Behind the scenes of DJ’s Cast Iron Burger duo
The smell of sizzling patties, hot peanut oil and caramelized onions escapes the food truck window. Passersby stop for a quick bite to eat, greeted by the owners whose day starts much earlier than the 11:30 a.m. opening.
Emitting the aroma is DJ’s Cast Iron Burgers parked on University Avenue in Midtown, contributing to Gainesville’s booming food truck industry.
According to the Florida Department of Business Professional Regulation, 98 food truck owners were licensed in Alachua County as of Nov. 2023. These restaurants on wheels are finding success among college students and local nightlife.
“They accidentally put pickles on my burger, but sent me an apology and offered a discount for my next order,” Enrique Maduro said. “That is a service I feel you can’t just receive anywhere.”
The 19-year-old UF neuroscience major said he noticed the food truck while walking with his girlfriend and was glad he stopped to try it out. This was his second time visiting DJs, and the service is always high class, he said.
Greeting customers are long-time friends and co-owners Jose Nieves, 32, and Miguel Cardona, 32. The duo met on the first day of third grade.
“Neither of us spoke much English, so the teacher sat us together to figure things out,” Cardona said. “That’s the beginning of our friendship.”
Nieves said he attended culinary school, and Cardona pursued architecture design. The two always knew they wanted to collaborate in a business, he said.
In 2013, Nieves and friend from culinary school, Dan Anagnostou, originated the concept of DJ’s, but they soon realized the idea was unattainable without more resources.
With the idea on the back burner, Nieves and Cardona later created their first business venture, Brio, a cold brew coffee company. As Brio continued to grow in Whole Foods Market locations around Florida, they needed extra help to keep up with demand, Cardona said.
“That’s where DJ’s falls into place,” he said. “We started doing pop-ups on the weekend to help with cash flow, and little by little business started to grow.”
On weekends, they set their grill under a tent in a parking lot just behind Serpentine Plants + Provisions on 10th Avenue, he said. The city eventually shut down the pop-ups because they could not operate unless in an enclosed area like a trailer.
So, they got a licensed food truck, although the obstacles continued. The duo began to park on University Avenue across the Ben Hill Griffin Stadium but were told to remove themselves due to zoning issues. He said the location would not allow food trucks to sell food. Eventually, DJ’s secured a spot at Midtown and continues to serve burgers there.
Now as co-founders, the two work DJ’s full-time. The day begins at 7:15 a.m. to prepare for a full-day opening, Nieves said.
Through a non-profit organization, Working Food Community Center, they use an off-campus kitchen space, he said. It’s used to store products and conduct kitchen prep. However, since the space does not have hot prep, the food truck is parked behind the building to use its cooking appliances.
Employee Ammir Aftab comes first in the morning to begin the necessary food prep, Nieves said. He warms up all the equipment in the truck, including the six cast iron planks.
The idea behind using cast irons is that since they have been around for generations, it will create a sense of nostalgia, he said.
“You might come now as a kid, visit us in 20 years and have a burger cooked on the same iron plank you had then,” he said.
DJ’s menu is small: two types of burgers, two types of fries and chocolate cookies. Simplicity allows the duo to pay attention to detail and make almost all ingredients in-house.
Food prep includes cutting and blanching 40 pounds of potatoes, cutting the vegetables, baking a dozen chocolate chunk cookies and making 40 to 60 pieces of bacon, he said.
They make around 250 patties a day. The thin, crispy design is to create a well-balanced burger and taste all the different ingredients in harmony with one bite, he said.
Once the ingredients are ready, Nieves and Cardona ensure the generator has gas, the water tank is full and the register is updated.
By the time the truck is loaded and ready to roll out, it’s nearly 11 a.m. The generator is on, final inspections are ready and Cardona makes a seven-minute commute to Midtown, he said.
The restaurant on wheels is unhitched from the truck, and menus and tables with chairs are set up. A few customers are ready to order by opening time, 11:30 a.m., and online orders begin to roll in, he said.
DJ’s experience a lunch rush from open to around 2:30 p.m. He said about 80% of their audience consists of UF students and faculty.
Brianna McDonald, a 20-year-old UF Biology major, said she had DJ’s for the first time in summer 2022.
“Although I don’t eat out very often and only get to see the DJ’s guys a few times a year,” she said, “I have always been amazed they remember me and are so nice, even before I order food.”
McDonald said she tries to send them business as much as she can because she has never met anyone who hasn’t loved their food, including her professor.
Margaret Galvan is an assistant professor of visual rhetoric in the Department of English at UF. She said she has been coming to DJ’s since 2021, back when they only had afternoon weekend pop-ups and hour-long lines.
Galvan said DJ’s attention to detail in what can be accomplished in a food truck and their connection to customers, brings her back each time.
“They are very thoughtful in wanting to have the best quality ingredients and a good experience for everyone,” she said. “Every time I go there they remember my name, my order- they welcome people back and create a sense of community.”
Galvan said she wants to support them because she builds a connection with DJ’s owners. They care about her, and she cares about them. It’s an important part of the community, she said.
Cardona said the most fulfilling parts of running the food truck daily are these interactions with customers. They try their best to get to know their customers by first name, and if it is their first time, they want to make a connection to welcome them back for the next time, he said.
Bella Weisheimer, a 20-year-old UF agriculture communication and leadership major, enjoyed a meatless menu option, the “Beyond Meat” vegetarian burger, which is also offered at the food truck.
“They were super nice and helpful when I needed a vegetarian substitution,” she said. “It’s hard to find good local vegetarian burger options, so it was convenient to have one so close to campus.”
After a dinner rush from 5 p.m. to their 8 p.m. closing, the duo spend an extra hour and a half closing up for the night, Cardona said. The two put away the tables and chairs, close out the cash drawers and secure paper goods inside before returning the truck back to the off-campus kitchen.
There they drain the oil from the fryers, clean the dishes and every appliance in the food truck. Before ending the night, the trailer is stocked with drinks, sauces and pickles.
New hours keeps DJ’s open until 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Nieves said he left the kitchen around 3:15 a.m.
“It’s hard because you want to sleep in but can’t when you have things on,” he said. “It ends up being a 9 a.m. to 3 a.m. kind of work day.”
Although this is a new adjustment for the owners, he said they see a lot of beauty in the hardships of this sort of business. It’s a journey that challenges them to develop interpersonal growth and customers that keep them yearning for more, he said.
“We have the best customers in the world,” he said. “They are so supportive and loving and give us all the comps in the world to keep pushing forward and give them the best of ourselves.”