Conversations with food truck vendors and industry advocates reveal how these small businesses overcome adversity to adapt and evolve amid the pandemic
The spring and summer months were once the busiest time of the year for food truck vendors. As cornerstones of Atlanta’s large outdoor festivals and concerts, droves of patrons would flock to them for a “taste” of the overall cultural experience. But COVID-19 cast a dark shadow over the food truck industry’s entire business landscape. Crowd restrictions and office closures turned the vibrant downtown scene into a desolate ghost town and brought the food truck business to a screeching halt.
While many restaurants modified operations to fit the new environment, these mobile eateries found their entire business model turned on its head. The situation looked bleak.
Then, a silver lining emerged outside of the city. Within a few weeks of quarantine, families of remote workers and virtual students grew restless in isolation and tired of cooking and eating at home. They were hungry for a taste of normalcy, for good food, and a sense of community – an experience food trucks were uniquely equipped to bring to the masses. But before making the shift, an operations overhaul and a new strategy needed to be in place.
Food truck owners and their industry advocates came together to discuss the challenges they faced amid the pandemic and in serving this new audience.
“Essentially, we were asking how do we mobilize to take advantage of this new demand, communicate about the events and manage them in a way the maintains social distance guidelines?” said Curt Czajkoski, owner of Big C’s Chicago Kitchen and board member of the Food Truck Association of Georgia (FTAG).
Out of these discussions, a new business model and strategy was formed and immediately set into motion.
First, food truck operators had to embrace and implement online technology.
“With the use of an online pre-ordering and payment system, we could allow customers a cashless, contactless exchange,” said Paige Nathan, owner of a food truck booking company, Food with Purpose, and FTAG administrator. “Families could choose their meals, select a designated time for pick up, and received a text alert to confirm the food was ready. It was the key to ensuring the events could be managed safely.”
Next, food truck vendors had to work through issues in communication and generating demand.
“Food trucks have participated in neighborhood events in the past and found little success, based on how they previously operated,” said Doug Marranci, founding partner and Chief Operating Officer of Business Development – PREP, an Atlanta mentoring platform, bases of operation for mobile food service businesses, commercial kitchens and a shared kitchen. “For this to work, they had to begin making cold calls to homeowners’ associations and apartment complexes. They had to reassure them that the proper changes had been made. Then, it was up to the property and community managers to communicate events and generate interest from their residents.”
Once connections were made and events were scheduled, food trucks began rolling into neighborhoods. Although slow to start, news quickly spread throughout the metro communities. In a short time, food trucks were back in business and booked throughout the late spring and summer months. It became a win-win situation for both sides of the street – communities stepped up to support small businesses in need and these small businesses stepped out to bring a sense of comfort to the community during the crisis.
Although neighborhood interest has tapered off with the summer, this is not the end of the road for food trucks. A second growth opportunity has arisen out of the pandemic and could become the second phase in the food truck evolution.
With their success in feeding large groups safely, people are now booking food trucks, instead of traditional services, to cater to their big celebratory events like weddings, birthdays, and mitzvahs. Some food truck vendors are upgrading menus and pivoting to provide a finer dining experience in 2021, like Nathan’s Food with Purpose.
While the future remains uncertain for this unique segment of foodservice, what is clear is that these entrepreneurs’ determination and willingness to adapt has earned industry recognition and placed food trucks in a higher position on the food chain.
With so much uncertainty and change going on, we salute the companies that are taking extra steps to serve others, to shift away from their typical business model to make a positive impact on their fellow man, and to improve local communities.
We encourage you to support these food truck vendors – eat local, serve others, make a difference.