In The Pandemic Economy, Colorado Food Trucks Find They're In Demand
A new ritual has formed in the parking lot of an empty Loveland strip mall.
Every morning around 8 a.m., Billy Daniels pulls up in his food truck, the Chaulkboard Gourmet Express. Then, people from the neighborhood across the street start to line up.
Customers wear masks and stand six feet apart while Daniels cooks protein bowls, breakfast burritos and tacos with beef or bacon. The items sell between $5 to $10 a piece. When the food’s ready, he takes payments one-on-one through a tiny window.
Daniels, whose truck brings in $10,000 in “a good month,” said he’s making just about as much money as he was before the pandemic threw a wrench in his typical schedule of festivals, weddings and other large group gatherings.
“It’s a good thing to have a food truck to get around and do different things,” Daniels said. “If it’s slow in one place, I can go somewhere else and it’ll get busier.”
Colorado’s food service sector has been among the hardest hit during the state’s COVID-19 outbreak, shedding thousands of jobs and leading to the permanent closure of some establishments.
But food trucks — usually the underdogs in the restaurant business — remain in high demand. With Colorado’s restaurants still limited to take-out and delivery for the time being, some trucks are finding success by parking at new locations, including right outside their customers’ homes.
Some homeowners associations and apartment property managers are even hiring whole groups of food trucks to park on residential streets. Customers say it gives them the satisfaction of eating out in a time when that really isn’t an option.
Polls also show that many customers will feel reluctant to sit down in crowded restaurants, even when they are allowed to reopen. But due to their outdoor and on-the-go business model, food trucks present a safer alternative.
On May 2, the On the Hook fish n’ chips truck drew dozens of people to its parking spot in downtown Loveland. The line to order stretched around the block.
When Amber Cronin pulled up to a food truck rally in a Berthoud neighborhood earlier this month, she had a bad feeling. The weather was awful. It was pouring rain.
But when she opened the doors of her mobile bakery, The Cupcake Gypsies, customers jumped at the chance to buy her “chocolate truffle” and “root beer float” flavored cupcakes.
“People were so stoked,” Cronin said. “We sold out.”
Earlier this year, her business was in freefall. Dozens of weddings and other summer events she had on her calendar got postponed due to the pandemic.
But after pivoting to working the new neighborhood rallies, she should be able to stay afloat this season, she said. She’s also seen a slight boost in sales thanks to to-go purchases at a small brick-and-mortar space she opened last year in downtown Loveland and by listing the bakery on local delivery apps.
“We’re really hoping through all this that people start seeing how much they do value their local, small companies and how much they do need to support them,” Cronin said.
Some Colorado elected officials are advocating for an even broader deployment of food trucks to provide fresh food to essential workers.
Gov. Jared Polis recently issued an executive order allowing the trucks to serve commercial truck drivers at rest stops, which is normally against state regulations. The order comes with a long list of COVID-era food service safety precautions, such as wearing masks and social distancing requirements.
“This action will help Colorado’s truckers have access to fresh and affordable meals on the road and help our small food truck businesses continue to support themselves in a way that also supports our critical supply chain needs and our community,” Polis said in a statement.
Some details of the plan are still being worked out. This week, the Colorado Department of Transportation launched an online application portal for food truck owners to apply for the special rest stop permit. It’s unclear how many have applied so far.
Scott Atchison, owner of the Sweaty Moose food truck, said serving at rest stops seemed like a viable option for his business, which cooks Colorado-themed comfort food like “mountain nachos” and “sloppy elk sliders.” But he’s still getting his bearings in the new landscape.
When the COVID-19 outbreak first took hold in March, he decided to take a month off. Safety was his biggest concern. Atchison’s wife has lupus, an autoimmune disease that puts her at a higher risk of severe complications from the disease.
“I could not bring this in-home,” he said.
Coupled with lost revenue from cancelled events, the decision cost him thousands of dollars in potential sales.
He spent most of April learning about simple safety precautions. And late last month, he finally started scheduling work days on an on-call basis.
Atchison still isn’t back to his regular level of business, but he thinks he’ll get to a sustainable point sometime this year. Local corporate offices, which are opening back up under Colorado’s safer-at-home rules, have now become his most lucrative parking spot, he said.
“There are other food trucks out there that are supporting essential workers like the medical field,” Atchison said. “So we’re looking at all those options. Everybody’s doing their best navigating through this.”
Back in Loveland, Billy Daniels is serving the last of his morning crowd at the Chaulkboard Gourmet Express, including Tara Shultz. She ordered breakfast tacos.
“It’s easy. It’s convenient. I’m sick of cooking at home,” Shultz said. “It gives me an excuse to eat out. You can’t really eat out anymore.”
After ordering and paying, Shultz went ahead and placed an order ahead for dinner that night.
Another customer, Bill Struman, ordered three breakfast burritos for his family. He said the person-to-person interaction is what keeps him coming back to the truck.
“A lot of the experience with delivery is missed, so food trucks are awesome,” he said. “We’ve done a lot of cooking at home but intermittently you gotta break it up.”
Daniels has gotten so busy he’s actually had to start turning down requests to park outside neighborhoods. It’s a lot more work than the typical spring-summer season, he said. He’s worked triple the hours over the last few weeks to make up for cancelled events.
“I pay my bills late, but they get paid,” he said. “That’s how I look at it.”
After serving breakfast in Loveland, he packs up his truck and heads to Fort Collins to set up somewhere new for lunch.