4 Creative Solutions for Food Trucks

Businesses all over the world are closing because of COVID-19 and the subsequent measures taken to reduce its spread, and people are watching their favorite restaurants suddenly board up windows and take down their open hours. Amidst all this, has anyone noticed food trucks quietly disappearing off the streets?

Because of the transitory nature of food trucks, people might not register them leaving their usual corner of the parking lot, or in fact, even be aware that they’re facing financial struggles as hard as any other business.

Some food trucks have actually experienced an upswing in business since COVID-19 began. This is in part because restaurants closed en masse, significantly limiting their competition and making trucks a more viable option for consumers as a result. Trucks additionally provide some added layer of security against the virus compared to traditional restaurants, as diners can easily take their food to-go or at least sit nearby in an open-air, less-populated environment. With so much variety amongst food trucks, it’s not surprising that some experienced even more business during this pandemic.

However, it’s not the case for most of them. To examine a microcosmic sample study that reflects the bigger picture: In Los Angeles, food trucks are struggling as social distance, widespread financial troubles and more all caused them to lose about 60-70% of business across the city’s 800 or so trucks, and they’re not alone there.

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Are food trucks doomed?

In response to their current troubles and all the uncertainty that’s indefinitely in store for American small businesses, some food trucks have taken creative approaches to gain back customers, help their communities and generally weather the year’s ongoing storm. Like many business owners, they’re not going down without a fight.

1. Mobile groceries

One strategy to reinvigorate a business is to fill a niche that nobody else is servicing. As grocery stores become hotbeds of contentious health and sanitation debates, and people become less inclined to venture too far from home, food trucks are adapting to help ease these worries.

That’s why Coolhaus, an ice cream truck based in L.A., began a new, temporary venture called Bodega on Wheels. The truck still sells ice cream, but they also have produce, items for your pantry, alcohol and more. By collaborating with other L.A. businesses, they’re stocked with everything you need and drive it right up to your door. Delivery is free; just order in advance. 10% of proceeds go straight to charity too.

While Coolhaus and business models like it bring much-needed supplies directly to customers, some food trucks have taken to the other end of the spectrum: Some essential businesses have stayed open throughout the pandemic, and many trucks made deals to park in their lots so as to draw in customers at one of the few places that stay steadily populous. When foot traffic slows down at your usual location, you have to adapt—and that’s exactly what food trucks around the country have done this spring.

2. Aid relief

While some trucks are trying to get their customers back, others shifted their attention early in the pandemic toward finding a way to pivot their business and assist their communities. They’re not the only ones struggling, and some food trucks realized there was opportunity in bridging that gap.

In New York, the Association of Food Trucks partnered with sponsors and began delivering supplies and meals to workers on the front lines. Thanks to their sponsors as well as food and beverage companies pitching in for the initiative, those trucks are out every day of the week with a rotating schedule that allows them to reach five to ten different hospitals every week.

New York food trucks aren’t alone in this either; all over the country, trucks have joined with initiatives to drop off food at hospitals, police and fire departments, feeding all kinds of frontline workers around the U.S. Some receive sponsorship, like the Association of Food Trucks, while others began working with nonprofits or started accepting meals from anonymous donors for distribution.

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3. Online ordering

A major departure from a big facet of their traditional business model, some food trucks are now allowing customers to order ahead with them.

This is made easier for some when they partner with delivery apps designed to help with the transition; TruckBux, for example, makes it easy for food trucks to accept and decline orders, set their notifications, control the menu, track sales metrics and more. Trucks that partner with big name apps like Postmates or DoorDash get similar benefits; apps like these are a quick and easy way to expand your customer base, increase brand recognition and simplify the shift toward online ordering. Some food trucks prefer to leave the apps alone because of the associated financial burden and because they have to give up some measure of control over their final product, but others prioritize how smoothly third party apps help them move to online ordering and delivery.

Online ordering lets food trucks expand past their traditional delivery zones and reach a wider audience of hungry customers just waiting for them to arrive.

4. Rest stops

Recently, food trucks have been able to take advantage of a new market previously blocked off for them. In April, the Federal Highway Administration passed a ruling saying states could allow trucks to service rest stops, if they choose. California and Ohio have already taken advantage of this, allowing food trucks in those states to apply for a permit which lets them park along highways and at rest stops.

This is doubly beneficial; food trucks can travel further when business at their home base dries up, which plenty of cities are already seeing happen as more and more people self-isolate because of COVID-19. The new ruling comes as a big relief for truckers too: Since many roadside restaurants had to close like any other, it’s been increasingly difficult to find reliable food service in the middle of their routes. Now they have more options and are much less likely to be stuck hungry on the road for long stretches of time.

Hopefully, other states will also begin taking advantage of this ruling from the Federal Highway Administration, to protect their food truckers and truck drivers alike.

Are their problems over?

Food trucks all over the country are finding innovative solutions to troubles they never thought they’d face, but despite the great strides they’re making for their businesses and their communities, they’re not out of the woods by far.

Some cities are still burdened by restrictive laws that hurt operations, like in states where it’s still illegal to park along the highway or at rest stops. States are also cracking down on these trucks as part of a bid to reduce the spread of COVID-19; in Pennsylvania, for example, they mandated that food trucks can’t sell drinks to a customer who’s already finished their meal, a rule meant to prevent loitering and excessive crowds which correlate to more cases. Though it’s sensible, it also hurts food trucks because it sets parameters around customer transactions. Meanwhile in California, Los Angeles is getting serious about missing permits and shutting down more trucks because of violations.

Truck owners are also having difficulty getting PPP loans and other government funding. As small local businesses, they often don’t qualify for assistance and also don’t have the resources to secure Economic Injury Disaster Loans from the SBA, which tend to go to bigger businesses instead.

Rather than continue hemorrhaging money the way they are under the current market, a lot of food trucks simply shut down. This is problematic for a lot of their employees because a significant amount of food truck workers are undocumented immigrants, which means they can’t secure unemployment benefits while they search—fruitlessly, along with so many other unemployed Americans—for a new job.

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Unfortunately, as long as the pandemic continues, food trucks’ regular revenue streams will most likely continue to dry up. Aside from the business they usually garner from foot traffic, these trucks also make a lot of their money by setting up shop around big events like concerts, festivals, sports games and the like, which have now been indefinitely postponed. They also can’t attend food truck meet-ups and other major functions which would normally bring a lot of their business for the year.

Because of these unfortunate events, food trucks need to continue experimenting with innovative business ideas that will allow them to stay afloat through these uncertain times and even thrive in new areas they never thought they’d break into, like community outreach efforts. As the past few months alone have shown, there’s always a way forward.

Food trucks are struggling and surviving in more ways than just the ones outlined above. Find out more about their resilience and challenges for a better understanding about how to help. Together, we can support small, hardworking businesses through this crisis and beyond.

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