How Food Trucks Endured and Succeeded During the Pandemic

This article is part of Owning the Future, a series on how the pandemic has affected small businesses across the country.

The Covid pandemic hit California hard. It has seen well over 3.5 million cases and over 60,000 deaths. Numerous companies have closed. However, the opportunity arose for Ana Jimenez, the owner of Tacos El Jerry, a small fleet of food trucks in Santa Cruz County, to move her business into the 21st century.

Ms. Jimenez’s four trucks took orders via an app and website, delivered them directly to customers, and built a customer base through a new social media presence. All of this led to a significant increase in sales.

“Our business has grown,” said Ms. Jimenez, 50. “We even added a new truck. Thanks to my son Jerry who is 23 years old. We didn’t have anything on social media. He said, “We’re going to digitize all of this, Mom.” Half of her orders are online now, she said.

Ms. Jimenez’s son created Facebook and Instagram pages for the Food Trucks, a social media advertising campaign, and began accepting credit card purchases. “Each truck currently serves around 300 employees a day, which translates into daily sales of around $ 5,000,” said Jimenez.

Food trucks – essentially kitchens on wheels – are inherently flexible and quickly became a substitute for customers who couldn’t dine indoors and who wanted something other than their standard take-away options during the pandemic. This, in turn, has created a new customer base that can be added to an existing roster of loyal followers. In the truest sense of the word, food trucks are a means to equality in the post-pandemic world.

“While the pandemic has certainly hurt the majority of small businesses, it has also led many to innovate by finding new sources of income and ways to reach customers,” said Kimberly A. Eddleston, professor of entrepreneurship and Innovation at Northeastern University.

Like Ms. Jimenez, some companies have “focused on ways to maintain their customer base, for example by delivering products directly to customers,” said Prof. Eddleston. “While others have developed products and services that attract new customers.”

For example, 34-year-old Luke Cypher added pizza, four packs of local beer, gift cards and 5-ounce bottles of homemade hot sauce to the already diverse range of his Blue Sparrow food trucks in Pittsburgh.

Mr. Cypher’s main tariff since he hit the streets in 2016 has been global street food. His menu is heavily inspired by Asia. The menu includes kimchi from scratch every day. Dishes include rice bowls, Vietnamese banh mi, falafel burritos, and a burger with a ramen bun.

During the pandemic, Mr. Cypher’s business saw a success when 24 festivals and over a dozen weddings at which he was booked were canceled. “I switched gears to keep things as lean as possible,” said Mr. Cypher.

He temporarily parked a second food truck – a retrofitted 35-foot Greyhound bus from 1956 that he used for the big parties – and launched a customer interaction website and an online ordering system for his smaller truck on which he usually parked a neighborhood brewery.

“I switched the menu to focus on soups, pasta, burritos and pressed sandwiches so that the things we gave our customers came home and were still a good experience after they opened and removed the bag “Said he said.

In business today

Updated

May 21, 2021, 3:55 p.m. ET

And he started making and selling pizza in the kitchen one day a week, where he was doing truck prep work before the pandemic. (The pizza also has an international flair: a banh-mi cake, for example made from pork or tofu, miso-garlic sauce, mozzarella, pickled carrots, cucumber and coriander.)

Customers can order and pay online or by phone and arrange a pick-up time. You will receive a text or an email when your order is ready.

The kitchen “was already there, so we turned around and said what can we offer our customers in these unknown times that would be comforting,” said Cypher. “We had a wood-burning stove there that we use to bake bread, but basically it wasn’t used.”

Before the pandemic, Mr Cypher served around 1,500 customers a week from his food truck. A weekly festival on the weekend, at which of course 5,000 people stopped by bus, added that number.

“The cool part is that I was able to stay afloat because, unlike a restaurant with traditional seating, only me, my sous-chef and his wife worked part-time,” he said. “We ended up caring for about a hundred people a day four or five days a week. So it wasn’t the numbers we did before, but our lights were able to stay on because we had cut a lot of the costs we had spent running multiple rigs. “

However, Mr Cypher chose not to use delivery apps like Uber Eats or Grub Hub. “I don’t want to give my food to anyone else,” he said. “If we didn’t have one-on-one discussions with our customers, we would at least pass them on to them directly.”

And like Tacos El Jerry, social media has become an important part of its marketing platform. “The pictures we take and post on Instagram and Facebook make people feel like they are part of our truck family,” said Cypher.

“Food trucks were well equipped to withstand pandemic restrictions as they are natural and socially distant businesses,” said Luz Urrutia, executive director of the Accion Opportunity Fund, a nonprofit that provides small business owners with access to capital. Networks and coaching. “Many food truck owners stepped forward to take advantage of the opportunity at a time of great uncertainty,” she said.

As Pittsburgh emerges from the pandemic, Mr. Cypher adds a twist to its kitchen location. “We are licensed to offer draft beer from our local breweries, so we will have a small beer garden,” he said. “And that is a source of income that we will rely on that we probably would never have made without Covid.”

In 2020, Mr. Cypher’s food trucks achieved gross sales of $ 200,000, a decrease of around 40 percent from the previous year. “But with the new offerings, the increased efficiency and the only rig running, we actually got enough networks in place to move the business forward,” he said. “This year we have already increased by 30 percent compared to last year’s level at this point in time.”

Timing was much more difficult for Ronicca Whaley, the cook for St. Petersburg-based truck Shiso Crispy from Florida: She opened her first truck in November 2019, just a few months before the pandemic. And yet, Ms. Whaley, 35, who sells handmade gyozas, bao buns, and their signature dish, dirty rice, now has two trucks because they regularly park in certain neighborhoods and offer discounted and free meals outside a nearby Ronald McDonald House. (She added the second truck in January.)

One challenge: “The internet here is bad. And cell phone service just doesn’t work in different areas, ”she said. “During the height of the pandemic, I lost two or more transactions on each shift at my point of sale.”

Fortunately, Verizon Business offered her a special small business initiative: a year of free connectivity and a 5G iPhone, plus tools like the Clover Flex point of sale program for touchless transactions. “It has digitally changed my business,” said Ms. Whaley.

She’s also signed up for an app called Best Food Trucks, which allows customers to pre-order in their area as soon as they know their location for that day.

“The inextricably linked stories of food trucks and Covid are a perfect microcosm of the indisputable reality that women, immigrants and people of color who were historically relegated to the fringes of the economy are actually the foundation on which the next economy must be built . ” said Nathalie Molina Niño, author of Leapfrog: The New Revolution for Women Entrepreneurs.

But the silver lining from the pandemic is more personal for some operators – including bringing families together. “I have a lot of wisdom about how to operate and cook food trucks,” said Ms. Jimenez. “It is the coming together of generations that has strengthened the business now and for the future.”

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