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How the pandemic is forcing these St. Louis food trucks to shift gears

With many food trucks’ reliance on large events and corporate lunch breaks, crowd restrictions and office closures have slammed the brakes on business
Credit: Buzz's Hawaiian Grill/SLBJ
Buzz's Hawaiian Grill has halted its service to office buildings during the pandemic and shifted its focus to dinner services with curbside and pickup options.

ST. LOUIS — As the COVID-19 pandemic wears on, St. Louis’ food trucks are learning to roll with it.

Mobile eateries, with their built-in takeout model, are uniquely suited to deal with the pandemic. They’re also uniquely suited to suffer from it. With many food trucks’ reliance on large events and corporate lunch breaks, crowd restrictions and office closures have slammed the brakes on business. 

StLouisianaQ, which had about 100 concerts and events booked this summer, watched as 90 of them were canceled one by one. Buzz’s Hawaiian Grill, which has been turning down large events it doesn’t trust will be safe, is buckling down to survive what it predicts will be a grim winter.

Yet despite the challenges, local food trucks are finding ways to adapt. They’re modifying menus, upgrading touchless payment systems and spending more time in residential neighborhoods. Thanks to neighborhood pop-up events and private party bookings, Mission Taco’s truck is booked for a month out. The truck Clementine’s Naughty & Nice Creamery operates as a supplement to its four brick-and-mortar locations has found success with micro-weddings, where couples who had to sacrifice many of their original plans still want to provide guests with quality treats. 

Food trucks are also getting help from the St. Louis community. The St. Louis Food Truck Association partnered with local marketing company Notion to create a promotional campaign, “Keep on Truckin’,” which encourages neighborhoods to book food trucks online. And 9 Mile Garden, a gathering place for food trucks under development in Affton prior to the pandemic, opened July 3. Although it temporarily closed amid a COVID-19 surge, the garden reopened August 12 with a lineup of 26 food trucks.

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

Credit: STLOUISIANAQ/SLBJ
Business at the StLouisianaQ food truck is down 90% from last summer as the pandemic forced the cancellation of summer events and concerts, a big source of seasonal revenue for the truck.

STLOUISIANAQ

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

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

How has your food truck's business model changed due to COVID-19? We have definitely redone some of our business practices. We have more business customers for daily lunches where the company is paying for the entire staff. It is one way that the companies feel that they can show their appreciation for their essential workers, and we feel privileged to be a part of that. We have tried to limit the customers’ direct contact and interaction by taking more pre-orders and we do take touchless charges now.

Has your truck changed its menu due to COVID-19? Our menu has generally remained the same, with just some adjustments for food items and ingredients that we are unable to find due to shortages. Food supply has definitely been an issue due to the pandemic. 

Have you started taking your truck into residential neighborhoods? While we have always taken StLouisianaQ food truck to subdivisions, we are being asked much more frequently now. We believe that since there are so many folks staying at home, it’s a relatively easy, useful and fun way for them to get some great food. We really enjoy serving a residential community; it’s always a fun time! We usually ask for a guaranteed minimum, or at the least try to establish that there will be enough of a crowd to ensure that we can justify the trip.

How has the pandemic impacted your truck’s overall business? Our business is down 90% from the summer of 2019. Our StLouisianaQ food truck calendar on April 1 had around 100 summer events and concerts scheduled, all over St. Louis and the Metro East. They were good, solid events that we have attended over the years. We watched as one by one they were 90% canceled.  

What measures are you taking to keep truck employees and customers safe? We have always maintained a very clean food truck, but now we are even more hyper-vigilant about keeping our food areas clean and sanitized. We make sure that we are constantly checking and sanitizing surfaces. We employ practices such as single-serve packets instead of squeeze bottles and prepackaged plasticware and napkins. Our employees continue to follow strict foodservice guidelines — they also wear masks and gloves, which are changed frequently. We also encourage customers to follow social distancing practices. 

Credit: Mission Taco Truck/SLBJ
Mission Taco Truck launched in 2015 after owners Jason and Adam Tilford had already established two brick-and-mortar Mission Taco Joint locations.

MISSION TACO TRUCK

Mission Taco Joint, owned by brothers Jason and Adam Tilford, launched the Mission Taco Truck in 2015, after the duo had already established two brick-and-mortar locations of its restaurant. The truck became a staple at St. Louis-area events such as Food Truck Fridays and music and beer festivals, as well as private events like weddings. Though COVID-19 has put a damper on some of those events for 2020, Perry Fischer, Mission Taco’s commissary general manager and food truck manager, shares how Mission Taco Truck has adapted.

How has your food truck’s business model changed due to COVID-19? We’ve found success with our neighborhood pop-ups and we still book some smaller private events like weddings with less than 100 people. We have been booking the truck Thursdays through Sundays about a month out, which has been great. However, all of the large 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 the same food truck menu that we always have to our guests, which includes select tacos, burritos, quesadillas, chips and salsa and margaritas.

Have you started taking your truck into residential neighborhoods? We now offer two menus. If guests rent the truck for a private event (which requires a sales minimum), they can choose anything off of the original menu. We are also offering a limited menu for “neighborhood” style events. It limits the taco selection to five different tacos, but you can still order our burritos, quesadillas, chips and salsa, guacamole, queso, and, of course, margaritas. As for “neighborhood” events, guests reach out to us at info@missiontacotruck.com, and we create an online sign-up page that we share with the event organizer. They share that link with all of their neighbors, usually on Facebook. There are two slots available every 10 minutes and each slot is limited to six people. If you are ordering for seven to 12 people, you take both slots. This allows us to try to limit the amount of people at the truck at any given time. That being said, we allow people to walk up and place orders. Our minimum for this style of event is 24 families over a two-hour period. It has been really successful to offer something fun for the community and allow neighbors to have a fun night, right in their backyards.

What measures are you taking to keep truck employees and customers safe? Mission Taco Joint has been very diligent with COVID-19. We have worked to create a system that’s safe for both our guests and staff and take sanitation and social distancing very seriously. The online sign-up system has been extremely effective to offer something fun for the neighborhood, but also to keep people safe and socially distanced. We have moved the cashier off of the truck and now set up a tent and table where customers can place orders. There are only two employees on the truck and both wear masks and gloves to prepare and serve the food — all of this promotes social distancing. We have also moved to a debit and credit only system to cut down on person-to-person interaction.

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