On a typical humid Florida morning in front of Rembrandtz Art Gallery on King Street in downtown St. Augustine, as Andrés Guardiola slid open the window from inside the Crave Food Truck and waited (smiling patiently as he’s known to do) for customers to arrive, Renee Spadaro was frantically chopping fresh veggies like spinach, cabbage, and red peppers for the various wraps on offer, mixing up hummus and healthy dressings for salads, and racing to finish the prep work for the day’s menu. It was Crave’s first day in operation and the energy was positive (as always) but anxious.
“It was really nerve wracking,” Renee remembers. “We were freaking out just a little bit.”
If the anxiety of seeing if years of hard work and an investment of virtually all of her and Andrés’ savings would pay off weren’t enough, minutes before Crave was set to open for business, their power supply failed.
Renee and Andrés remained calm and, luckily, an electrician had them juiced up in less than twenty minutes. According to Renee, the rest of the day went by like a blur.
“We were flooded with friends and family who came to see us on our first day,” she says. “I just remember being nervous, then working really hard, and then all the sudden the day was over.”
Nearly four years later, as much as things have changed for Crave and its proprietors –Renee and Andrés since established two permanent locations and the couple was married in March – they’ve stayed the same. Andrés still mans the window, greeting the food truck’s loyal customers with the same positive, chatty demeanor, while Renee handles the menu and the bulwark of prep.
Crave’s is an entrepreneurial success story in its purest form: Two dreamers with relatively humble ambitions, turn an idea into an Ancient City stalwart.
“We honestly did not think we would ever get to this point,” Renee says, reflecting on Crave’s success. “We thought we could only hope to be this little food truck. But here we are, growing still. We are so happy we decided to do this.”
While Crave is praised by locals for its healthy, delicious offerings, a quick appraisal of the food truck’s Yelp reviews reveals that the business is nearly as well known for the cheerful air with which its owners carry themselves. “It’s really just the way we are,” Renee says. “We are just appreciative when people come to our place to eat. We love that they enjoy the food.”
Renee is the mastermind behind Crave’s eclectic, salubrious menu. Although she has no formal culinary training, Renee spent years perfecting the recipes and techniques that would eventually make Crave so popular.
Growing up in New York, Renee learned a lot about cooking from her Italian grandmother. The two spent most Sundays preparing sumptuous family meals of spaghetti and meatballs, lasagna, fried shrimp, mussels, and other Italian culinary staples. Renee carried that love of cooking with her as she moved from New York to Atlanta and then to St. Augustine. But as she saw her grandmother struggle with diabetes and other family members develop health issues, Renee started researching and experimenting with healthier recipes. She went vegan for a few years. She committed herself to an exercise routine.
“I had to teach myself how to eat healthier,” she says. “I fell in love with the healthy lifestyle. I loved how food could make you feel really good and change your whole mindset.”
It was about this time that Renee met Andrés. The two were working together at the Casa Monica Hotel “doing banquets and wedding stuff,” Renee says. Andrés, who holds a bachelor’s degree in nutrition and has worked as a personal fitness trainer, shared Renee’s passion for healthy living. Renee, all the while, was fine-tuning her cooking techniques, challenging herself to rethink traditional recipes in favor of more healthful ones. She made gluten free wraps from cabbage, developed her own salad dressings, mixed and matched all manner of super foods and spun them around in a blender. It was unclear at this point, however, that Renee might be able to more fully combine her passion for healthy lifestyle choices and her actual lifestyle. It took the encouragement of a friend to finally plant the seed.
“I was eating at the Present Moment Café and I was telling my friend about all the recipes I’d come up with,” Renee says. “She suggested I open a food truck. I came home and told Andres about it. We just got really excited.”
As they sat on the idea, rather than waning their excitement only grew. They decided to give it a shot. “We felt like we had a good idea and we were kind of over working for other people,” Renee says. “We were ready to do our own thing.”
The couple poured their savings into the project. They purchased a truck from Georgia and equipped it with a full kitchen themselves. They searched for a location and undertook the arduous permitting process.
When they finally opened the doors, so to speak, at their temporary location on King Street, it was immediately clear that Renee and Andrés were fulfilling a need in the community.
“We really wanted to make a place where the average person could go, have an introduction to healthy food, but not feel overwhelmed,” Renee says. Though she’s no longer vegan, Renee still wanted to offer a range of approachable vegetarian and vegan options for customers looking to branch out. “One of our main goals is to show that you can eat healthy, and it’s still going to taste good.”
Crave was soon offered a permanent location in the Marina on Riberia Street. Since then Crave has expanded, opening a second location inside Kookaburra’s Anastasia Island shop, while continuing to build relationships in the community by using products from local farmers, supporting other local entrepreneurs, and consistently treating its customer base with the gratitude and kindness they were shown on day one.
“We try to only be positive and treat people well,” Renee says. “We are so thankful that people have been supportive of us. When you walk up to Crave, I think you can feel that. Everybody is happy to be there.”