When I bought my food truck in early 2020, I thought I’d nailed the timing. Covid-19 was a new unknown, sure, but the broader trends in the hospitality industry pointed to a healthy future for food trucks, delivery, and ghost kitchens. By their nature, food trucks enjoy lean staff costs, no rent costs, and the flexibility to go where the customers are.
What could possibly go wrong? wondered past me, back in what we now know as vintage pandemic times.
Today, like so many operators, I’m aghast that we’re still hip-deep in this pandemic. Even with my 15 years of experience working in brick-and-mortar hospitality settings, launching a food truck During These Unprecedented Times has become a barrage of unforeseen challenges.
If you’re considering starting a food truck, you’re going to find that Covid has changed almost everything about this business. Fortunately, you’re not jumping into the same unknown that I did. The past couple of years have been a school of hard knocks, yeah, but you know what you get at school, right? Here are some of the hard-won lessons that I and other food truck operators have gathered — as well as an outlook of what the post-pandemic world holds.
Let’s get rolling.
This is number one with a bullet. Food trucks’ biggest money makers are almost always events where they can park in a swarm of people: concerts, parades, festivals, and the like. Covid cut these right down, and the reliable packed lines of hungry people disappeared overnight. The bright side, though, is that people love huge events and miss them terribly by now.
Pent-up demand for these experiences is at an all-time high. Once organizers and crowds get more comfortable with the idea of organizing mobs of people, food truck operators will be in terrific position to recoup some of these lost opportunities. At a big concert or parade, a truck can gross $2,500 to $5,000, or even more. My food truck is a vintage green 1979 Dodge that serves refined Cuban street food — it’s called Choncho’s Cuban, we’re on Instagram, you should totally check us out — and after a long day at a big event like that, there’s really nothing like the feeling of putting the rig in gear and heading home, a job well done.
Lockdowns sent people scurrying home to Zoom in their pajamas and curtailed dine-in options at many restaurants. Food trucks pounced, setting up during weekday lunch hours in suddenly bustling neighborhoods. Some of my most successful jobs have been at apartment complexes that rotate food trucks weekly. Corporate catering is also seeing a swell: Workers are eating out less, and many businesses are luring them back to the office with pre-ordered meals. An office catering gig might only gross $200 to $400, but they’re predictable and relatively quick.
As you line up these plum gigs, remember to require a minimum guarantee or deposit from whomever is organizing the food truck appearance at the apartment or office complex. Nothing’s worse than loading up on supplies only to arrive at a slow, poorly organized event.
Everyone in the restaurant world, or just the world at large, knows how tough it can be these days to get basic supplies and ingredients. The price of pork products has doubled since I opened my food truck. Something as simple as french fries continues to be a never-ending quest to procure. Oh, and you’re looking for chicken wings? G’luck! The key to survival as a food truck is to stay flexible, as you’re often last in line behind larger buyers. To keep my product consistent — within a budget — I source many of my ingredients from multiple sellers.
The pandemic turned everyone’s phones into a bonafide feeding frenzy, as third-party apps like Uber Eats, Grubhub and DoorDash have blown up. Food trucks have a great opportunity to get into this action. A good truck essentially is a ghost kitchen, making it ideal for online delivery. Plus, online platforms offer excellent exposure and built-in marketing for food trucks, goosing sales. And delivery services enable food trucks to establish long-term customers and generate leads for future events.
But online ordering comes with caveats. Delivery app fees are absolutely no joke: as high as 30%, a huge bite out of the bottom line. And some of the apps require that you maintain a single location where their drivers know to pick up orders, limiting your best advantage as a truck —namely, your mobility — unless you want to get freaky and offer your own delivery service. In any event, you’ll still have lower overhead and lower fixed costs than your brick-and-mortar competitors. Will that be enough to turn a profit? That’s the constant question.
Traditional restaurants are struggling like mad to hire. There’s also been a mass exodus of workers ditching the stress of the service industry. Food trucks are feeling this pinch, certainly, but not as badly as you’d think. Our staffs are already lean, for starters — typically a truck holds only a couple of people anyway.
Also, food trucks tend to hire help for one-off events, and rarely retain a full-time “staff” per se. The life of a food trucker can be hectic or slow, so it’s far more manageable to hire help for a couple days at a time. I can’t offer benefits or consistent hours, but there’s always someone up to make some extra cash — plus score a free meal — for a few hours’ commitment. I’ve enlisted the help of various family members and past coworkers to help with heavy volume. I’ve had my wife taking orders, and my nephew plating sandwiches.
There’s an undeniable camaraderie to food trucks, even by the standards of food service, and part of it is their ephemeral nature. When they’re parked, and the crowd is gathered, it feels like an event for everyone involved. The future always feels bright when you get to live in moments like that.
[Photo by Brett Sayles via Pexels]