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This coronavirus-tainted year has been incredibly challenging for small businesses across myriad economic sectors, but particularly for those in the hospitality industry. Food trucks are no exception. As local events were canceled, offices closed, and breweries shifted to takeout only, mobile restaurants had to look elsewhere for customers, with some driving to residential areas to try and make up for lost revenue.
Husband-and-wife team Connor and Molly Hollowell, owners of Denver-based Truckster (a two-year-old app that helps food trucks find gigs), have been sending the eateries on wheels to suburban neighborhoods and apartment complexes. Truckster also offers a food truck directory for consumers, letting hungry diners view maps of the trucks closest to them.
Connor, who operated the Maine Street Barbeque food truck for five years before closing it in 2018, says he never used to set up shop in apartment complexes because the locations were always hit or miss. Now, he’s encouraging the nearly 200 Colorado-based food trucks he works with to sell their fare in residential areas. “You don’t have a minimum. You don’t know how much you’ll sell. But now we’ll take what we can get,” Molly says.
Brad Brutlag, owner of one-year-old Big Stuff Food, says that from December 2019 to mid-March 2020, his comfort food business was booming. Then, breweries closed and stopped booking his truck for on-site grub. As a result, Brutlag began partnering with homeowner’s associations (HOAs) and apartment complexes to find new customers for his hearty, Colorado-inspired fare (think: waffle-fry poutine topped with cheese curds, green chili, and chipotle lime crema). He’s also spending time cooking at Target and Walmart parking lots.
“Nothing’s been great,” Brutlag says. “We’ve had some really great days, like at Lone Tree Brewing Co.… I go down to other breweries in Castle Rock and I’m lucky if I make $200 to $300. It’s been so sporadic.” Brutlag says that sales picked up in July and August when breweries reopened for indoor and outdoor service and when larger groups were allowed gather, but since late September, that business has slowed again, encouraging him to continue his residential partnerships.
Polynesian food truck No Ke Aloha has brought in revenue over the past five years by selling specialties like barbecue mix plates and poke-topped fries at events and weddings—until the pandemic. Now, owners Shauna Medeiros-Tuilaepa and Cornelius Tuilaepa put their energies toward finding new spots to park their truck and planning for a brick-and-mortar location in Aurora, which they hope to open in early 2021. The duo has recently been invited to sell in several neighborhoods around Aurora, something Medeiros-Tuilaepa says has been a success. “[This year] hasn’t really been super consistent, but we’re doing what we can to keep going,” she says.
In past years, at events organized by HOAs, Matt Yamali’s food trucks Roll It Up Sushi and Downtown Fingers might earn $800 to $1,000. Now, those same residential events can bring in $2,000 to $3,000 in revenue, causing Yamali to increase his neighborhood gigs from once each week to all seven days.
The unpredictability of the consumer market has been intense. Yamali says that his five-year-old sushi truck experienced a 60 percent decline in sales this summer, but the chicken finger truck, which he opened last year, saw a 17 percent increase. “It’s been really wild,” he says. “It was really a roller coaster.”
In April, Mark English, owner of five-year-old food truck the Bamboo Skewer, which serves Japanese-inspired yakitori and noodles, planned to launch a second mobile operation called Captain Sandwich, serving East Coast-style grilled sandwiches and cheesesteaks. Due to COVID-19, he postponed those plans until June—then closed them down altogether. “We opened [Captain Sandwich] for a few months but ultimately decided that we needed to focus on our existing business,” English says.
Until the economy improves enough to resume operating both brands, English is working with HOAs and apartment complexes to keep the Bamboo Skewer on the road. “If a food truck comes to your HOA or apartment, you should really consider supporting them. We are holding on tight, trying to stay in business while creating jobs for people in our communities,” he says.