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On a brewery patio or at a park picnic table with street tacos, banh mi, or a slice of pizza in one (and possibly a beer in the other), you feel less threatened by COVID-19. Eventually, your food truck salesman took your order and cooked your food behind a glass and steel barrier. The breath of the guests and drinkers nearby blows in the summer breeze, leaving only the delicious smell of the food behind.
But the devastating power of the coronavirus pandemic is shown, at least economically, in the reduced number of food trucks making the rounds of breweries and bars, and food truck rallies are next to nonexistent this summer. Even the void created by Governor Jared Polis that bars could open as long as they were serving food – and eating from a nearby mobile kitchen counted – didn’t really revive the food truck business. According to the Denver Department of Excise and Licenses, the number of active mobile grocery retail licenses is down 36 percent year over year. When the department performed a count on July 24, 2019, there were 706 active licenses on file. a little over a year later, the number is 454.
Many food trucks don’t just rely on customers for revenue. Private parties and other catering appearances are a large part of the business in normal years – along with music festivals, rallies, and other outdoor events. However, the pandemic halted large public gatherings and caused government agencies to restrict the capacity and opening hours of bars, distilleries, wineries, ciders and brewery taprooms. And these walk-up customers? They are not in their offices or out shopping so they will not be seduced by the instant gratification of the street food nearby.
Loaded chicken tenders and waffle fries from Lucky Bird.
Michael Emery Hecker
“Sales have been slower,” notes Chris Suski, who runs Lucky Bird, a Leigh Davison food truck that specializes in chicken tenders and fried chicken sandwiches. “We’re going to make $ 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 at Edgewater Marketplace, and Suski says the numbers are down there too. Despite the pandemic, he said Lucky Bird didn’t stop serving food for about two weeks, in March when all restaurants across the state had to close on March 17th.
“One of the things that have been a lifesaver is the neighborhood appearances of HOAs and apartment buildings,” he notes. These neighborhood gatherings were 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 groceries. Even so, a small percentage of those bookings are broke, and he points out that some event and booking organizers have increased their fees from 10 percent to 15 percent even when food trucks are struggling.
As long as the warm weather continues, Lucky Bird will continue to book gigs. “We are definitely afraid of the winter months and hope for a long, warm autumn,” adds Suski. “But I think Lucky Bird will do it – there is only one thing to do and that is to keep working.”
Gabriela Reyes, who ran The Lot, a small food truck in Westminster for three months, said the hardest part for the salespeople she booked was not knowing what business would be like from week to week. “I’ve heard a lot about ‘you never know what you’re going to get,'” she says. “You just can’t predict consumer behavior right now.”
The Lot started dinner for two hours Thursday through Saturday (the maximum time the city allows) but ended up only switching to lunch and dinner on Saturdays because “that’s what the families reacted to,” notes Reyes. “Nothing has ever been guaranteed. It’s emotionally exhausting, but you just keep trying.”
Reyes is now helping food trucks land biweekly dinners of food and liquor at Mile High Spirits in RiNo. She agrees with Suski that winter will be difficult for salespeople who typically have money in store during busy summers to get through the slow months.
A couple of new food truck operators are looking forward to cool weather, because then pho will really sell. Long Nguyen and Shauna Seaman are almost ready to launch Pho King Rapidos, which specializes in “Vietnamese-ish”. Nguyen says he grew up in low-income areas around West Denver and Lakewood, where he and his friends enjoyed both Mexican and Vietnamese street food. “‘Rapidos pays homage to fast, cheap Mexican food,” he explains, including tacos rapidos (although the food truck is no differently associated with this iconic pair of Denver takeaway taquerias).
A new type of Banh Mi is coming soon from the Pho King Rapidos Food Truck.
Courtesy Pho King King Rapidos
“I’ve been in restaurants for over twenty years,” adds Nguyen, noting that he has worked everywhere from White Fence Farm when he was younger to the tavernetta he recently left. He and Seaman also spent five years in New York City, where they first worked out their plan for a mobile Pho kitchen because of the lack of good Vietnamese restaurants at the time.
The couple’s food truck is currently under construction and is expected to hit the market in early September after passing inspections and obtaining mobile food licenses for Denver and Broomfield counties. Then oxtail-based pho, banh mi with smoked brisket and “phoutine” – a variant of the Canadian poutine made from pho sauce, topped with braised oxtail and Monterey Jack cheese – are on the menu at Pho King Rapidos. Mexican influences creep in with green chili cheese fries and an Al Pastor Banh Mi, and they want to serve an unusual Vietnamese snack, pâté chaud, as a specialty too. A pâté chaud is a hearty filled pastry that is made with puff pastry packaging and, according to Seaman, reflects the French influence in Vietnamese cuisine. “That’s what Long’s mother does at home,” she adds. “She was very supportive of the food truck and gave us menu ideas. We’ll also serve our own chicken and rice because every culture has its own version.”
Nowhere is the unstable street food climate as noticeable as in Civic Center Park, where Civic Center Eats has grown steadily over the past ten years from just a handful of vendors to its height last summer, when around twenty trucks, trailers and carts gathered three times a week to sell everything from ice cream to Ethiopian cuisine to a crowd of hungry office workers and other park goers. That year, Civic Center Eats debuted three months later than usual, and it looked like customers saw 2010 when only a handful of trucks gathered each week.
Civic Center Eats kicked off the 2020 season on Wednesday, August 12, 2020.
“It’s always a great day when Civic Center Eats returns,” said Eric Lazzari, executive director of the Civic Center Conservancy, who leads the program. “Everyone expected that the numbers would not be anywhere near as high as in recent years. In order to even come onto the market in this environment, we consider it a success.”
This year, the Civic Center Eats will host five vendors for lunch and dinner on Wednesdays and Thursdays. There’s a cordoned off ordering zone, taped Xs on the sidewalk to make it easier for customers to keep safe distances, and spray-painted circles on the lawn to mark picnic areas. Lazzari points out that certain rules and restrictions have been issued by city and state authorities, such as: B. masks for workers and customers in the order area, hand disinfectant at the entry and exit points and a maximum of 150 people in the locked area. Civic Center Eats has already received permission to add a second area within the park so the organization can load an additional five trucks if demand is high … and abseil an area for an additional 150 people.
Lazzari says he noticed fewer vendors applied to attend this year, and admits the facility in a relatively quiet downtown area (at least nowadays) compared to better bets like the more frequent gatherings in suburban areas is unknown is. “What I’ve heard from the food truck community is that they are selective about where to license,” he notes. Licenses covering Jefferson, Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas Counties may be a better investment than just signing up for Denver itself. “Those who choose us are getting the same chance as we are.”
Food trucks, like stationary restaurants, are far from safe even in the best of times – and 2020 has proven to be one of the worst 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 let’s do it.”
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Mark Antonation is the Westword Food & Drink Editor. He began eating and writing about every restaurant on Federal Boulevard and continues to cover the diverse international food scene on Metro Denver and the city’s rapidly changing dining landscape. Mark was recognized as an Outstanding Media Professional by the Colorado Restaurant Association in 2018.