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Midtown food trucks aim to offer Gainesville community quality, culture

Jiva Das prepares a pizza for a customer in his wood fired oven pizza truck. (Ryan Hirsh/WUFT News)
Jiva Das prepares a pizza for a customer in his wood fired oven pizza truck. (Ryan Hirsh/WUFT News)

Once a week, Rama Janco, a junior computer science student, walks to the parking lot at 1542 W. University Ave. and gets lunch from one of the three food trucks set up in the lot.

Located in Midtown, across the street from University of Florida’s Library West, the area is a prime location for attracting students, faculty and hungry drivers looking to enjoy a meal served by a local business. Passersby can choose from DJ’s Cast Iron Burgers, Damascus City Food and Blue Boy Pizza, all parked in the space.

The businesses, which form part of the 101 food trucks lihttps://npr.brightspotcdn.com/4d/35/d9b8a5a34f09a6aa5aa2c591541e/hr400c-sum-license-and-unit-summary-by-county.pdfcensed in Alachua County as of February 2024, regularly meet the needs of customers like Janco, who value dining locally. The 20-year-old self-proclaimed “foodie” prefers to eat at local businesses over chain restaurants when given the choice.

“I feel like you get better service and quality,” Janco said. “You’re speaking to someone who cares more about the food, rather than some underpaid college student who just got off a nine to five lecture.”

Of the three trucks currently occupying the lot, DJ’s Cast Iron Burgers is the longest tenured resident. Jose Nieves, 32, launched DJ’s with Miguel Cardona, 32, in November 2020 as a pop-up fundraiser for their previous business venture, Brio Cold Brew Coffee. As DJ’s grew in popularity, Nieves and Cardona purchased a food truck. In October 2022, they moved to their current Midtown location and have been calling it home ever since.

DJ’s Cast Iron Burger truck parked in its usual spot, farthest left in the Midtown parking lot at 1542 W. University Ave. (Ryan Hirsh/WUFT News)
DJ’s Cast Iron Burger truck parked in its usual spot, farthest left in the Midtown parking lot at 1542 W. University Ave. (Ryan Hirsh/WUFT News)

Sharing that home with other food trucks may seem like it would lead to competition between the businesses, but Nieves loves it.

“I think it naturally catches more eyes now that we’ve had a few food trucks here for at least six months,” Nieves said. “I love the camaraderie that we have… and it’s a sort of safety net, where we’re kind of looking out for each other. If somebody forgets something, or somebody needs change, we have each other’s backs.”

One of the newer additions to the lot is Damascus City Food. Misho Hanna, 35, opened business on Jan. 2, 2024, after waiting 17 years to open a food business and serve customers Middle Eastern food.

Hanna understands the risk he is taking in starting a new food business, considering that local businesses like Halo Potato Donuts, Swamp Boil, and Sweet Dreams have all been forced to close recently.

Grant Rotbart (left), 19, Tuline Alhassan, 18, and James Montejo, 18, laugh while eating a Middle Eastern meal from Damascus City Food. (Ryan Hirsh/WUFT News)
Grant Rotbart (left), 19, Tuline Alhassan, 18, and James Montejo, 18, laugh while eating a Middle Eastern meal from Damascus City Food. (Ryan Hirsh/WUFT News)

Still, he is determined to make Damascus City Food a success, he said, first as a food truck and potentially as a traditional storefront in the future.

“I want to stay here and set up,” Hanna said. “I don’t like to be moving. I want to be in the same spot.”

The third tenant of the lot is Blue Boy Pizza, owned by Jiva Das, 47. Das started the operation in Miami in 2020 before coming to Gainesville because of “the mood the students bring to the city.”

Jack Meyer, a 21-year-old journalism student, said he loves the passion and effort each food truck puts into the food they serve. He tries to eat from the food trucks and other local businesses as often as he can.

“The proximity to campus and unique flavors and options ranging from traditional shawarma, to pizza from a wood fired oven, to thin smash burgers from a cast iron skillet are incredible,” Meyer said. “There are so many reasons to come and eat at these local gems.”

Meyer is not alone in his love for the food trucks and the unique options they offer. Grant Rotbart, a 19-year-old engineering student, is “super into food” and loves eating locally.

“You get to interact with people and the food happens to be really good,” Rotbart said. “And it’s a community thing, so I like that.”

Rama Janco (left), 20, and Stephen Coomes enjoy a fresh lunch from Blue Boy Pizza. (Ryan Hirsh/WUFT News)
Rama Janco (left), 20, and Stephen Coomes enjoy a fresh lunch from Blue Boy Pizza. (Ryan Hirsh/WUFT News)

Rotbart spends his free time exploring Gainesville restaurants, so he appreciates the accessibility of the food trucks, he said.

“If there were more options, I would literally come here all the time,” he added.

Stephen Coomes, a 21-year-old computer science student and Dick Mondell’s employee, simply enjoys supporting the local community when choosing to eat at the food trucks.

“It fuels the community,” Coomes said, “It just gives the city more character.”

Damascus City Food (left) and Blue Boy Pizza set up and serve customers in the parking lot across from Library West. (Ryan Hirsh/WUFT News)
Damascus City Food (left) and Blue Boy Pizza set up and serve customers in the parking lot across from Library West. (Ryan Hirsh/WUFT News)

For all the food truck owners, catering to and meeting the expectations of the local community is a top focus. “We just want to bring a good experience to the students,” Das said, referring to his customer base.

Nieves agreed.

“We have the best customers in the world,” Nieves said. “You feel a sense of responsibility to continue for the people that believe so much in the concept.”

Ryan is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.