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Roadside entrepreneurs cook up success in Manatee

MANATEE — Brian Sirota, of Palm Aire, is a licensed real estate agent.

Luis Trujillo, of Bradenton, owns a graphic design business.

But both were at work Sunday selling edibles along major Manatee thoroughfares, part of a wave of freshly minted local entrepreneurs doing whatever they can to be successful in a down economy.

Sirota owns The Busy Pig BBQ & Catering and he’s set up shop in a gas station parking lot at the corner of State Road 64 and Morgan Johnson Road for the past three months.

Trujillo has only been in business three days, selling Hawaiian shaved ice from his colorful and mobile Hukilau Hut parked near Cortez Road on U.S. Highway 41.

From real estate to barbecue

Sirota earned $65,000 in 2004 and $75,000 in 2005, his first two years as a Florida real estate agent coinciding with the peak of the real estate boom.

Along with his wife, Leigh, an insurance agent, the family had a six-figure income.

Then came the bust.

Sirota earned $30,000 in 2006 and things have stayed in that income range since. The bills, however, haven’t gone away.

“We were starving,” said Sirota, who is still trying to sell real estate. “Then, one day, Leigh said to me, ‘Why don’t you do that barbecue business you’re always talking about?’ ”

Unlike many who don’t have the will to take a shot at being an entrepreneur in a scary economy, Sirota’s attitude was, “Why not? What have I got to lose?”

So Sirota opened The Busy Pig in February and he figures to be on track to gross $80,000 and net about $50,000 this year, gaudy figures for a business that takes 45 minutes to set up Saturdays and Sundays.

The entire business cost Sirota about $2,600, including the smoker, trailer, portable counter and a canopy to cover him from the rain and sun.

Sirota said he sells 200 pounds of ribs and 70 pounds of pulled pork each weekend. He’s open from 10:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. every Saturday and Sunday.

“I probably sell 100 pulled pork sandwiches on a weekend,” he said.

Slice of Hawaii

Trujillo gives his customers a tiny slice of Hawaiian paradise in the parking lot of Mattress Firm Clearance Center near Books-A-Million.

His self-made hut is covered in fake palms with toy birds, lizards and frogs, not to mention a talking toy parrot, a tray of fruit and other island-themed trinkets. But for him, it’s about the ice.

“I grew up with shaved ice,” said Trujillo, who owns Sarasota Lucky Design and does freelance design work. “I remember what it was like for me as a kid.”

For $3, kids and their parents can escape the sun for a few glorious moments by eating a large ice drenched in blueberry, orange, guava, guanabana or tamarind flavoring.

Trujillo says it wasn’t just the economy that sparked this venture. It was the idea of running his own business and being the captain of his own fate.

“My advice to people is that you have to complete your dreams,” Trujillo said. “If you don’t do it, it will never happen.”

Legal operations

Both Trujillo and Sirota have a mobile food vendor license from the Florida Department of Agriculture. It costs $350 annually and is quite demanding, they said.

“That little truck that Luis uses must have running hot water and a sink,” said Trujillo’s father-in-law, Juan Gutierrez, who operates a larger Hukilau Hut in Sarasota.

Gutierrez says he thinks his son-in-law will do well once people in Manatee discover that Hawaiian shaved ice isn’t like Italian ice, which is more processed.

“I think once people try it, they will like it,” Gutierrez said. “It’s fluffy and fresh tasting and takes a special machine to make.“

As Sirota said, “If you cook good they will come back.”

Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 708-7917.

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