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How food trucks survived and succeeded during the pandemic

This article is part of Own the future, a series on how small businesses across the country have been affected by the pandemic.

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

Ms. Jimenez’s four trucks began taking orders through an app and website, delivering direct to customers, and developing a customer base through a new social media presence. It all added up to a significant increase in sales.

“Our business has grown,” said Ms. Jimenez, 50. “We even added a new truck. The credit goes to my son, Jerry, who is 23 years old. We had nothing on social media. He said, “We’re going digital on all of this, Mom.” Half of her orders are now placed online, she said.

Ms Jimenez’s son set up food truck Facebook and Instagram pages and a social media ad campaign, and the trucks started accepting credit card purchases. “Each truck now serves around 300 people per day, which translates to approximately $ 5,000 in sales per day,” said Jimenez.

Food trucks – kitchens on wheels, essentially – are flexible in design and quickly became a substitute during the pandemic for customers who couldn’t dine indoors and wanted something different from their traditional transportation options. . This, in turn, provided a new customer base to add to an existing cadre of loyal followers. In a very real sense, food trucks are vehicles for equality in the post-pandemic world.

“While the pandemic has certainly affected the majority of small businesses, it has also prompted many to be more innovative by looking for new sources of revenue and ways to reach customers,” said Kimberly A. Eddleston. , professor of entrepreneurship and innovation at Northeastern University. .

Like Ms. Jimenez, some companies “have focused on ways to maintain their customer base, for example, by delivering products directly to customers,” Professor Eddleston said. “While others have created products and services that attract new customers.”

Luke Cypher, 34, for example, expanded the already eclectic selections of his Blue Sparrow food trucks in Pittsburgh, adding pizzas, four packets of local beer, gift cards and five-ounce bottles of homemade hot sauce. .

Mr. Cypher’s main course since he took to the streets in 2016 has been global street food. Its menu has a strong Asian inspiration. There is kimchi made from scratch on the menu every day. Dishes may include rice bowls, Vietnamese banh mi, falafel burritos, and a burger made with ramen bread.

During the pandemic, Mr Cypher’s business took a hit when 24 festivals and more than a dozen weddings where he was booked were called off. “I changed gears to keep things as thin as possible,” Cypher said.

He temporarily shut down a second food truck – a modernized 1956 35-foot Greyhound bus that he used for big parties – and launched a website to interact with his customers and an online ordering system for his smaller one. truck, where he usually parked at a neighborhood brewery.

“I changed the menu to focus on soups, noodles, burritos and sandwiches in a hurry, so that the things we hand out to our customers go home and remain a good experience after opening the bag and the have come out, ”he said.

And he started making and selling pizza one day a week in the kitchen where he was doing his truck prep work before the pandemic. (The pizza also has an international twist: a banh mi pie, for example, made with pork or tofu, miso sauce with garlic, mozzarella, marinated carrots, cucumbers and cilantro.)

Customers can order and pay online or over the phone and schedule a pickup time; they receive an SMS or an e-mail 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 unfamiliar time that would be heartwarming,” Cypher said. “We had a wood-fired oven there that we use for baking bread, but basically it wasn’t used.”

Before the pandemic, Mr. Cypher served about 1,500 customers a week from his food truck. A weekly festival on weekends, with 5,000 people stopping on the bus, of course, increased that number.

“What’s cool is that I was able to stay afloat because, unlike a restaurant with traditional seating, it was just myself, my sous-chef and his wife, working part-time. “, did he declare. “We ended up serving a hundred people a day, four or five days a week. So that wasn’t the numbers we were doing before, but our lights were able to stay on because we had cut a lot of the costs that we had involved in operating multiple platforms.

Mr. Cypher, however, chose not to use delivery apps like Uber Eats or Grub Hub. “I don’t want to give my food to someone else,” he said. “If we weren’t going to have 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 has become an important part of its marketing platform. “The photos we take and post on Instagram and Facebook make people feel like part of our truck family,” Cypher said.

“Food trucks were well equipped to withstand pandemic restrictions because they are naturally promising and socially remote businesses,” said Luz Urrutia, managing director of Accion Opportunity Fund, a nonprofit empowering small business owners. companies to access capital, networks and coaching. “Many catering truck owners have stepped forward to seize the opportunity during a time of great uncertainty,” she said.

As Pittsburgh emerges from the pandemic, Mr Cypher is adding a touch to his cuisine. “We have licenses to offer draft beer from our local breweries, so we’re going to have a little beer garden,” he said. “And that’s a revenue stream we’re going to lean into in a way that we probably never would have done without Covid.”

In 2020, Mr. Cypher’s food trucks had gross sales of $ 200,000, down about 40% from the previous year, he said. “But with the new offerings, more efficiency and running only one platform, we were actually able to generate enough resources to move the business forward,” he said. “This year we are already up about 30% from what we were last year at this time.”

For Ronicca Whaley, chef behind truck Shiso Crispy, based in St. Petersburg, Florida, the timing was much trickier: she opened her first truck in November 2019, a few months before the pandemic. And yet Ms Whaley, 35, who offers handmade gyozas, bao rolls and their signature dish, dirty rice, now has two trucks due to a strategy of regular parking in some neighborhoods and offer discounted and free meals in front of a nearby Ronald McDonald House. (She added the second truck in January.)

A challenge: “The Internet is of poor quality here. And cell phone service in different areas here just isn’t working, ”she said. “At the height of the pandemic, I systematically lost at least two transactions in my point of sale every shift.”

Fortunately, Verizon Business gave him a special initiative for small business owners: a year of free connectivity and a 5G iPhone, along with tools like the Clover Flex point-of-sale program for contactless transactions. “It has transformed my business digitally,” Ms. Whaley said.

She’s also logged into an app, called Best Food Trucks, which allows customers near her to pre-order once they know her location for the day.

“The inextricably linked stories of food trucks and Covid are a perfect microcosm of the undeniable reality that women, immigrants and people of color, historically relegated to the fringes of the economy, are in fact the basis on which the next economy must be built ”. said Nathalie Molina Niño, author of “Leapfrog: the new revolution for women entrepreneurs”.

But the bright side of the pandemic for some operators is more personal – including bringing families together. “I have a ton of wisdom on how to operate the food trucks and the kitchen,” Ms. Jimenez said. “It is the coming together of the generations that has made the company stronger today and for the future.”

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