How Food Trucks Endured and Succeeded During the Pandemic

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This article is part of Owning the Future, a series on how small businesses across the country have been effected by the pandemic.

The Covid pandemic hit California hard. It has seen well over 3.5 million cases and over 60,000 deaths. Scores of businesses have closed. But for Ana Jimenez the owner of Tacos El Jerry, a small fleet of food trucks in Santa Cruz County, it provided an opportunity to bring her business into the 21st century.

Ms. Jimenez’s four trucks began taking orders through an app and a website, delivering directly to customers, and cultivating a customer base through a new social media presence. All of that added up to a significant increase in sales.

“Our business grew,” said Ms. Jimenez, 50. “We even added a new truck. Credit goes to my son, Jerry, who is 23. We didn’t have anything on social media. He said, ‘we’re going digital on all of this, Mom.’” Half of her orders are now placed online, she said.

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

Mr. Cypher’s main fare since he hit the streets in 2016 has been global street food. His menu carries a heavy Asian inspiration. There’s made-from-scratch kimchi on the menu daily. Dishes can include rice bowls, Vietnamese banh mi, falafel burritos, and a burger made with a ramen bun.

During the pandemic, Mr. Cypher’s business took a hit when 24 festivals and over a dozen weddings where he was booked were canceled. “I switched gears to keep things as lean as possible,” Mr. Cypher said.

He temporarily shut down a second food truck — a retrofitted 35-foot, 1956 Greyhound bus that he used for the big parties — and introduced a website to interact with his customers and an online ordering system for his smaller truck, which he usually parked at a neighborhood brewery.

“I switched the menu to focus on soups, noodles, burritos and pressed sandwiches, so that the things that we were handing our customers would make it home and still be a good experience after they opened up the bag and took it out,” he said.

And he began to make and sell pizza one day a week at the kitchen where he used to do his prep work for the trucks before the pandemic. (The pizza, too, has an international flair: a banh mi pie, for example, made with pork or tofu, miso garlic sauce, mozzarella, pickled carrots, cucumbers, and cilantro.)

Customers can order and pay online or by phone and schedule a time to pick up; they receive a text or an email when their order is ready.

The kitchen “was already in place, so we turned around and said, well, what can we offer our customers in this unknown time that would be comforting,” Mr. Cypher said. “We had a wood-fired oven there that we use for bread baking, but basically it wasn’t being utilized.”

Before the pandemic, Mr. Cypher was serving roughly 1,500 customers a week from his food truck. A weekly festival on weekends, with 5,000 people stopping by the bus, of course, ramped up that number.

“The cool part is I was able to stay afloat because, unlike a restaurant with traditional seating, it was just myself, my sous-chef and his wife, who worked part-time,” he said. “We ended up serving roughly a hundred people a day, four or five days a week. So it wasn’t the numbers that we did before, but our lights were able to stay on because we had reduced a lot of costs that we had involved in running multiple rigs.”

Mr. Cypher, however, opted not to use delivery apps like Uber Eats or Grub Hub. “I don’t want to hand my food off to somebody else,” he said. “If we weren’t going to have the one-on-one conversations with our customers, we were at least going to give it to them directly.”

And like Tacos El Jerry, social media became a huge part of his marketing platform. “The pictures that we take and post on Instagram and Facebook let people feel like they’re a part of our truck family,” Mr. Cypher said.

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