How Meals Vehicles Endured and Succeeded In the course of 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 has hit California hard. There have been well over 3.5 million cases and over 60,000 deaths. Numerous shops have closed. But for Ana Jimenez, the owner of Tacos El Jerry, a small fleet of food trucks in Santa Cruz County, the opportunity arose to move her business into the 21st century.

Ms. Jimenez’s four trucks began taking orders through an app and website, delivering direct to customers, and cultivating 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 all going digital, mom.’ “Half of her orders are now placed online, she said.

Ms. Jimenez’s son created Facebook and Instagram pages for the food trucks and a social media advertising campaign, and the trucks accepted credit card purchases. “Each truck now serves about 300 people a day, which equates to about $ 5,000 in daily revenue,” said Ms. Jimenez.

Food trucks – essentially kitchens on wheels – are flexible in design and quickly became a substitute for customers who couldn’t dine indoors and wanted something other than their usual 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 vehicles for equality in the world after the pandemic.

“While the pandemic has certainly hit the majority of small businesses, it has driven many to be more innovative by looking for new sources of income and customer acquisition opportunities,” said Kimberly A. Eddleston, professor of entrepreneurship and innovation at Northeastern University .

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

Luke Cypher, 34, for example, expanded the already eclectic selection in his Blue Sparrow food trucks in Pittsburgh, adding pizza, four-packs of local beer, gift cards, and five-ounce bottles of homemade hot sauce.

Mr. Cypher’s main dish since he took to the streets in 2016 has been global street food. Its menu carries a strong Asian inspiration. Freshly prepared kimchi is on the menu every day. Dishes include rice bowls, Vietnamese banh mi, falafel burritos, and a burger and ramen bun.

During the pandemic, Mr Cypher’s business took a hit 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 shut down a second food truck – a retrofitted 35-foot Greyhound bus from 1956 that he used for the big parties – and launched a website to interact with his customers and an online ordering system for his smaller one Truck he usually parked at a neighborhood brewery.

“I changed the menu to include soups, pasta, burritos and pressed sandwiches so that the things we gave our customers come home and have a good experience even after opening the bag and taking it out,” said.

In business today


May 28, 2021 at 12:54 p.m. ET

And he started making and selling pizza one day a week in the kitchen where he was doing truck prep work before the pandemic. (The pizza also has an international flair: a banh mi pie, for example, with 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 date; You will receive a text message or email when your order is ready.

The kitchen “was already there, so we turned around and said what could we offer our customers in this unknown time, which would be comforting,” said Cypher. “We had a wood-burning oven 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, naturally increased that number.

“The cool thing 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. “In the end, we were feeding around a hundred people a day, four or five days a week. So it wasn’t the numbers we made before, but our lights could stay on because we had cut a lot of the costs of running multiple systems. “

However, Mr Cypher has chosen 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 the one-on-one meetings with our customers, we would at least give it to them directly.”

And like Tacos El Jerry, social media has become a huge 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 inherently to-go 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 have come forward to seize opportunities 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 a bit that we would probably never have made without Covid.”

In 2020, Mr. Cypher’s food trucks had gross sales of $ 200,000, down about 40 percent from the previous year, he said. “But with the new offerings, more efficiency and just one rig, we actually got enough net profits to get the business going,” he said. “This year we are already around 30 percent above the level of the previous year.”

Timing was much more difficult for Ronicca Whaley, the cook behind St. Petersburg, Florida-based truck Shiso Crispy: 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 rolls and their signature dish, dirty rice, now has two trucks because they regularly park in certain neighborhoods and offer discounted and free meals in front of a nearby Ronald McDonald house. (She added the second truck in January.)

One challenge: “The internet here is shabby. And cellular service just isn’t working in different areas out here, ”she said. “During the height of the pandemic, I consistently lost two or more transactions on every 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 her area as soon as they know their location for the 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 have historically been relegated to the fringes of the economy are in fact 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 of the pandemic is more personal for some operators – including bringing families together. “I have a lot of knowledge about operating and cooking food trucks,” said Ms. Jimenez. “The coming together of the generations has strengthened the company today and for the future.”