If you’ve ever wondered what happens to a food truck in a global pandemic, swing by Chop Kitchens in White Center.
Before COVID-19, the commercial commissary was a bustling mother ship for nine food trucks. The vendors prepped their meals in the big commercial kitchen, raced out to crowded spots like South Lake Union or a farmers market or a festival and returned a few hours later — often just as others were leaving for evening shifts. “It was just nonstop,” recalls Avery Hardin, who launched his Layers Sandwich Co. truck with his wife Ashley at Chop Kitchens last fall.
All that changed when COVID-19 came to town this spring. Office parks became ghost towns. Festivals canceled and diners hunkered down at home. The food truck bubble collapsed like a mishandled soufflé.
It was “devastation,” recalls Chop Kitchens tenant John Starks, whose brightly painted Lil J’s Super Dawgs truck depended heavily on South Lake Union and Microsoft in Redmond, and has worked only sporadically since.
Today, just four of Chop Kitchens’ 10 current tenants take their trucks out with any regularity, say owners Vatsana Nouanthongme, 53, and Montanee Suthanasereporn, 44, two former truck vendors who opened the commissary in 2017 in an old Dairy Queen. Most of the rest of the big trucks, each of which can represent investments of $75,000 or more, now sit in the commissary’s big, fenced lot waiting for better times.
Chop Kitchens is probably a microcosm of the larger food truck business.
In King County, the official tally of “health-permitted food trucks,” which includes both trucks and trailers, fell from 460 in January 2020 to 327 as of September, according to the Washington State Food Truck Association.
It isn’t clear how much of that decline is pandemic-related — but it’s also unclear how many of those 327 are actually operating. Anecdotally, vendors say, many trucks are either temporarily parked or working just a few days a month.
Still, if the food truck business is down, it’s not out. At Chop Kitchens, several idle vendors, including Starks, expect to return to full-time operation. Next month, a brand-new food truck is launching.
More importantly, the four still-active trucks have maintained that status by reinventing themselves for a very different business environment. Those adaptations — which include new products, locations and marketing — offer a glimpse into what the future might look like for a sector that has become an essential part of the Seattle-area food scene.
Be a “first mover”
For Avery and Ashley Hardin, two brick-and-mortar restaurant veterans, surviving the pandemic has been partly about being what business consultants call a “first mover.”
Launched in fall 2019 with a $75,000 investment, their big Layers Sandwich truck had become popular at area breweries for its upscale artisanal fare. When those places shut down, Avery, 34, and Ashley, 37, still in startup mode, pivoted to taking orders online and were soon doing up to 40 meals a night at Chop Kitchens, and delivering them to customers’ homes in their Prius.
But after a few exhausting weeks, the Hardins realized they needed a more sustainable pivot. So in May, as more breweries began reopening for takeout, the Hardins gambled that Seattleites willing to leave the house for a $6 craft beer might also pay $11-$13 for a really nice sandwich.
The bet paid off. Not only were stay-home consumers hungry for new food options, but there was almost no competition. “We were, like, one of the only trucks out there,” Avery says. The pace was brutal and the hours long, but within a month, the couple were hitting their prepandemic sales goals.
They’ve maintained that early momentum by sticking to their menu (no cheaper ingredients) and nurturing their customer base via Instagram and emails. They’ve also carefully cultivated their symbiotic relationship with breweries — among them, Ravenna Brewing, Lantern Brewing in Greenwood, and Stoup and Urban Family in Ballard.
But Avery also credits the desperate “sink or swim” energy that arose after the pandemic struck and hasn’t subsided. “It made us stronger,” Avery says.
On a recent Wednesday, Brady Woo parked his BeanFish food truck at the Villa Marina and waited for customers. The Redmond condo complex is a world away from Westlake Park, Fremont Sunday Market and other venues where Woo sold his taiyaki — fish-shaped Japanese waffles with sweet or savory fillings — before COVID-19. But it helps illustrate why BeanFish has held on since then.
When the stay-home order last March cut Woo’s sales by three-quarters, his response was strategic. He used the downtime to develop new menu items, including, eventually, a thumb-size waffle that “created a little bit of a buzz for us.”
Second, Woo committed to keeping BeanFish’s brand visible during the pandemic, even if it cost him. That has meant lots of social media marketing, as most food trucks do. But it has also meant spending time in smaller, unproven locations just to keep his brand out there while generating enough cash flow to support himself and three employees.
An example is a spot on Broadway on Capitol Hill that hasn’t produced many sales, but puts the truck in front of heavy foot and car traffic. The goal, Woo says, wasn’t merely to survive COVID-19, but to come out the other side “with a larger customer base.”
It seems to be working. Although BeanFish’s monthly sales are still barely half of what they were a year ago, they’re steadily improving. At Villa Marina, BeanFish’s sales volume was low, but the average customer ticket was $28, or roughly triple the usual.
Those big spenders were mostly loyal current customers, Woo says, but BeanFish is also winning new converts. On a recent Saturday at the Seattle Uwajimaya, three-quarters of the customers were first-timers, which Woo credits to months of painstaking brand maintenance. Especially during a pandemic, Woo says, “every little bit of that helps.”
Loyal customers aren’t the only ones helping food trucks weather the pandemic. The broader food truck ecosystem is also slowly reviving, albeit with significant adaptations of its own.
Third-party booking sites are seeing more daily food trucks events, but many are now in residential areas instead of former urban hot spots, says Jonathan Amato, managing director at SeattleFoodTruck.com. The Washington State Food Truck Association is arranging temporary food truck locations, such as church parking lots, and recently partnered with the city of Bellevue and several nonprofits to donate more than 10,000 food truck meal vouchers for people in need.
And, of course, commissaries, which depend on the often-hefty rent from food trucks, are also improvising. At Chop Kitchens, where rent ranges from $750 to $1,300 a month, plus parking, Nouanthongme and Suthanasereporn have given vendors discounts on utilities and worked with them on rent.
They’ve also used their own food truck experience to help tenants adapt their menus and find new locations. The advice, which most tenants seem to appreciate, comes with a steady litany of inspirational exhortations. “We can get through this if we do it together,” says Nouanthongme. “You’ve got to hustle hard and be willing to struggle,” adds Suthanasereporn. But it also comes with cold pragmatism. Suthanasereporn warns tenants not to assume the food truck business will simply recover on its own. “It’s not going to happen,” she says. “The situation is not the same.”
That adapt-or-die theme has become a mantra for many tenants at Chop Kitchens, perhaps none more so than Sunny Up, a breakfast-themed truck run by Ande Janousek, 42, and Tara Zumpano, 33.
With office workers all working from home, Janousek and Zumpano also went residential: They now spend Thursday mornings near a cluster of apartment buildings at the Alaska Junction in West Seattle, and are looking for another residential location.
But they’ve pushed the envelope in other ways. They asked Chuck’s Hop Shop, where they’d been parking on weekends starting at 11 a.m., to let them come at 9 a.m., before the brewery opened. The extra business — they’re at both locations, Greenwood and Central District — “has really been keeping us afloat,” says Zumpano.
They’ve also supplemented the street business with catering and special events — a sideline built largely from scratch, with Zumpano “literally cold-calling and cold-emailing places that might want us to come out,” she says.
The results: Sales in September were 18% higher than in September 2019.
For Janousek and Zumpano, the lesson is simple. Before COVID-19, they might not have thought to ask for extended hours or catering gigs. A big part of their survival, Zumpano says, is “us being not afraid to ask those questions” and remembering that it’s OK to “lean on our neighbors.”
Still, no amount of innovation can take away the stress or uncertainty that even the active food truck drivers experience.
Daniel Romero, 38, and Yamel Tellez, 33, who run the Whateke Mexican food truck, have replaced some of the business they lost downtown by shifting to apartment complexes and staying connected with their loyal customers.
But they say many prospective customers remain anxious about crowds and dining out, which impacts business. Before the pandemic, Romero and Tellez could expect as much as $2,000 in a 5-9 p.m. shift at a busy brewery on Capitol Hill. These days, they work from noon to 8 p.m. and make $1,000. “For a double shift, we do half the amount,” Tellez says.
A bright spot is the discovery that customers in some outlying communities seem more ready to reembrace food trucks. That includes Maple Valley, where Whateke and several other Seattle-area food trucks have been going recently. “The difference is really big,” Tellez says, adding that she and Romero may do more of their business in Maple Valley in the future.
Tellez’s observation underscores how the already complicated food truck business model has become even more complex.
As vendors approach the normal slowdown that comes with winter weather, they must now factor in a new set of risks. “With the rain in Seattle, the flu season and the virus, no one knows what’s going to happen,” Woo says. Whatever ground food truck vendors have made up over the summer “could change on a dime.”
But he and other vendors clearly see opportunity, too. Thanks to rapid growth in recent years, the prepandemic food truck market was oversupplied, many vendors say: By 2019, three in 10 Washington State Food Truck Association members had been in business less than a year.
As the pandemic squeezes out the weaker players (the online market for used food trucks is brimming, vendors say) it leaves more room for hardier, more innovative survivors — and, perhaps, even some committed newcomers. Avery Hardin says some other former restaurateurs see food trucks as a way to avoid the newly visible risks of a fixed brick-and-mortar location.
Even total novices still find the idea appealing.
Last year, Kevin Liang, 24, and Linda Fan, 23, two recent University of Washington graduates with zero restaurant experience, decided to launch a food truck featuring Taiwanese bento boxes. Since then, they’ve put around $100,000 into their truck, Lunch On The Plate, which is getting its final touches at Chop Kitchens.
Fan says they “definitely panicked” when the pandemic hit. But they kept going, thanks in part to Chop Kitchens, where Nouanthongme, Suthanasereporn and other truck vendors gave the young couple what amounted to a crash course in food trucking. Liang reckons that if he’d had to pay for that knowledge, “the tuition is probably more than my rent.”
Already, these novices are demonstrating skills in pandemic adaptation. After observing how many food trucks were still struggling to attract much street business, Liang and Fan decided to delay launching their truck until they could build a customer base with online orders and deliveries.
After working up to sales of around 70 meals a day, mostly among the Seattle-area Taiwanese American community, Liang and Fan are confident they can tap a wider market “once we’re on the street” in early November, she says.
Lunch On The Plate’s successful pivot illustrates another pandemic adaptation.
In the food truck sector, a traditionally hypercompetitive business, collaboration hasn’t always been the norm. But in today’s uncertain times — and especially with winter coming — going it alone may no longer be as effective as working together and even sharing things like locations, says Layers Sandwich’s Avery Hardin.
Now, more than ever, “knowledge is power,” he says. “If you close yourself off and you try to do all this on your own, you’re shooting yourself in the foot.”