In most major cities, food trucks are an inescapable aspect of the streetscape, with long lines snaking around the block starting before noon. But during a pandemic, when the streets are empty and lunch breaks are nonexistent, where can the taco trucks, halal carts and mobile pizzerias go?
Food trucks are a quiet victim in the fight to keep the restaurant industry afloat during the coronavirus crisis. The National Food Truck Association estimates that 30-40% of food trucks are shutting down temporarily or permanently. Despite that, NFTA founding president Matt Geller said that many street food business owners are turning to creative solutions to survive. But are they changing quickly enough?
“The industry has made a complete shift,” Geller said. “I would say it’s either you’ll see trucks just shut down or they are completely changing their business: aiming for dinner traffic instead of lunch traffic, going to neighborhoods instead of commercial buildings, and everything has shifted to online ordering. There’s a lot of despair out there […] Everything is happening so fast and businesses don’t pivot well sometimes.”
To help mobile food businesses along, the National Food Truck Association’s free digital platform, Best Food Trucks, just rolled out new features last week to help food trucks stay ahead. The features include an interactive map of where member food trucks can be found on a day to day basis, and a soon-to-launch online order ahead platform.
Here’s a snapshot of how three different food truck businesses across the country are handling their stark new reality.
From catering weddings to hauling groceries
Not all food trucks rely on hungry office workers for customers. For Highway 301 — the food truck and catering arm of Table 301 Restaurant Group in Greenville, S.C. — most sales came from private events. Their menu and prices changed based on the type of private parties that they cater, from weddings to corporate parties.
Before coronavirus hit, Highway 301 was just a small part of the six-unit Table 301 restaurant group that included fine-dining eateries and a juice bar. But as private events are canceled and restaurants have been forced to shut down dining rooms to adhere to social distancing rules, Highway 301 has done its part to keep the business above water by pivoting to takeaway and pickup meals.
“Right now, the truck is the single most lucrative thing happening in our company,” Rodney Freidank, corporate chef at Table 301 said, adding that 450 of 500 employees at Table 301 have been laid off. “We’re using it during the day parked on a main street for lunch. People feel they can social distance better if they walk up to a food truck out in the open than go and sit down in a restaurant.”
After parking the truck on a main thoroughfare during lunchtime, Freidank said that they have been parking in rotating residential streets in the evenings, traveling with a a refrigerated van supplied with basic groceries for neighbors to purchase.
“By taking our food into neighborhoods, we’re trying not so much to make a profit, but to make sure we’re helping our community,” Freidank said. “The small amount of cash flow is helping our remaining employees.”
Although Highway 301 is surviving for now, Freidank said that the amount of business they’re getting is “not even close” to what they used to pull in, especially as they are entering what would have been peak events season. What’s helping them right now, he said, is being part of a larger restaurant group:
“The first thing we did was go to restaurants and say, ‘hey, who’s got lettuce and chicken breast? We’ll sell them on food truck,’” Freidank said. “We can minimize our waste because we have an outlet. I can tell a lot of them are scared, but we’re all in this together.”
Figuring out self-reliance
One of the toughest parts of the food-truck industry is relying on large-scale events like music and food festivals, where the overhead can take as much as 40% of your profits, Geller said. Without the likes of Coachella and South by Southwest to supplement their schedule, food truck business owners like BJ Lofback can focus on self-marketing. Lofback owns and represents three food trucks in the Nashville area - Funk Seoul Brother, Five Daughters Bakery, and Boom Bop Burrito - as well as a brick and mortar restaurant, Funk Seoul Brother at the Factory.
“We’ve always wanted to rely less on large events since the fees just keep getting higher and higher,” Lofback said. “So, we’re looking at operating in these [residential] neighborhoods, and in a few months when this is all over and we can breathe a sigh of relief, hopefully we’re still selling to these neighbors.”
For Lofback, connecting with community has been the silver lining of the pandemic. Over the last several weeks, Lofback’s food trucks have been relying mostly on pickup orders in residential areas and have posted their location every day on the Best Food Trucks platform.
“As an industry, we just all started saying, ‘I know a guy that lives in this nice neighborhood with a great empty parking lot, let’s call him up,’” he said. “There was a lot of cold calling and posting on social media has been huge. When we put up a post that said, ‘do you want our food trucks in your neighborhood?’ people went crazy requesting us to come.”
But filling takeout boxes filled with Funk Seoul Brother’s signature Korean comfort food has not come without a price. Before coronavirus, Lofback’s trucks made up about 50% of his revenue, and his truck is now doing about 60% of its usual business, though he has not yet had to lay off any team members.
“I think I’m someone that’s been lucky because my business is mobile in every sense of the word,” Lofback said. “We go to where the hungry people are.”
Delivering what customers want
Maggie on the Move – a Mediterranean fusion food truck in St. Petersburg, Fla. — used to spend the weekday lunch hour parked in a choice spot in front of one of several 1,400-person office buildings in the commercial district, doling out bowls of falafel, gyros and French fry platters. But since coronavirus hit, the office building’s workers have dwindled to less than a quarter and no one is hitting the pavement during their lunch hour. So how does business owner Maggie Loflin survive? She pivots to delivery.
Loflin says that she can’t afford the premium fees third-party delivery sites offer, so she has started offering pre-orders for food pickup through the Best Food Trucks platform, as well as limited in-house food delivery through her website.
“Why would I go to Uber Eats or Doordash when I can do it all internally?” Loflin said. “My 22-year-old son is a restaurant worker who’s out of work so he can do deliveries. People need to work, and I can provide that work for them.”
Loflin said that she is also working with Geller on adding a delivery button to the Best Food Trucks platform. For now, she is relying on social media to get the word out and has hired her son and a couple of other out-of-work restaurant employees to drop off food orders on customers’ front porches in a makeshift contactless delivery model.
“[Business is] doing lot worse and we’re not making nearly the amount of money that we usually make,” she said. “That’s why I’m hustling going out to communities and delivering to people’s homes.”
Contact Joanna Fantozzi at email@example.com
Follow her on Twitter: @JoannaFantozzi