By Johnny Diaz, Sun Sentinel

The whirs and hisses of drills and welding torches carry outside a warehouse tucked away in a Fort Lauderdale office park. Inside, rows of step vans and delivery trucks are being reborn as food trucks. As mobile eateries have flourished in South Florida in recent years, food truck builders have also shifted into high gear.

These mobile food truck factories — including Concession Nation in Fort Lauderdale, scour the state for new and late-model Chevy, Ford and GMC step vans as well as used flower, fire and delivery trucks (and in one case, a shuttle van from NASA). They add fryers, refrigerators and stainless steel surfaces and turn them into rolling restaurants.

“Everybody wants one,” said Alexander Alvarez, owner of Concession Nation, which completed 126 jobs in 2012, a 34 percent increase from 2011. The weakened economy and high unemployment of the past few years have helped drive the local food truck boom. As people were laid off or considering job changes, some decided to become their own boss and invest in mobile units. Meanwhile, TV programs such as Food Network’s “The Great Food Truck Race” and the Cooking Channel’s “Eat Street” were showing contestants making thousands of dollars a day with a customized food truck.

Less Costly than brick & mortar

Yes, food truck operators have costs such as gas, food inventory and permits. But these are “less expensive than brick-and-mortar facilities, making it easier to enter the food service business,” said Ron Grimes, manager of environmental health programs at NSF International, a nonprofit that develops standards for equipment used in food service establishments such as food trucks.

Of course, none of this would be possible without the ever-growing popularity of food truck fare and events. The National Restaurant Association doesn’t track the number of food trucks in the United States, but the group has found that consumers have been increasingly flocking to mobile eateries.

In a 2012 association survey, 43 percent of adults said they had bought items from a food truck.

Food Trucks Demand Increase

The demand for food trucks, Concession Nation’s Alvarez said, comes f

rom a base of customers hungry for “fast-food but better quality. You get a homemade plate served to you in 10 minutes.”

At Concession Nation’s offices and warehouse in Fort Lauderdale, calls pour in from throughout the country. The San Francisco 49ers football 

team, for example, had the company create a team-themed concession trailer.

Sports Teams - San Francisco 49ers

Sports Teams – San Francisco 49ers

And the Fontainebleau in Miami Beach recently hired Concession Nation to build an 18-foot food truck to sell some of the dishes found at the resorts’ restaurants such as Gotham Steak and Scarpetta. The truck will roam the property, complete with three flat screen monitors showing video of the hotel’s amenities.

“It’s a truck that we are going to use to feature lots of different venues in the resort,” said Thomas Connell, the resort’s executive chef. “We are going to use it for special events, barbecues, LIV [nightclub] after-hours … wherever our customers need it really.”

Costs range per builder, but a used food truck can cost $3,000 to $20,000, depending on the mileage, year, condition and size, which can be 16 or 18 feet long. Fully-loaded new trucks can run as much as $100,000. Generally, vendors find the trucks for the client, but a customer can bring a truck to a contractor and have it outfitted with equipment.

Workers strip the rear (or the box) of the truck, install aluminum walls and diamond-plated flooring. They add stainless-steel counters, refrigerators, sinks and deep fryers, or whatever the client requests. Some owners add LED lights on their roofs and flat screens to promote their menus to potential passers-by.

Concession Nation is a One Stop Shop

Concession Nation, which features its work on, also wraps the exterior of the vehicle to brand the food and services.

“You have a brand-new truck inside

and, plus, you have free advertising whenever you hit the road,” said Monica Gonzalez, chief financial officer at Concession Nation. A typical job there lasts about five days.

Craig Larson, owner of Lucille’s Bad to the Bone BBQ in Boca Raton and Boynton Beach, wanted a food truck as a side catering business to bring his culinary fare to office workers daily.

“We realized there was as significant truck scene going on down in [Miami-Dade] but didn’t see a lot of it in Palm Beach,” he said.

So last year he sought the services of Concession Nation, which transformed a 2001 GMC 28-foot-long step van used for flower deliveries in Disney World into Lucille’s on Wheels, a black food truck bedecked with the image of a smiling red-headed woman carrying a tray of food.

Lucille's BBQ Food Truck

Lucille’s BBQ Food Truck

“We wanted to do something whimsical, slightly southern, slightly risque. The whole deal with the truck was to have fun,” said Larson, whose mobile unit houses a three-compartment sink, two fryers and a 4-foot grill that makes barbecue chicken nachos and fries slicked in gravy. “It’s a whole rebirth for that truck from what it did originally.”