If you're a chef without a dining room, avoiding the coronavirus lockdown can be just a little easier. So far, food trucks, though struggling, have not been affected by the thirty-day statewide closure of all bars and restaurants; they're still allowed to serve food while following the recommended guidelines for social distancing and meticulous sanitary practices. The major concerns right now are just finding locations to post up for food service and replacing sales from canceled bookings at events both public and private.
"I never thought in my life I'd see something so devastating to the industry," says Penelope Wong, owner of the Yuan Wonton food truck, which launched last summer to long lines and sold-out menus, thanks to savvy social-media messaging on Instagram and great Chinese- and Thai-inspired food. "When I think about how many chefs and restaurants are affected, it's just heartbreaking."
Yuan Wonton immediately felt the effects of Colorado's state of emergency. "We had to cancel everything," Wong explains. Her food truck relies on a combination of pop-ups, special events and scheduled bookings at local breweries and other businesses, and without those, she's been scrambling to find breweries still open (many are closed since they can't have customers in their taprooms) and outdoor spaces big enough to allow service directly to customers in their cars. She doesn't want traffic spilling out onto the street.
"We do draw lines, and that's what we're trying to prevent right now," the chef notes. "Our success turned out to be one of our biggest concerns now."
To streamline business and prevent customers from congregating in front of the truck, Wong has been taking pre-orders by phone, but the system is a work in progress, since with only one phone line, plenty of call-ins are being missed. Add to that food shortages at her usual suppliers — she says she could only procure about 40 percent of her last shopping list — and balancing inventory with demand becomes trickier than normal. But she knows it could be worse. "It's been overwhelming seeing all of this," she says. "But its also encouraging to see so many local chefs and restaurants banding together to help each other out."
Chef Brandon Becker is taking a slightly different approach to replacing lost sales from canceled bookings of his Cirque Kitchen food truck; he's offering packages of ready-to-eat family meals with instructions for heating and serving. Menus and instructions will be posted on the Cirque website beginning Monday, March 23, and customers will have until the following Friday (March 27) to place orders for food to be ready Monday, March 30, with the pattern of ordering by Friday for Monday pick-up continuing thereafter.
Cirque will have six different meals, and for $50, customers will be able to pick two dinners for the week that will each feed four people. Choices include three-cheese macaroni and cheese (or a Black Forest ham version), braised coq au vin tacos, a chicken wing package (these aren't your standard Buffalo wings), cassoulet with traditional duck confit or made garden-style, and a steak dinner package; sides and trimmings will vary with each package.
Becker says that with so many people out of work, he wants to help where he can, so he will be donating one meal for a family of four for every two meals he sells. He's also working with Nextdoor.com to find locations in Denver neighborhoods where he can park his truck and sell food à la carte. "It will be like an ice cream truck on your street, only with great food," he explains.
Becker and his partner, Samantha New, who owns Éclat Culinary, both also offer meal planning and prep for private customers — which could be a good option for those looking to minimize time outside the home for now.
Chef Blaine Baggao, who operates three Adobo food trucks, has been working for the past three years to build a stable schedule of bookings where "our presence is valued," he explains. He created Eat Mile High, an organization that helps food trucks and caterers land bookings and events (such as big gatherings at Gaylord of the Rockies Resort & Convention Center) without having to pay for the service (as is often the case with many third-party bookers). But most of those scheduled appearances have dried up for Baggao and his fellow food-truck operators.
"The thing about this that has been the hardest for us is the timing of it," Baggao continues. "Late February is around the time that we apply and pay all the big fees for the festivals and events that happen in the summer. This year so far, I've spent about $5,000 in just festival fees. Last year we were able to rebound from that as sales picked up in mid-April and May. This year we won't have that."
Baggao has had to cut back to one food truck and no employees, and he's also dealing with food shortages, noting that he couldn't find rice at his food supplier last weekend, a setback for a Filipino-New Mexico food truck that serves adobo chicken on rice as one of its top dishes (though he managed to stock up on rice on March 18). But he's mostly doing just smoked meats right now (and no side dishes), so he says he can keep going as long as his suppliers don't run out of big cuts. "As long as they keep selling us product, I'm going to keep turning it into money, revenue and income for my business and family," he adds. "I'm not going to just sit back and let this win. I'm going to make food available to the public through to-go ordering, online and drop-off, work close with the Eat Mile High family and do what I have to do to make it through this."
And that's what we're hearing — supporting each other and making it through this — from folks throughout the food-service industry.