Mobile Feasts Find New Footing

While most brick-and-mortar restaurants were forced to close during the coronavirus pandemic, food trucks were largely allowed to remain open since they serve food outside.

The ability to stay open, however, wasn’t enough to save the 22.5% of food trucks that permanently closed this past year, according to third-party research firm Datassential. In fact, the firm reports that food trucks were the sector of foodservice worst affected by the pandemic.

According to Matt Geller, founding president of the National Food Truck Association, “Office lunches are the bread and butter of a lot of food trucks in big cities like Los Angeles and Manhattan. With those offices closed and downtowns left empty, many of those food trucks were forced to close.”

Some food trucks were able to transition, in some capacity, from serving office workers to setting up shop at retail centers or in residential neighborhoods while the nation ground to a halt. For the food trucks that have remained open, operators have turned their focus to tighter menus, stricter sanitation practices and catering to individual businesses and events.

Food trucks in smaller cities appear to be faring better than those dependent on office foot traffic, according to Geller. He says more truck operators are open to online ordering and preorders than they were before the pandemic.

Forging a New Path

Chef Daniel Bloom serves thin-crust pizzas from a pirate-themed menu out of his wood-burning oven on DB’s Rolling Dough, based out of Gainesville, Florida. When events were canceled during the pandemic, Bloom says he found a new customer base at barrel racing rodeo events. People were happy to find someone willing to come out to their event and feed them when no one else would.

Chef and former culinary instructor Jenny Castor has been running her Luckybee Kitchen food truck for five years in Fort Worth, Texas. She changes her menu on a daily basis and counts on private, prepaid events for most of her business.

Chef Brett Novick runs a restaurant and two food trucks under his Boxcar Burgers brand in Brunswick, Maryland. One of the trucks moves around while the other is stationary at the same brewery six days a week. Novick says that 90% of his food truck business consists of breweries and wineries. “We show up when we’re supposed to and don’t pay any money to be there,” Chef Novick says. “Some places we’ll give staff a discount or feed the bartenders, but for the most part, no money changes hands.”

Minding Menus

With more than 25,000 food trucks in America, according to market research firm IBISWorld, there’s also a wide range of cuisines from which to choose. And while many trucks offer a standard menu seven days a week, chefs like Castor enjoy changing things up depending on the demographic or event. “I believe the consumer has an expectation of a more playful or exaggerated take on food when they come to a food truck,” she says. “Eating off a food truck should be a delight, and personally, I love to push the boundaries.” Chef Castor’s menu has featured items such as a smoky shrimp omelet; grilled peach and brie waffle; cheeseburger salad; and a candied bacon BLT.

While everyone agrees that food truck fare needs to be quick and easy to package for carrying and eating while mobile, Chef Novick says that over the last four or five years, he’s seen a change in consumers’ attitudes. People previously expected only barbecue or concession-style food from a food truck but now anticipate any cuisine. At the same time, Novick concedes that one of the jokes among food truck owners is that no matter what kind of food you’re selling, people will ask if you have barbecue or tacos. The menu at Boxcar Burgers includes grass-fed locally sourced beef burgers, hot dogs, an Impossible plant-based burger and fresh hand-cut French fries.

And while food truck customers are excited about the new, creative food being offered from food truck vendors, Chef Bloom says that his menu items often prompt conversation or laughter. The DB’s Rolling Dough menu features nine permanent pizzas and one weekly “booty,” sticking with the pirate theme. “It’s always funny when someone comes up and says, ‘I could use a weekly booty,’” he says.

When Chef Bloom’s menu isn’t creating chuckles, it can also inadvertently cause confusion. “I have a pizza called the Black Pearl that’s topped with spinach, mushrooms and finished with white truffle oil,” he says. “A few times, I’ve had people ask me if I could hold off on putting chocolate on the pizza.” For Chef Bloom, he says part of the fun of operating a food truck is the freedom to expand people’s palates and introduce them to new ingredients through creative menus.

When Minutes Matter

No matter how creative or delicious the food coming off of a food truck is, customers still expect it to be fast.

Chef Castor says she has three rules with the food she makes on her truck. “It must taste amazing, it must look amazing, and it must get out the window in under seven minutes,” she says. “It starts with choosing around five ingredients with big flavors, excellent mise en place and a big imagination.”

Chef Novick, who comes from a brick-and-mortar restaurant background, says he appreciates when his cooks want to add more items to the menu, but it’s often not feasible from a timing standpoint. It’s one of the reasons he says he chose hamburgers for his truck. “I love hamburgers, they have universal appeal, and they’re quick,” Chef Novick says. “A lot of commissaries charge by the hour, too, and hamburgers don’t require much off-truck prep.”

Touch Points

At the start of the pandemic, scientists weren’t sure whether COVID-19 was passed along through food. Since serving food is so hands-on, stricter sanitation and serving practices were adopted by all foodservice establishments, including food trucks.

Chef Castor says that with the pandemic, sanitation was taken to a new level. “As soon as the pandemic hit, I knew that we’d have to adapt with additional protocols to make the consumer feel confident and comfortable eating off my truck,” she says. “Masks, gloves, employees assigned to handle money, contactless payments, hand sanitizer for guests — I even turned my truck into a ‘drive-thru’ early on.”

Similarly, unless you’re operating a vegan or gluten-free truck, the small spaces inside a food truck make it nearly impossible to protect against some cross-contamination. “It doesn’t make me happy to say, ‘I can’t feed you,’” Chef Novick says, referring to strictly vegan guests or those with celiac disease. “But it’s the reality of what we’re working with in terms of the size of our kitchen.”

Chef Bloom says that, in some ways, the pandemic was good for food trucks. Some people who had never tried food trucks before were introduced to them and got a chance to see food cooked in front of them and handed safely out a window. Those customers now realize food trucks are safe, sanitary and put out delicious food.