AP

Saved by suburbs: Food trucks hit by virus find new foodies

Aug 21, 2020, 7:24 AM
Kaye Fan, right, calls out orders as she works in her Dreamy Drinks food truck, Monday, Aug. 10, 20...
Kaye Fan, right, calls out orders as she works in her Dreamy Drinks food truck, Monday, Aug. 10, 2020, near the suburb of Lynnwood, Wash., north of Seattle. Long seen as a feature of city living, food trucks are now finding customers in the suburbs during the coronavirus pandemic as people are working and spending most of their time at home. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

LYNNWOOD, Wash. (AP) — On a warm summer night, two food trucks pulled onto a tree-lined street in a hilltop neighborhood outside Seattle. The smell of grilled meat filled the air, and neighbors slurped on boba tea drinks. Toddlers, teens, their parents and dogs sat in the grass, chatting behind masks, laughing and mimicking imaginary hugs to stay socially distant while they waited for their food orders.

Long seen as an urban treasure, food trucks are now being saved by the suburbs during the coronavirus pandemic. No longer able to depend on bustling city centers, these small businesses on wheels are venturing out to where people are working and spending most of their time — home.

As food trucks hunt for customers that used to flock to them, they’re finding a captive audience thrilled to skip cooking dinner, sample new kinds of cuisines and mingle with neighbors on what feels like a night out while safely staying close to home.

“This is festival season, fun season. All the stuff we typically do as humans, we can’t do anymore,” said Matt Geller, president of the National Food Truck Association. “Walking out to a food truck is a taste of normalcy, and it feels really good.”

YS Street Food Group owner Yuli Shen discovered the hilltop Seattle-area neighborhood through Facebook, and she and a friend who runs the Dreamy Drinks boba tea truck went out together recently and served customers for three hours.

It’s a change and a relief for Shen. Before the pandemic, she raked in money by parking at Amazon’s campus near downtown Seattle, where hordes of office workers would line up for lunchtime Chinese rice bowls. By July, she was frantically searching for somewhere to go.

“It’s very hard to find a location to park, and so we have to find a different place and different people. It’s harder to run the business, but we’re trying,” Shen said.

Weekday lunchtime business is the bulk of the revenue for an average food truck, which may make $800 to $1,200 a day, Geller said. And lucrative appearances at major summer festivals and community events padded them for leaner winter months.

Since stay-at-home orders earlier this year emptied out city centers and canceled gatherings, many food trucks — like brick-and-mortar restaurants — have gone out of business or aren’t sure when they’ll open again.

Food trucks adjusted their business model as they headed to the suburbs: They focus on dinner, adding kid-friendly options and preparing for larger orders. A new neighborhood means being unsure how many customers they’ll get and gambling on how much food to bring. To avoid that, many trucks urge customers to order ahead online.

Geller said the suburban shift has been a boon for food trucks in places like Seattle, Nashville, Tennessee, and Austin, Texas. He said people in the suburbs have been good at staying connected with neighbors during COVID-19 through Facebook groups, where food truck gatherings are advertised.

B.J. Lofback decided to pivot his Nashville-area food truck and restaurant away from labor-intensive Korean food after laying off most of his staff when business dwindled. He rebranded as Pinchy’s Lobster Co. and now sells lobster rolls, which he can largely prep himself.

Without his usual downtown Nashville lunchtimes and music events, he and other truckers began reaching out to homeowners associations in large subdivisions. It’s been such a success, he doesn’t miss the “stressful, expensive” event schedule. Now, he can keep all the money he earns, instead of paying up to 20% of his revenue in event fees.

“The economics just worked,” Lofback said. “Me personally, I’m hoping that even if a vaccine dropped tomorrow and herd immunity was accomplished tomorrow, I hope neighborhoods still have us out.”

Piroshky Piroshky, a Seattle institution at the iconic Pike Place Market, lost 90% of its brick-and-mortar business when the pandemic hit, operations manager Brian Amaya said.

The bakery pivoted to online sales, home deliveries and food truck events. Some events featuring its famous hand pies have been as successful as a modest day in a store. The 28-year-old business is considering adding a second food truck.

“It’s enough to pay our employees and cover the cost of it and make a little bit of revenue for us to keep going,” Amaya said.

The idea was also new to Julie Schwab before she created events that have practically become food truck lore near Lynnwood, Washington, about 16 miles (25 kilometers) north of Seattle.

Business owners ask if it’s true that one truck made $4,000 in one night. She tells them food trucks make between $1,000 to $4,000 a shift. The high school psychologist also advises other communities that want in on the food truck circuit.

“You look what’s happening with everybody coming out, and people are getting to know each other,” Schwab said, adding that people wear masks and keep their distance. “It’s been really great to build a community despite what’s going on with this pandemic.”

After hearing how the industry had dried up, Schwab took a stab at organizing an event in June for the only food truck she’d ever tried. Now, she’s scheduling trucks seven days a week and into December.

Thanks to the trucks, Schwab discovered bibimbap, a Korean rice bowl, and she relishes helping small businesses, many run by people of color.

But there’s been headaches, too: hours of work scheduling trucks, promoting events and responding to neighbors with questions. Occasionally, trucks are late, unprepared or no-shows.

Christine Thai, a hospital program coordinator, was surprised to learn about the food truck scene in her community when she went to one of Schwab’s events recently with her husband and baby. It was a rare outing for the family, and she got to enjoy a strawberry matcha latte.

“The suburbs are getting cool because people don’t want to travel anymore,” Thai said.

___

Follow Sally Ho on Twitter at http://twitter.com/_sallyho

Today’s Top Stories

AP

DOHA, QATAR - NOVEMBER 25: A giant flag of IR Iran on the pitch prior to the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2...
ALI ABDUL-HASSAN and ABBY SEWELL Associated Press

US-Iran match reflects a regional rivalry for many Arab fans

The U.S. team’s must-win World Cup match against Iran will be closely watched across the Middle East, where the two nations have been engaged in a cold war for over four decades and where many blame one or both for the region’s woes.
6 days ago
Irene Cara in 'Fame' (Photo courtesy of Mgm/Kobal, Shutterstock)...
MARK KENNEDY, AP Entertainment Writer

‘Fame’ and ‘Flashdance’ singer-actor Irene Cara dies at 63

singer-actress Irene Cara, who starred and sang the title cut from the 1980 hit movie “Fame” and then belted out the era-defining hit “Flashdance ... What a Feeling” from 1983's “Flashdance,” has died. She was 63.
8 days ago
The U.S. Coast Guard ship Bernard C. Webber, leaves the coast guard base, Monday, July 19, 2021, in...
Associated Press

‘Miracle’: Missing cruise ship passenger found OK in water

The U.S. Coast Guard says a passenger who went overboard from a cruise ship in the Gulf of Mexico was rescued on Thanksgiving after likely being in the water for hours.
9 days ago
FILE - A Montana man was sentenced to three years in prison for his role in the Capitol riot. (AP P...
The Associated Press

Montana man gets 3 years in prison for role in Capitol riot

A Montana man will spend three years in federal prison for his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S Capitol.
10 days ago
Debbie, left, and Chet Barnett place flowers at a memorial outside of the Chesapeake, Va., Walmart ...
The Associated Press

Walmart shooter left ‘death note,’ bought gun day of killing

According to authorities in Virginia, the Walmart shooter bought his gun just hours prior to killing six employees.
10 days ago
Dry lakebed...
Kira Hoffelmeyer

Lawsuit looms over tiny fish in drought-stricken West

RENO, Nev. (AP) — Conservationists have notified U.S. wildlife officials that they will sue over delayed decisions related to protections for two rare fish species that are threatened by groundwater pumping in the drought-stricken West. The Center for Biological Diversity sent a formal notice of intent to sue the Fish and Wildlife Service last week […]
12 days ago

Sponsored Articles

Spicy Homemade Loaded Taters Tots...
Macey's

5 game day snacks for the whole family (with recipes!)

Try these game day snacks to make watching football at home with your family feel like a special occasion. 
Happy joyful smiling casual satisfied woman learning and communicates in sign language online using...
Sorenson

The best tools for Deaf and hard-of-hearing workplace success

Here are some of the best resources to make your workplace work better for Deaf and hard-of-hearing employees.
Team supporters celebrating at a tailgate party...
Macey's

8 Delicious Tailgate Foods That Require Zero Prep Work

In a hurry? These 8 tailgate foods take zero prep work, so you can fuel up and get back to what matters most: getting hyped for your favorite
christmas decorations candles in glass jars with fir on a old wooden table...
Western Nut Company

12 Mason Jar Gift Ideas for the 12 Days of Christmas [with recipes!]

There are so many clever mason jar gift ideas to give something thoughtful to your neighbors or friends. Read our 12 ideas to make your own!
wide shot of Bear Lake with a person on a stand up paddle board...

Pack your bags! Extended stays at Bear Lake await you

Work from here! Read our tips to prepare for your extended stay, whether at Bear Lake or somewhere else nearby.
young boy with hearing aid...
Sorenson

Accommodations for students who are deaf and hard of hearing

These different types of accommodations for students who are deaf and hard of hearing can help them succeed in school.
Saved by suburbs: Food trucks hit by virus find new foodies