The coronavirus crisis continues to slam the U.S. Major cities like Los Angeles, New York, Boston, and San Francisco have become virtual ghost towns with people staying indoors except when they have to deal with essential errands. Restaurants and malls have shuttered. Now is a very difficult time to be in the food business, and two areas being hit especially hard are food halls and food trucks. With retail closings, there is no guaranteed foot traffic unless takeout is an option. With people off the streets, there seems to be little reason for food trucks to go to familiar lunch time spots.
Los Angeles-based Pasta Sisters is an Italian restaurant and shop with its own food truck operation. Initially, when the crisis was just starting, business was not bad, but then food truck organizers in L.A. stopped working. Giorgia Sinatra, brand manager for Pasta Sisters, notes the shutdown likely had to do with many offices closing, which led to dates for the rest of the month being canceled.
“Upon cancelling, the organizer let us know that we can just go ahead and pick a spot in town and park there, which is typically not the case as we have to reserve our food truck spots in advance,” Sinatra says. The lure of going to popular food spots normally hard to book was enticing, but the owners of Pasta Sisters already had their hands full “trying to put the pieces together day by day at our two restaurant locations on Pico Blvd and in Culver City. For this reason, we stopped operating our food truck. It’s one less thing for us to think about right now.” Pasta Sisters is still open for pick-up and delivery.
As Sinatra says, food trucks require a lot of preparation, including washing the truck, food preparation, labor costs, shifts. And then, cleaning and washing the truck again. “Behind a 4-hour shift alone, there is almost a full day of preparation that takes place,” Sinatra says. “With not many people in the street and staying home right now, it isn’t worth it for us to be out there serving food on our truck right now.”
David Botbol, head of business development for the New York Food Truck Association (NYFTA) says the organization and its 30 vendor members (who are all Graded A by the Department of Health) remain fluid with the situation. With customers working at home, the large lunch crowds drawn to certain hot spots are absent. Another loss of revenue comes from the cancelation or postponement of concerts and private events.
“When everything gets shut down to the point that there is a need for supplies to be brought to different areas, that’s the advantage of being a truck versus a restaurant,” Botbol says. He adds NYFTA offered resources to government agencies, “because we know that during these times people they are looking to get people food, which is the biggest concern if you’re home and have no access to food. That’s where we’re putting our efforts right now. How can we use the resources that we have—our vendors and our storage facilities—and help out as much as we can with getting people meals?”
NYFTA officially started their COVID-19 initiative April 1 to bring food trucks outside of hospitals. “We will be providing free coffee, snacks, and meals to the front-line staff and workers,” Botbol says. “We will be starting with NYU Langone and are trying to grow quickly as we receive more funding. You are one of the first to know about this as we have just launched our Go Fund Me campaign (https://www.gofundme.com/f/frontline-food-trucks-nyc), and the goal is to reach as many hospitals as possible.”
A growing segment of the restaurant world, food halls are also facing the short-term loss of their customer bases. Venues like Fanueil Hall Marketplace (Boston), Ponce Market (Atlanta), and Revival Food Hall (Chicago) have temporarily shuttered. Select vendors at Legacy Food Hall in Plano, Texas, are still offering takeout, curbside pickup, and third-party delivery via GrubHub along with “quarantine meal and boozy kits to go”.
Time Out Market, with locations in Lisbon, Miami, New York, Boston, Chicago, and Montréal, have temporarily closed their operations and intend to do so “as long as required to fully support both the local and global efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19,” the company said in a recent press statement.
“These are unprecedented times and nothing matters more than the health and safety of our guests, teams, concessionaires and the local community as a whole,” says Didier Souillat, CEO of Time Out Market. In a show of solidarity, he adds: “We would like to encourage everyone to support those local businesses that are able to remain open, in particular the venues of our Time Out Market chefs and restaurateurs which are amongst the best of the city. Many offer home deliveries and gift cards. Now is the time to support them.”
Ryan Chase, owner/founder 4th St Market, principal at S&A Management in Santa Ana, California, says that, holidays aside, they had to close the entire market to the public for the first time ever. In the meantime, 4th Street Market has “a big five-year revamp” that it has begun working on earlier than planned given all of the downtime that has come up. However, some of their clients are still open.
“Currently Alta Baja Market, who has its own entrance, is continuing to operate with limited hours and social distancing, along with takeout and delivery,” Chase says. “La Vegana Mexicana is offering pickup and delivery, and Electric City Butcher is offering delivery. East End Kitchens, our incubator commercial kitchen spaces, are in full swing, and some of our vendors are actually seeing an increase in orders, including Model Meals.”
S&A Management/4th Street Market is trying to assist its merchants with pickup and delivery through social media, their newsletter, and any onsite support and other input they can provide. “The Downtown business improvement district is also promoting, and worked with the city to get them reserved meters for pickup/delivery,” Chase says. “In general, some merchants have decided that they prefer to be with their family and loved ones, or that there is minimal pickup and its not financially viable to do delivery, especially with the high fees most companies charge.”
Chase is aware of the unexpected strain that this pandemic is creating on small business, and he says two or three of his tenants are currently considering their options. “We have looked at setting up an internal delivery system for 4th Street Market, but as of now don’t have enough interest to make sense,” Chase remarks. “As I always tell my tenants, I am open to any and all ideas, and hopefully we can come up with some other ways to generate some business during this challenging time.”
As Botbol says, these are crazy times, but he wagers that the business will find a way to get through it. “I’m sure there is another side to this, and hopefully these extreme [quarantine] measures are taken seriously in the short term,” he says. “That’ll help definitely long term.”