Out on a brewery patio or at a park picnic table, with street tacos, banh mi or a slab of pizza in one hand (and possibly a beer in the other), you feel somehow less threatened by COVID-19. After all, your food truck vendor took your order and cooked your meal behind a barrier of glass and steel, and the breath of nearby diners and drinkers wafts away on the summer breeze, leaving only the delicious scent of food cooking.
But the destructive power of the coronavirus pandemic, at least economically, is evident in the reduced number of food trucks making the rounds of breweries and bars, and food truck rallies are all but non-existent this summer. Even the loophole created by Governor Jared Polis, which allowed bars to open as long as they served food — and food from a nearby mobile kitchen counts — hasn't really revved up the food truck business. According to the Denver Department of Excise and Licenses, the number of active retail food mobile licenses is down 36 percent from this time last year. When the department took a count on July 24, 2019, there were 706 active licenses on file; just over a year later, the number stands at 454.
Many food trucks rely on more than just walk-up customers for revenue; private parties and other catering gigs make up a huge chunk of business in normal years — along with music festivals, rallies and other outdoor events. But the pandemic put a halt to large public gatherings, and also caused government agencies to restrict capacity and hours at bars, distilleries, wineries, cideries and brewery taprooms. And those walk-up customers? They're not in their offices or out shopping, so they're not being enticed by the instant gratification of nearby street food.
"Sales have been slower," notes Chris Suski, who manages Lucky Bird, a food truck owned by Leigh Davison that specializes in chicken tenders and fried chicken sandwiches. "We'll do $1,200 to $1,500 [a day] from the truck, instead of $3,000 a year ago."
Lucky Bird also has a kitchen and quick-service counter at Edgewater Marketplace, and Suski says the numbers are down there, too. But despite the pandemic, he says that Lucky Bird only stopped serving food for about two weeks, back in March when all restaurants across the state had to close on March 17.
"One of the things that has been a lifesaver is the neighborhood gigs put on by HOAs and apartment buildings," he notes. Those neighborhood gatherings have been the only positive side effect of an otherwise brutal summer; Suski says that's because they bring a guaranteed number of customers who are there specifically to buy food. Even so, a small percentage of these bookings are a bust, and he points out that some event and booking organizers have raised fees from 10 to 15 percent, even as food trucks are struggling.
As long as the warm weather persists, though, Lucky Bird is continuing to book appearances. "We're definitely scared of the winter months, so we're hoping for a long, warm fall," Suski adds. "But I think Lucky Bird will make it — there's only one thing to do, and that's to keep working."
Gabriela Reyes, who ran The Lot, a small food truck gathering in Westminster, for three months, says the hardest part for the vendors she booked was not knowing what business would be like from week to week. "I heard a lot of 'You never know what you're going to get,'" she says. "You just can't predict consumer behavior right now."
The Lot started out doing dinner service for two hours (the maximum time the city would allow) Thursday through Saturday, but eventually switched to lunch and dinner hours on Saturdays only, because "that's what families were responding to," Reyes notes. "Nothing was ever guaranteed. It's emotionally exhausting, but you just keep trying and trying."
Reyes is now helping food trucks land bi-weekly food-and-spirits pairing dinners at Mile High Spirits in RiNo. She agrees with Suski that winter will be tough for vendors, who usually stockpile money during busy summers to make it through the slow months.
One pair of new food truck operators is looking forward to chilly weather, since that's when pho really sells. Long Nguyen and Shauna Seaman are nearly ready to launch Pho King Rapidos, which will specialize in "Vietnamese-ish" food. Nguyen says he grew up in the low-income neighborhoods around west Denver and Lakewood, where he and his friends enjoyed both Mexican and Vietnamese street food. "'Rapidos is a tribute to fast, cheap Mexican food," including Tacos Rapidos, he explains (though the food truck is not otherwise associated with that legendary pair of takeout-only Denver taquerias).
"I've been in restaurants for more than twenty years," Nguyen adds, noting that he's worked everywhere from White Fence Farm, when he was younger, to Tavernetta, which he recently left. He and Seaman also spent five years in New York City, where they initially hatched their plan for a mobile pho kitchen, because there was a lack of good Vietnamese restaurants there at the time.
The couple's food truck is under construction right now, and they anticipate launching it in early September, after they pass inspections and obtain mobile food licenses for Denver and Broomfield counties. After that, oxtail-based pho, smoked brisket banh mi and "phoutine" — a take on Canadian poutine made with pho gravy and topped with braised oxtail and Monterey Jack cheese — will be on the Pho King Rapidos menu. Mexican influences sneak in with green chile cheese fries and an al pastor banh mi, and they're also looking at serving an uncommon Vietnamese snack, pâté chaud, as a special. A pâté chaud is a savory stuffed pastry made with a puff pastry wrapper that Seaman says reflects the French influence in Vietnamese cuisine. "That's something Long's mom makes at home," she adds. "She's been very supportive of the food truck and has been giving us menu ideas. We'll also be serving our own chicken and rice, because every culture has its own version."
Nowhere is the unstable street-food climate more noticeable than at Civic Center Park, where for the past ten years, Civic Center Eats has steadily grown from just a handful of vendors to its height last summer, when twenty or so trucks, trailers and carts gathered three times a week to sell everything from ice cream to Ethiopian cuisine to throngs of hungry office workers and other park visitors. This year, Civic Center Eats debuted three months later than usual, and it looked like what customers would have seen back in 2010, when only a handful of trucks gathered every week.
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"It's always a great day when Civic Center Eats returns," says Eric Lazzari, executive director of the Civic Center Conservancy, which runs the program. "Everyone anticipated that the numbers would be nowhere near what they've been in the last few years; to have even launched in this environment, we deem that a success."
This year, Civic Center Eats hosts five vendors at a time for lunch and dinner hours on Wednesdays and Thursdays, with a roped-off ordering zone, taped Xs on the pavement to help customers maintain safe distances, and spray-painted circles on the lawn to designate picnic areas. Certain rules and restrictions have been handed down from city and state agencies, Lazzari points out, such as masks for workers and customers while in the ordering area, hand sanitizers at entry and exit points, and a maximum of 150 people inside the roped-off area. Civic Center Eats has already obtained permission to add a second area within the park so that if demand is high enough, the organization can invite in another five trucks...and rope off an area for another 150 people.
Lazzari says he noticed that fewer vendors applied to participate this year, and he admits that setting up in a fairly quiet (these days, at least) downtown area is an unknown compared to better bets like the suburban neighborhood gatherings happening more frequently. "What I've heard from the food truck community is that they're being selective about where they're licensing," he notes, so licenses that cover Jefferson, Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties may prove a better investment than just signing up for Denver itself. "The ones that have chosen to join us, they're taking the same chance we are."
Food trucks, like brick-and-mortar restaurants, are far from a sure thing even in the best of times — and 2020 has proven to be among the worst of times. "When the pandemic happened, it changed everything," says Pho King's Seaman. "But we've been thinking about starting a food truck for the past seven years — so we're doing it."