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Meet the Miami food boat serving shawarma on the water

Written by
Ryan Pfeffer

Every summer, hundreds of seafaring Miamians dump their boats, kayaks and paddle boards in the water with one destination in mind: the Haulover Sandbar. It is the place to be each weekend for those who need a break from dry land and it is quite a sight to behold: a small armada of anchored boats blaring a cacophony of reggaeton. Jet skis zip around and booze is passed from boat to boat. Because it is a sandbar, folks can hop in the water—about knee- to waist-height depending on the tide—and mingle under the burning Miami sun.

After a while, naturally, stomachs begin to rumble. At least, that’s what José Vega and Maria García hope. The couple is one of a handful of food boats that operate on Haulover during the busy summer months. Think of them like floating food trucks, because—at least in the eyes of Florida law—that’s what they are. At Haulover, you’ll find the usual drunk food suspects: burgers, hot dogs, pizza. But no one is doing it like Vega and García, who run one of Haulover’s most popular food boats. They specialize in shawarma. And after taking some damage from Hurricane Irma, Vega says they’re finally ready to put their boat back in the water this weekend. We caught up with him to chat a bit about how he found himself the captain of this tasty ship. 

So how did you come to operate a food boat?
Well, my wife and I love being on the water. We used to go to Haulover and saw that the only food out there was really hamburgers and hot dogs. My wife is an excellent cook so we decided to start this business on the weekends in 2015, hoping we could make some money. We wanted to offer something different and my wife came up with shawarma.

I’m sure there’s not a lot of shawarma competition out there on Haulover. 
One of our patrons said he Googled it and we were the only food boat selling shawarma in the U.S. I don’t know if it’s accurate or not, but we’re for sure the only one on Haulover Sandbar.

What steps did you have to take to become a food boat?
Well, the food boat has the same license as a food truck: the mobile food dispensing vehicle license. So we need basic food safety supplies. The main cooking equipment we use is a gas flat top griddle. That’s how we cook the shawarma because it’s more convenient than the traditional method. We also take debit and credit cards.

How do people order from you?
People come to the sandbar on a boat, jet ski or kayak—but once they anchor they can just walk up to us. We’ll also do deliveries. People can call us and we’ll run the food out to them on a 10-foot tender boat or a kayak.

What are some of the challenges of operating a food boat?
One of the challenges is the weather. Our boat suffered damage from Hurricane Irma. But year-round, rain and wind and lightning can get pretty scary. Maneuvering the boat can be complicated too. But we take pride in the fact that we’re the first to arrive at the sandbar. Usually, we get there by 9am. Most boaters arrive at 11am.

What’s your most popular menu item?
Number one is the shawarma. They all come with lettuce, tomato, cucumbers, onions and then we put tahini sauce, hummus and our house sauce. We use chicken, beef, falafel and lamb. We also do ceviche. We have fish ceviche, shrimp and we have one that’s called “mata suegra,” which means, “killing your mother-in-law.” That one sells a lot. It has shrimp, scallops and mussels in a red sauce.

Are people surprised to learn you exist? What are customers' reactions when they discover you?
Yeah, that’s one of the cool things about it. The environment is absolutely great. People work hard all week, then go to the sandbar on the weekend and they can get a fresh, homemade meal. People are very surprised. Every day is a wonderful experience. Dealing with people out there is amazing. I’m on land 70 percent of the time and I notice how people react at restaurants versus when they’re ordering from us. I can tell people the food will take 20 minutes and they don’t care because they’re having fun. Everyone’s so happy and that’s what I love the most.

It’s hard to be mad on a boat, isn’t it?

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