A food truck can make anything feel like a party.
During warm months, they seem to be everywhere—at gas stations, breweries, farmers markets. Most food truck businesses are event-focused. They go where the people are.
Except, amid the coronavirus shutdown, there are no events. No open taprooms. No large groups of people.
Harry Monds has owned and operated Bull City Street Food for five years. He rotates through a diverse street-food-based menu: everything from Jamaican beef patties and BBQ chicken mac and cheese to spicy fish cakes and chicken pot pie. The business began as a catering experiment, eventually growing into a full-fledged operation that Monds sees as an extension of the Triangle’s high-quality restaurant scene.
On a typical weekday, he’d begin by driving his truck to RTP for the lunch crowd, then hit a bar or a brewery to set up and wait for people to begin after-work socializing.
In early March, he saw festivals and breweries canceling events, weddings being postponed. Then offices began emptying out. The decline in business was particularly rough, given that Monds has spent the past year and a half preparing to open his first brick-and-mortar outpost in the Durham Food Hall.
“We are in a precarious situation because we were going to be opening,” Monds says. “Funds-wise, we have pretty much put everything we’ve had into that over the past year.”
The concept, called Lula and Sadie’s, was supposed to open at the end of March.
On March 16, Mayor Steve Schewel and Durham County Board of Commissioners chairwoman Wendy Jacobs held a conference call with area hospitality professionals to let them know of the incoming mandate from the governor’s office: Across the state, restaurants and bars would go dark, except for takeout and delivery.
The ban was an extreme measure, but at least it came packaged with tweaks to unemployment regulations that would provide some relief to the thousands of restaurant workers about to be unemployed.
Numerous food-truck owners were also on the call, including Monds. And although food trucks were exempt from the closures, local owners nonetheless hung up the call with a heavy heart. As people disappeared from the streets, the decline in business was about to get worse.
A 2018 study by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce ranked Raleigh 11th in the nation for food-truck friendliness, thanks to cheap permitting and low operating costs. Today, in fact, Wake County has 183 actively permitted food trucks, though not all of them are operating; Durham County has 143.
Other factors have made the Triangle fertile ground for a mobile-kitchen revolution, too. There’s a vibrant, ever-changing food scene. There are universities, which means packs of students in search of late-night tacos. There’s RTP as well as thriving downtowns that make it easy to catch customers for lunch. And there are the film festivals and food rodeos, the fairs and arena concerts.
Christian Thompson and Allison Overington of Pork in the Road have been serving pork (as well as vegetarian and kosher options) out of their marigold-colored truck for two and a half years. The business was just beginning to pay off. Overington notes that the virus hits the food-truck industry at a particularly difficult time—the beginning of the event season.
“A lot of food trucks use April and May as a way to reinvigorate their capital so you can run through the rest of the summer and then bankroll all the hard months in winter,” she says.
Thompson and Overington are on a WhatsApp thread with more than 100 other food truck owners in the Triangle and Triad. Normally, it’s a space buzzing with tips. The past couple of weeks, however, it’s been a space to anxiously workshop survival techniques. Ramped-up sanitary measures. Ideas for keeping customers physically spaced out. Different specials and deals.
Most businesses have taken to parking near apartment complexes and waiting. Monds has been parking outside the West End apartments in Durham.
“My payroll is tomorrow,” Monds told the INDY on Wednesday. “I’m pulling everything I can together to meet the payroll. Second to payroll is trying to keep employees employed.”
Not all food trucks rely on events: Julio Velasquez, the owner of Mexican JV American, typically parks near one of the bus stops along Highway 55, occasionally relocating to a construction site.
A few weeks ago, his regular customer base thinned to a trickle. For now, he’s improvising, crafting specials and trying to find apartment complexes where people are still going outside. His priority is his five employees, three of whom are full-time.
“What about my employees?” Velasquez asks. “Everyone has bills to pay, rent to pay.”
The needs of restaurants have been visible. A number of fundraising campaigns have sprung up to support bartenders and wait staff without work. Higher-end restaurants have publicists.
Food trucks—permitted to operate, as of now, but with almost no one to serve—have been left behind. They don’t want to get sick, and they want to help keep the public healthy. They hope they won’t lose their businesses.
“Friday, we were on a shift, and we watched emails come in and shifts just disappear,” Overington says. “It’s really been tough. You’re just watching all this money, future money and potential revenues, disappear.”
Contact deputy arts and culture editor Sarah Edwards at email@example.com.
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