St. Louis food trucks amid the pandemic

With many food trucks relying on large events and corporate lunch breaks, crowd restrictions and office closings have put the brakes on business

ST. LOUIS – As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, St. Louis food trucks are learning to roll with it.

Mobile restaurants with their built-in take-out model are great for dealing with the pandemic. They are also uniquely suited to suffer from it. With many food trucks relying on large events and corporate lunch breaks, crowd restrictions and office closings have put the brakes on business.

StLouisianaQ, which booked around 100 concerts and events this summer, watched as 90 of them were canceled one after the other. Buzz’s Hawaiian Grill, who turned down big events he doesn’t think are safe, buckles to survive what he predicts for a gloomy winter.

Despite the challenges, local food trucks are finding ways to adapt. They change menus, update contactless payment systems and spend more time in residential areas. Thanks to pop-up events in the neighborhood and private party bookings, the Mission Taco truck is fully booked for a month. The Naughty & Nice Creamery of the Clementine truck is an addition to its four stationary locations. She has had success with micro-weddings where couples who had to sacrifice many of their original plans still want to offer guests high quality treats.

Food trucks also get help from the St. Louis Community. The St. Louis Food Truck Association has partnered with local marketing firm Notion to create an advertising campaign called “Keep on Truckin ‘” to encourage neighborhoods to book food trucks online. And 9 Mile Garden, a hangout for pre-pandemic food trucks developed in Affton, opened on July 3rd. Although the garden was temporarily closed during a COVID-19 surge, it reopened on August 12 with a line-up of 26 food trucks.

Despite their ingenuity and community support, many St. Louis food trucks continue to face a bleak future as long as offices remain closed and events are canceled. We spoke to four local food truck operators to learn how they have adapted to COVID-19 and how the pandemic has affected their businesses.

After returning from military service in Vietnam, Louisiana native Thomas White decided to move to New York to look for a job. He stopped in St. Louis on the way north. “I came to visit my family and the next thing you knew I was married and had kids,” White said. “It went so fast that I couldn’t even blink.”

White and his wife Patti Peters-White opened a local food truck in 1999. StLouisianaQ and its restaurant, which opened in September 2019 and opened in September 2019, are known for their slow-roasted pork and generous portions. Recently, however, StLouisianaQ has been battling ingredient shortages and has lost business due to COVID-19. We spoke to co-owner Patti Peters-White about how the food truck has adapted.

How has the business model of your food truck changed due to COVID-19? We’ve definitely revised some of our business practices. We have more business customers for the daily lunch where the company pays for all staff. That way, companies feel they can show their appreciation for their essential employees, and we feel privileged to be a part of them. We’ve tried to limit direct customer contact and interaction by placing more pre-orders, and we’re now accepting no-contact fees.

Has your truck changed its menu due to COVID-19? Our menu has generally remained the same, with just a few adjustments for foods and ingredients that we cannot find due to shortages. Food supplies were definitely an issue due to the pandemic.

Have you started moving your truck to residential areas? While we have always brought StLouisianaQ Food Truck to subdivisions, we are now asked much more frequently. We believe that with so many people staying home, it is a relatively easy, useful, and fun way to get good food. We really enjoy serving a shared apartment. It’s always a fun time! We usually ask for a guaranteed minimum, or at least try to determine that there are enough people to make sure we can justify the trip.

How has the pandemic affected the overall business of your truck? Our business has decreased by 90% since the summer of 2019. Our StLouisianaQ Food Truck Calendar planned around 100 summer events and concerts across St. Louis and the Metro East on April 1st. They were good, solid events that we have attended over the years. We watched them get 90% canceled one by one.

What measures are you taking to ensure the safety of truck employees and customers? We have always maintained a very clean food truck, but now we are even more vigilant when it comes to keeping our food areas clean and hygienic. We ensure that we constantly check and disinfect surfaces. We use practices like single-serving packs instead of squeeze bottles and prepackaged plastic goods and napkins. Our employees continue to adhere to strict food service guidelines – they also wear masks and gloves, which are changed frequently. We also encourage customers to follow social distancing practices.

Mission Taco Joint, owned by brothers Jason and Adam Tilford, launched the Mission Taco Truck in 2015 after the duo had already set up two stationary locations for their restaurant. The truck has become a staple at events in the St. Louis area such as food truck Fridays and music and beer festivals, as well as at private events such as weddings. Although COVID-19 has dampened some of these events for 2020, Mission Taco General Manager and Food Truck Manager Perry Fischer shares how Mission Taco Truck has adapted.

How has the business model of your food truck changed due to COVID-19? We’ve had success with our neighborhood pop-ups and are still booking some smaller private events like weddings with fewer than 100 people. We booked the truck Thursday through Sunday for about a month which was great. However, all major festivals such as Food Truck Fridays have been canceled for the foreseeable future.

Has your truck changed its menu due to COVID-19? We offer our guests the same food truck menu that we always have, including selected tacos, burritos, quesadillas, french fries and salsa, and margaritas.

Have you started moving your truck to residential areas? We now offer two menus. If guests are renting the truck for a private event (which requires a minimum sale), they can choose anything from the original menu. We also offer a limited menu for neighborhood style events. It limits the taco selection to five different tacos, but you can still order our burritos, quesadillas, fries and salsa, guacamole, queso and of course margaritas. For events in the neighborhood, guests contact us at [email protected] We will create an online registration page that we will share with the organizer. They share this link with all of their neighbors, usually on Facebook. Two slots are available every 10 minutes and each slot is limited to six people. If you order for seven to 12 people, take both slots. This way we can try to limit the number of people on the truck at any given time. That being said, we allow people to walk and place orders. Our minimum for this type of event is 24 families over a two hour period. It was really successful in bringing some fun to the community and giving the neighbors a fun night right in their backyards.

What measures are you taking to ensure the safety of truck employees and customers? Mission Taco Joint has been very busy with COVID-19. We have worked to create a system that is safe for both our guests and our employees and that takes hygiene and social distancing very seriously. The online registration system was extremely effective for keeping the neighborhood fun, but also keeping people safe and social distancing. We removed the cashier from the truck and now put up a tent and table for customers to place orders. There are only two employees on the truck and they both wear masks and gloves to prepare and serve the food – all of which promote social distancing. We’ve also moved to a debit and credit system to reduce person-to-person interaction.

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