Food trucks find new opportunities

Many have moved to parks, residential areas, catered events and drive-in movie theaters

When states issued stay-at-home orders in March and busy city centers turned to ghost towns, the food truck industry ground to a halt overnight. Months later, many food truck operators are finding new opportunities in non-traditional outlets like suburbs and socially distanced events.

Some 24,000 licensed food trucks operate in the United States, according to IBIS World. Most cater to lunch crowds and operate at special events, serving everything from burgers and tacos to gourmet items like lobster rolls, sushi and baklava.

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The National Food Truck Association was founded by a group of regional food truck associations as a nationwide industry group. NFTA is now striving to help the industry change and adapt its business model to get through the pandemic and can help operators with social media consulting, branding photography and resources for pandemic economic assistance.

While most lunch-based food trucks average $1,000 per day, many operators have seen their traditional business dry up since March, says NFTA President Matt Geller. “The bread and butter for most food trucks around the country has been lunches,” he says. “But with no more lunches or events, the whole industry has been completely upended.”

In cities like New York, the absence of office workers and the massive decline in street traffic had a big impact on the industry, says Ben Goldberg, founder and president of the New York Food Truck Association. Goldberg’s organization represents more than 50 food truck members focused on gourmet food. “It’s been crazy. They’re not going out of business like bricks-and-mortar [restaurants], but they are taking a big hit,” Goldberg says.

Opportunities in the suburbs

Despite the challenges, ambitious food truck operators are finding new opportunities in other markets. Unlike restaurants which are tethered to one location and fixed facilities, food trucks can quickly change their location, menu and market. “By default, food trucks have to be opportunists and adaptable. It goes with their mantra and the whole idea of going around being mobile and nimble and finding places if a spot doesn’t work,” Goldberg says. “It bodes well for them in this kind of atmosphere.”

Before COVID-19, most gourmet New York food trucks operated in office areas, financial districts and around midtown Manhattan. Since then, many have branched out into the boroughs to parks and street corners in residential areas to capitalize on the large portion of people staying at home. Many are also looking to smaller private gatherings, catered events and drive-in movie theaters. Even as New York restaurants open in limited capacities, some food trucks are seeing an uptick in business.

“It’s still hard to find outdoor seating unless you’re reserving it on a platform a few days in advance, so food trucks give that very gourmet ability without having to plan very far ahead,” Goldberg says. “Food trucks enable people to maintain that spontaneity.”

It’s a trend that food truck operators are seeing around the country. In the small community of Lacombe, La., outdoor retailer Bayou Adventure acquired a food truck last year to provide dining services to a nearby state park. When the pandemic struck in March, owner Shannon Bordelon found opportunities in residential neighborhoods across St. Tammany Parish.

“We’d show up and they’d turn it into a [socially distanced] neighborhood gathering,” Bordelon says. “They could bring wine, hang out and socialize without being inside somewhere.”

There aren’t any numbers on the growth of the food truck industry since the start of the pandemic, but demand for trucks is rising and manufacturers are struggling to keep pace, says Ren Budde, director of business development at On the Move Food Trucks. The Boerne, Texas-based company customizes food trucks and makes a patented “slide out and step down” service area that enhances the appearance and customer service experience.

“We’re now seeing more call volume pick up from individual operators. Restaurants still don’t know when they are going to be back to full capacity and many are seizing on the opportunity to serve neighborhoods,” Budde says. “There was another surge with schools starting back up. Food trucks lend themselves to social distancing.”

New technology and procedures

While food truck owners are finding new opportunities, operating during the pandemic does come with challenges. Workers must wear PPE, maintain social distancing and engage in cleaning activities that go above and beyond that of a typical kitchen.

It’s necessary to ensure workers and customers feel safe, but new procedures can add to costs and labor, Goldberg says. In the spring, OSHA issued specific guidance for food truck workers that included staying home when sick, using gloves to avoid direct hand contact and establishing designated zones around the truck to support social distancing.

The declining use of cash has also led to greater use of digital payments and ordering. That not only reduces contact and the risk of spreading the virus but can also reduce lines and waits. Many food truck operators are now rolling out their own apps and are working with platforms like Uber Eats and Door Dash to offer deliveries.

“They’re just trying to supplement their business in any way they can through ancillary means,” Goldberg says. “They’ll park somewhere, set up, do deliveries through the truck as a mobile kitchen and take orders as well.”

Some restaurants have also acquired food trucks since the pandemic to serve as an additional back-of-house kitchen to supplement outdoor seating or to expand their market. At Bayou Adventure in Louisiana, Bordelon uses the food truck as a backup kitchen to supplement the one on-premise. She’s now promoting the truck more on social media and looking into new opportunities such as weddings.

“The ones that do the best on a long-term basis develop their brand and create a route where they can message to their following and grow it through social media and reputation,” Budde says.

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