How This South Florida Truck Stop Has Turned Into Its Own Little Community
Overhead flies the largest plane servicing the Fort Lauderdale airport. It's an Airbus A330 operated by Air Canada, ferrying up to 265 people to Toronto. Ascending toward the west, it appears to be struggling to reach its 540 mph cruising speed. Climbing, slowly, it looks like it could simply fall out of the sky, right here. It's a cacophony of screaming Rolls Royce engines, like cranking a lawn mower inside a metal shed. It's so close it feels like you could hit it with a baseball.
Just then, as it passes by, comes a foul smell, a brew of stale milk and old meat. It's not a permanent odor but an occasional waft so bad that, just for a second, it triggers a slight urge to flee. It's hard to pinpoint the source of the smell. Maybe it's from the county's landfill to the east, which can burn up to 800,000 tons of rubbish. Or maybe it's coming from the bulk trash drop-off center to the west, where about 3,500 people a month come to unburden themselves of everything from old motor oil to fridges full of forgotten groceries.
Sandwiched between those two dumps, and directly under the flight path of an airport that services 12 million passengers each year, is a once-undesirable piece of land. In the last five years it has become a 24-hour, always-busy mini-city. It remains a brilliant investment on what was once a godforsaken mud pit, and it's called the Florida 595 Truck Stop.
Service manager William "Willie" Hoffer at his office at the Florida 595 Truck Stop.
A Visionary With An Unlikely Plan
Back in the 1980s, when Florida began to build Broward's only east-west highway, it needed immeasurable dirt and rock to build up the sodden ground for Interstate 595. It found some of it in a 33-acre stretch of unused nothingness labeled, maybe just for the sake of mapmakers, Ferncrest Ridge. Excavators scraped and dug until it became a man-made lake, wide enough that it would be difficult to swim across it.
Considering its location, between those landfills and under the flight path, it would be nearly impossible, for even the most industrious among us, to imagine any usable purpose for the lake and limestone gravel that surrounded it.
Then, in 2009, a company named GB Development Group II LLC purchased Ferncrest Ridge for $900,000. The company's owner, Gerald Brauser, specializes in buying land nobody would look at twice and then putting something on it that few of us would see as valuable.
That's how it has always been for Brauser. Born in Poland, he got his start in business in his 20s by purchasing a gas station and garage with his brother in Central Islip, New York. It was the mid-1950s, and Brauser pumped gas while his brother fixed cars. One day, according to a story he told the New York Daily News, someone brought in a car for repairs, and while his brother was test driving it, he crashed it into a tree. To settle things, they bought it from the owner for $50. A day later, they flipped it for a $25 profit, the story goes.
They figured that selling cars was easier than fixing them. So they expanded into other garages, adding used car lots to them. Then they started buying parking lots, something that became their thing. There's no telling how many they own, because they've never said. They bought dozens, maybe hundreds of parking lots, many in Manhattan. They bought them at rock-bottom New York prices in the 1980s and held on, simply charging people to park their cars.
The Florida 595 Truck Stop located in Davie serves nearly 80,000 trucks a year.
“When you own anything, you have to figure out how to maximize its use,” Brauser told the Daily News in 2007 during one of his rare interviews.
Brauser sat on the properties until 2007, when he began developing them. What appears from records to have been his first development project was at 100 W. 18th St., a 10-story Chelsea apartment building completed in 2008. He tore down one of his parking garages at 111 Washington to build a high-rise apartment tower; but that plan never happened, and according to records, he sold the land for somewhere near $50 million in 2011. In December 2014, Brauser's company took out a $61 million loan to build a high-rise apartment building in the spot of a former parking garage at 56 Fulton St.
Brauser has largely kept his name out of the press, which is maybe why he wouldn't return our calls. The only time he has appeared in South Florida newspapers was when he was connected with Scott Rothstein. In February 2009, Brauser figured out that Rothstein wasn't escrowing investments correctly and threatened to go public, according to court documents. Rothstein cut a confidential $4.25 million deal with Brauser, nine months before Rothstein's billion-dollar Ponzi scheme imploded.
After Brauser's real estate company purchased Ferncrest Ridge, he dove into a bureaucratic morass. Untold stacks of paperwork later, the town of Davie allowed Brauser to fill in the lake, which now occupies just a corner of the property, looking like an industrial retention pond.
And then Brauser began to build what might be one of the world's largest truck stops.
Jim Young thinks back to the first day he showed up to the Florida 595 Truck Stop, three months before it opened on May 5, 2011. To mimic his reaction that day, he puts his hands on his hips and takes on an expression of sheer exasperation.
“Mr. Brauser took me into the showers, and I said, ‘Well, it looks like you're not quite done.' And he said, ‘No, these are done.' And I said, ‘No, they're not.'”
Young explained the problem to his future boss: the shower room had been built in a separate building from the bathrooms. Truck drivers didn't want to have to use the toilet and shave in one place and then go bathe in another. It was such an inconvenience that truckers would bring their business instead to other truck stops in Fort Pierce or Fort Myers.
Sports bar at the Florida 595 Truck Stop.
Young should know. He grew up in the truck stop business, back in Arkansas, working since he was a boy at one of seven that his father owned. Things were easier, once upon a time. “Back then, drivers didn't give a damn,” Young recalls. “They wanted fried chicken and all-they-can-eat buffets of whatever. Now they want healthy and good-for-you.”
Back then, things were also far easier for drivers. They could find a quiet parking lot somewhere to take a break, maybe out under a street light at a Kmart. Now, few businesses allow trucks to park overnight. And it's something they must do by law: federal rules require drivers to typically take a 10-hour break for every 11 hours they drive. So drivers are constantly planning where they'll stop. Heading north from here, a good pace will get a driver to truck stops in Ringgold, Georgia, or Chattanooga, Tennessee. Or if traffic has slowed to a turtle's pace, a driver's best bet is the Tifton truck stop in southern Georgia. The routes are picked using a combination of experience and websites that list places friendly to truckers, everything from Wal-Marts to forgotten parking lots. Aside from Florida 595, there are few options, with limited facilities, in Broward and Palm Beach counties, including a Citgo on Highway 91 and the Seminole Travel Center off Interstate 75.
Once they park, they can't drive their rig somewhere for dinner or to hit an ATM. So all those things need to be done at truck stops. Now, what was once the Ferncrest Ridge Lake is dominated by the gas station near its entrance, with its two-story-high portico. Next to it is the store and restaurant, and then gray-blue metal buildings that hold storefronts, like the chrome shop, sports pub, and the CB radio installer. There's even a doctor who works out of the Florida 595 truck stop to give drivers physicals required by the law. Beyond is the parking lot—a sea of trucks. Standing at the gas station and looking south, it's impossible to see beyond the cabs and trailers.
Norka Rodriguez, the general manager of the Florida 595 Truck Stop.
Back when Florida 595 first opened, when the parking lot was still a mud pit with ruts that could nearly swallow a Freightliner, only a few dozen trucks came a month. Now, just five years later and with a paved parking lot for 500 big rigs, it gets somewhere north of 80,000 trucks a year, according to Norka Rodriguez, the truck stop's general manager.
It's not that anybody tracks such things, but Rodriguez believes Florida 595 is among the three biggest truck stops in the country, and maybe the world. (Iowa 80, just west of Davenport, claims to be the biggest, with 5,000 customers a day and parking for 900 trucks; it features a 60-seat movie theater, a food court with multiple chain restaurants, a trucking museum and a three-day yearly jamboree to celebrate truckers.)
The chrome shop offers truckers headlights and other service parts needed for trucks.
At Florida 595, a driver pays $20 to park for up to 24 hours. Right there, that's enough for Brauser to gross $1.6 million a year, if the truckers were just paying for the parking spot. But the real goal, Young explains, is to get them to buy fuel. Drivers can burn 150 gallons a day, and so if Florida 595 gets them to visit the pumps, that's maybe $300 per truck. If 80,000 truck drivers a year buy $300 in gas, just using simple math, that would gross Brauser an additional $24 million each year.
Young, who now manages the gas and retail store operations at the truck stop, says the truck stop's future is by cutting deals with major haulers. Like all truck stops, Florida 595 offers trucking companies deals on diesel if they promise to require drivers to stop there. Instead of a 20-cent markup on the gas, the truck stop will cut it to 8 cents. Young says his business is about a simple slogan: “More gallons solve a lot of problems.”
On a busy Friday afternoon, Young stops before walking into a lane of traffic between the storefronts. There's an International cab backing up slowly, beeping a warning. It's still a ways away, but Young knows better. “That's one thing my dad taught me. Don't walk behind a truck when it's backing up.”
He says that a barber shop is next for Florida 595. Drivers, he explains, are on the road typically for six weeks at a time, meaning they'll need a haircut along the way. They can't pull their truck into a Supercuts parking lot, so they end up taking cabs simply to get their hair buzzed.
“I try to think of things every day,” Young says. “What can we add to make this better?”
A Trucker's Life
Mike Higgs drove for a decade by himself before he got sick. He had parked his rig at a truck stop in Texas and decided to get a room at the hotel next door to try to sleep off his cold. At some point he went to the front desk to see if they had medicine.
“I like to say we met when I drugged him,” Dori Higgs says, who married Mike shortly after giving him cold medicine. They've been living on the road ever since. That's seven years now.
“We do 48 states,” Mike says, sitting in the bouncy seat of his cab. “We pretty much live on the road. We don't have a permanent address.”
Dori and Mike Higgs
Usually they park at truck stops for a night only, getting in the required 10-hour break. But their visit to Florida 595 recently was something special: They were booked on a cruise to the eastern Caribbean, scheduled to leave the next day from Fort Lauderdale.
Maybe you'd think truck driving is a solitary life, but Mike and Dori say that's wrong. “It's very social, to tell you the truth,” Mike says. “You're always talking to people on the road. You're always meeting people.” Sometimes they see the same drivers at truck stops, but often it's someone new. Usually they'll invite their neighbors from the next parking spot to come over for dinner. They have a microwave in the cab's sleeper, and in nice weather, they set up a grill.
When traffic dies down in the truck stop, they let their two dogs roam. Right now, the dogs are at her parents' home in Texas, staying there while they go on the cruise. “It was hard traveling without them,” Dori says. “You get used to having them in your lap all day.”
Mike owns his rig, which consists of a cab and then what's called a removable gooseneck, or RGN—a flatbed trailer of sorts that can hold heavy equipment. He specializes in wide loads, something usually reserved for veteran drivers. Being an owner-operator means they have to arrange their own hauls, as opposed to working for a trucking company that would arrange trips, for a cut.
“You're always selling yourself,” Dori says, offering this as proof that it isn't a solitary life to work in a truck. As they headed to Florida for the cruise, they figured out what they could haul on the way back to Texas to collect their dogs. They would get back to Fort Lauderdale just in time for a big sale by Ritchie Bros. Auctioneers. Almost certainly, there would be a piece of auctioned construction equipment destined for Texas.
As they talk, Mike is holding open the door to his cab with his foot, and there's a cool breeze coming in. Thanks to a steady breeze heading south, it doesn't smell of the landfills, and in fact, you can't even smell the fumes from the truck idling in the next spot. From behind, Dori stretches her arms around Mike's neck and nuzzles into his beard. And Mike can't help but smile.