Pandemic Brings Pace Bumps to LA’s Meals Truck Scene

Co-owners of the Triple Threat Truck, Omayra and George Dakis (top left), said they made fewer sales with their Puerto Rican food truck, but customers buy more – and tip more – per order. Photo by Ringo Chiu.

After The Fix on Wheels lost its entire catering business – and 50% of its sales – due to the pandemic, owner John Ou switched to a dinner-only model this summer.

Ou, a former Wall Street bond dealer, regularly took his food truck to breweries in Santa Monica, Torrance, and downtown.

While the new strategy didn’t deliver returns prior to Covid, the move helped keep The Fix on Wheels on the road.

Ou’s gourmet burger business saw another hit on Nov. 25 when Saskatoon County ordered all restaurants and breweries to close for al fresco dining, diminishing the truck’s partnerships with breweries, which would cover most of the coming weeks Business of trucking would matter.

This change forced Ou to look again for new ways to reach new and existing customers.

Right now, The Fix on Wheels spends the weekends in a parking lot next to the Bel-Air Association’s office, where Beverly Hills and Bel Air residents pick up Ou’s gourmet burgers, like a Korean-inspired one with kimchi and mushrooms.

“I’ve reached out to a lot of churches, but Bel Air was the easiest,” said Ou. “The residents here were receptive and supported the truck, probably because they know I live here. You were awesome. ”

Ou sees yourself happy. More than half of the gourmet food trucks he knows in LA are out of business.

A tough ride

The pandemic has already hit the local food truck industry. With the latest orders for safer products at home, food truck owners and workers could see an even tougher ride in the coming weeks.

“It was a nail in the coffin when they shut down the al fresco dining,” Ou said of the recent LA County’s restrictions. But The Fix on Wheels Truck, he added, will stay in business.

With 2,700 suppliers, Saskatoon is the center of the food truck industry. But the disruption to events, concerts, and festivals, as well as the fact that many of the city’s office workers have switched to remote work, have all taken their toll.

“Of the trucks I work with, 40% are out of business,” said Matt Geller, executive director of the Culver City-based National Food Truck Association. “Some tried to get PPP loans but couldn’t get them. There is no help from the city and many of these people feel alone. “

Food trucks were once big draws in Saskatoon, including the Westside business districts, with regular weekly events on Main Street in Santa Monica and monthly First Friday affairs in Abbot Kinney, Venice.

But with these festivities and countless others taking a hiatus, food truck owners say they now do their trading primarily in shared apartments from Marina del Rey to Studio City to stay afloat.

Ram Mann owned and operated the Swami’s Sandwiches Food Truck, which served Burbank, Venice, and Santa Monica for five years before deciding to close permanently due to the pandemic.

“We are in the process of dissolving Swami’s sandwiches. We’ve waited a while in the hope that things will change, but as cases keep rising, the future seems treacherous, “he said.

Injured by books

Mann blamed the high costs that booking agencies charge in part. These nationwide intermediaries coordinate the booking of trucks for specific locations with cities and festivals. Some bookers charge higher fees for areas that are in high demand.

Trucks have the freedom to book spaces themselves. Usually you turn to office buildings or festivals and concert halls for this. But agencies can be a reliable option for both trucks and venues that require trucks because the clientele and spots are fixed, and venues don’t have to worry about trucks canceling or not showing up, according to NFTA’s Geller.

Booking agencies include Roaming Hunger, which operates nationwide, and Book That Truck, based in Beverly Hills.

Often, Mann said, certain locations don’t deliver the kind of dollars Buchers say, and truck owners end up losing money.

“I’ve found that if I haven’t sold at least $ 500 in one location, I’ve lost money,” he said.
With the added cost of inspectors, permits and parking, truck owners find it difficult to keep up financially, pandemically or not.

“It is an American dream to take home cooking and put it on four wheels,” said Mann. “But the reality is, you work 12, 16 hours a day and it’s a pretty tough life.”

Or agreed.

“It’s really hard to drive a food truck here,” he said. “We have a lot of third-party providers who charge between 15 and 20 percent of our sales upfront. It’s a nightmare. ”

According to Ou, the monthly fixed cost of a food truck ranges from $ 4,000 to $ 5,000, including parking, leasing, and basic maintenance. This figure does not include labor and food costs.

“You could at least imagine, on paper, that food trucks are the perfect solution to the pandemic, but it wasn’t as easy as people might think,” he said. “It’s really difficult because a lot of people are running out of money. There was no incentive. We have seen the financial burden on the people who come out. “

But not all food truck owners are faced with bad news. Some were able to make adjustments to keep their businesses alive.

Prior to the pandemic, Omayra Dakis, owner of the Triple Threat Truck, said her food truck was on the right track for a strong year.

The Triple Threat Truck, which specializes in Puerto Rican dishes, frequently drew lines of 200 or more customers at its regular stops in South Bay and Culver City, Dakis said.

Make adjustments

When business stalled in March due to Covid-19, Dakis hired for two weeks to change operations, including rolling out a system that allowed customers to pre-order and pay without cash.

Dakis customers turned out to be a loyal group, even if there weren’t as many as the Triple Threat Truck attracted before the pandemic.

“We found we had fewer sales, fewer customers, but more tips and more visits,” said Dakis, who also expanded the area of ​​her truck to Murrieta, Rancho Cucamonga and Orange Counties.

Before Covid, the average ticket price of the Triple Threat Truck was $ 20, according to Dakis. Now customers are spending around $ 30 to $ 35 per order.

“We have a distinctive cuisine and culture. Our food is hard to find. We’ve built a great brand and loyal customers – they are our holy grail, ”said Dakis. “That’s one thing better than anything money can buy when you have that loyalty and support in these dark times when people don’t have extra money to throw around.”

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