Can Food Trucks Survive the Coronavirus Pandemic?

Food trucks were born from a world of necessity and frugality.

Many restaurant owners realized that food trucks presented a unique opportunity—a less expensive way to expand their offerings without massively increasing their overhead. Other prospective restaurant owners saw the opportunity to use a food truck to get a solid start. From there, they could expand into a brick and mortar operation down the road. Food truck culture was popular, and they were experiencing a boom. Then Coronavirus hit. So how do food trucks survive a global pandemic?

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Food trucks have become increasingly popular over the last several years. Once thought of as a big-city-only endeavor, many trucks started popping up in smaller cities and new areas. Suburbanites loved the novelty, and food trucks were a great solution for serving food at concerts and gatherings.

Not that food trucks left the cities. In major metropolitan areas, the lunchtime and bar time food trucks have become a staple. Hungry commuters flock to the trucks, often parked in lots near business complexes. At the end of the night, college students line up outside of trucks to get a taco, pizza, burgers, or another dish to ward off hangovers.

But since the COVID-19 outbreak, food trucks have struggled…but some have thrived. It’s been an interesting split. With the shutdown of colleges, offices, and festivals, truck owners have had to get creative to keep business flowing. Simultaneously, some restaurant owners who also had trucks have been grateful for the outdoor business option.

Food Trucks Before the Virus

Last year, which seems like a decade ago, food trucks were having a heyday. They were popular amongst many different populations and groups. Famous for ethnic food options, to-go food options, and unique specialty items; food trucks were beloved.

According to Food Truck Nation, food truck popularity grew 300% in just three years. The trendy trucks have become a $2 billion industry. Many of the most successful food trucks are those partnered with restaurants, allowing them to act as an extension or expansion of existing services. Some food trucks even partnered with breweries and bars.

The appeal of a mobile restaurant brought in many consumers. After all, on a slow day, how convenient is the ability to move to another spot and set up shop? Truck owners could find business throughout the city or town by moving closer to hotels during conferences or setting up near festivals and concerts. There were even food-truck centric events.

Another appeal of the food truck is that even though the menu is often limited to fried or grilled foods (anything needing little preparation space), the other logistical requirements were usually minimal. If a truck wanted to set up shop in a parking lot, they might need to secure a permit and jump through some regulatory hoops, but otherwise, curbside service offers a lot of freedom.

Food Trucks During the First Wave of Coronavirus

When the pandemic hit and the world went on lockdown, many food trucks were forced to lockdown as well. Winter months are often challenging times for mobile food businesses, anyway, and since the pandemic lockdown began in March, many food truck owners were already in the winter slump.

But as restaurants tried to adapt to the new parameters and figure out ways to keep their businesses afloat, food trucks presented a unique solution. In the new world, where food delivery and to-go options were almost a requirement, food trucks had a distinct advantage. Already mobile, they could take the food to the customer (rather than the other way around).

Food trucks even provided essential meals to long-haul truck drivers who took deliveries across the United States. When indoor dining wasn’t an option, truck drivers had difficulty finding a meal (their trucks can’t go through drive-throughs). Many truckers were grateful to see food trucks pop up at rest stops, allowing them to enjoy a hot meal on the road. Regulations were adjusted in many areas to allow food trucks to set up at the highway stops.

Restaurants that had food truck “extensions” of their business could still get out in the community. Even setting up a food truck in the parking lot was an option for some. Parking lot trucks provided a seamless to-go window, where customers didn’t need to brave the risks or navigate dining restrictions during a pandemic.

But there was also a shift in food trucks’ prime markets — business commuters and festivalgoers. As the pandemic has raged on over the past few months, it seems nearly every summer activity was canceled. Sporting events looked different; concerts were played over Zoom, festivals were put on hold until at least 2021. Even the Olympics were postponed. In Milwaukee, the Democratic National Convention was scaled way back. Summerfest, and the summer festivals, which would guarantee a steady stream of business for food trucks, were all called off.

Food trucks are continuing to figure out ways to survive. Some have moved to more offerings in the suburbs and pop-up events in small towns. Others have found partnerships with bars and pubs (or parent-restaurants) to provide all-in-one to-go service. Some innovative food trucks even began offering grocery delivery, like the LA ice cream truck Coolhaus that provided a “bodega on wheels.” It hasn’t been easy, but as usual, food trucks have continued to forge ahead with their scrappy upstart attitude (and low overhead).

As downtown diners have returned to their socially distanced offices, food trucks also offer a convenient and safer lunch option. Running up to a truck, wearing a mask, and ordering a quick desk lunch to-go feels like a smart option for many professionals. Although the downtown scene is less active than before the pandemic, lunch-diners still patron the beloved trucks.

Food Trucks Now and in the Future

So have we weathered the storm? According to government health officials, a vaccine could still be months away. We may have several more months of our distanced departure from the norm. But officials are hopeful that we will eventually return to life as it was before the pandemic. Next spring and summer will offer renewed hope and a sense of going back to normal.

Even now, as more businesses have found safe ways to continue, it looks better for food trucks and the restaurant industry as a whole. Food trucks—both those with a parent restaurant and the stand-alone trucks—who have survived the last few months have found a way to keep moving forward.

As restaurants test the industry’s waters in the future, food trucks will continue to provide a good option for owners looking for expansion with less commitment. The costs of a food truck are significantly lower than opening up another satellite location or full operation. Food trucks offer a way for restaurant owners to increase their reach without over-extending their resources.

Smart restaurant owners will embrace a conservative approach to business growth in the future. A hard lesson of the pandemic has been that many small businesses weren’t healthy enough to survive an unexpected disaster. Even with the limited assistance and stimulus available, restaurants who survived month-to-month may not have pulled through the catastrophe. Adding to the stress, many food truck-only operations were unable to secure PPP funding, and it’s still unclear whether there will be more funds available in the future.

Winter is coming, and the landscape is still uncertain, but food trucks continue to be a potentially safe option for restaurateurs as they emerge and expand. After being cooped up for almost a year, people will be excited to get outside, attend events, and return to a sense of normalcy when possible. Food trucks and outdoor dining will offer a safer gateway to eating out and socializing. Even if it takes customers awhile to get over the lingering pandemic fears and concerns, food trucks and to-go dining are strong options and can expect a comeback.

Reliable Water Services is Here for You

Hot water is critical to health, sanitation, and safety in general, but it’s especially vital to the industries we serve—and the majority of those industries are considered essential businesses. As our customers remain operational during these unprecedented times, so does Reliable Water Services.

Making sure our customers have hot water has always been our main priority, and now more than ever, we are here for you. We will continue to provide 24/7 water heater services to our customers, ensuring you have the hot water your business relies on. Our office team is practicing social distancing by working remotely or staying 6 feet apart while in the office. Meanwhile, our service technicians and installing contractors follow extra safety guidelines to ensure they can service your building safely without putting themselves or your staff members at risk.

Our team at RWS has always viewed the relationship with each of our customers as a partnership. Through this partnership, we will work together and get through these unique and challenging times. As always, should you need service contact us 24/7 at 1-800-356-1444. Stay safe, and be well!