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Virus Forces Food Trucks To Shift Gears

When the novel coronavirus first hit in mid-March, the first thing Joshua George considered was reopening his food truck business.

In late 2019, George, along with his business partner and brother Jeremy George, temporarily shuttered it right before opening their first brick and mortar by the same name, Smokin J’s BBQ, due to a staffing shortage at the time.

“We started reaching out to all the apartment complexes we used to work with in early March, when we thought our business was limited at our restaurant, to see if we could come back, set up our stand and maybe do some deliveries straight to residents’ doors,” said George, who launched the Smokin J’s BBQ food truck business back in 2017 and had a revenue of roughly $500,000 in 2019. “And, there was some strong interest in that.”

Luckily, the George brothers were able to remain open as an essential food business for pick-up and take-out during the COVID-19 pandemic and found no need to return to their previous iteration.

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But not all San Diego food truck owners, if any, have had the luxury to fall back on a whole other revenue stream during the crisis.

Thanks to some quick pivoting on their parts, though, and with the help of recently passed laws that have incited productivity, many food truck owners have figured out new ways to stay in operation through lockdown.

Dinner Time

Matt Geller, co-founder and CEO of Best Food Trucks Inc., a Culver City-based company that allows users to find and book food trucks including some in San Diego, said while most food truck businesses make the bulk of their revenue catering corporate lunches, since shelter-at-home orders, a lot are focusing solely on residential dinners.

“Since I got started in this industry (around 2014), lunch has been the bread and butter of the food truck industry,” said Geller, who is also CEO of the National Food Truck Association headquartered in Los Angeles. “But in one second, in mid-March, all of that was gone. At Best Food Trucks, that first week was the lowest revenue week we’ve ever had because trucks literally stopped going out. But we made a couple of shifts. We started to reach out to and interact with neighborhoods, HOAs, apartment complexes and community organizers on Facebook pages. And in one quick motion, the industry appeared to be moving from lunches to dinners.”

The reason for this, said Geller, is many offices have closed or moved to remote work, no longer providing the densely populated areas food trucks thrive in. Now, with people homebased, some wanting a break from cooking themselves, Geller said many are welcoming the options that food trucks are providing them just steps from their front doors.

Not to mention the sanitary aspect, Geller said, as food from a food truck is prepared on the spot and touched by one, maybe two people, at the most, before the purchaser receives it. Unlike a food delivery, he said, which is cooked by one or three, packaged by another and delivered by someone else before the final person gets to it.

One Access Point

“There is one access point when it comes to food trucks,” said Geller.

For Arianne Behbahani, owner and CEO of The Go Go Truck, a San Diego-based farm-to-table mobile food service, corporate lunches have taken a backseat as well.

Now, she’s found herself not only working closer with apartment complexes, but also student housing, medical facilities and breweries. And, while Behbahani recognizes business went down by about 75%, doing roughly 25% of typical sales in March and April, by June 1, she was back up to 60% in revenue.

“As COVID-19 began to happen, all the big events we normally do this time of year got canceled,” said Behbahani. “Then all the offices we do lunch at canceled because people started working from home. We were able to keep contracts with the hospitals we work with the last two weeks of March and through April because frontline workers are obviously working. Then apartment complexes started feeling more confident and that followed by student housing, mostly still housing international graduate students, and now breweries.”

Alcoholic Beverage Control

In May, Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) sent a notice stating stand-alone alcohol license holders would be allowed to reopen to sell to-go drinks if they partner with someone that does make food, including food trucks. This followed an approval from Governor Gavin Newsom in April, which allowed food trucks to serve truckers at California’s rest stops during the coronavirus crisis.

Much like Behbahani at The Go Go Truck, Eric Leitstein, CEO of OMG Hospitality, which launched its Union Food Truck in 2019, said he’s been scheduling with more local breweries the last few days, among other industries, as a result of the ruling.

“We just started scheduling quite a bit more, literally in the last week for the next week and going into June,” he said. “We’ve recently been back in apartment complexes, student housing and also medical facilities. We have seen somewhat of an uptick in the last few weeks. And, now that a lot of the initial COVID-19 fear is gone, we expect to see even more demand in the near future.”

Mobility Factor

Ross Resnick, founder of Roaming Hunger, a Los Angeles-based company that connects people with over 18,000 mobile food vendors around the country, including about 150 in San Diego, said the beauty of food trucks is that it is all about going to where hungry people are.

“What has evolved in the last 10 years is the big events are where you get a lot of people as well as corporate,” he said. “When COVID-19 happened, that all became illegal overnight. But that’s what is interesting about food trucks. They can figure out where people are today and where they will be tomorrow and go there.”

Behbahani from The Go Go Truck is thankful for the nimbleness presented by law makers to help food truck owners during the pandemic. But, to Resnick’s point, it is the fluidity of the industry that she most credits with creating additional opportunity for them during this time.

“I think that being adaptable and making sure that we are able to tap into whatever market we can – that is the nice thing about the food truck industry,” she said, “we have that mobility factor.”

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