted.