Take out, walk away are new norms for food trucks

As the weather gets warmer, popular food truck pop-ups are back in Waterloo region, but under strict rules. Food columnist Andrew Coppolino shares what the food truck scene is looking like in the region under the new conditions.

Operators are limited to one truck per sanctioned venue and are limited to serving only five evenings per week

Food trucks are back, but under strict rules. Before the pandemic, a food truck pop-up with four trucks drew 300 to 400 people. (Submitted by: Andrew Coppolino)

As of this week, food trucks are back — in a limited sense.   
The popular summertime pop-ups, because of their outdoor nature, are the first to open within the food and beverage industry: the word-of-the-day for the trucks is "limited."  
Operators are limited to one truck per sanctioned venue (usually a church parking lot). They're also limited to five evenings per week. They're limited in that there can be no picnic tables or places for people to congregate, limited in the number of workers they can have in the truck and they're limited in not being able to offer squeeze-bottles and other communal condiments to their customers.  
It all runs very much against the grain: the food truck experience, for both operators and customers, is about camaraderie and sharing an event space.  
Most damaging to the operators is the fact that gone are the large-scale events that were once a chance for them to make the bulk of their income. Pre-COVID-19, a food truck pop-up with four trucks drew 300 to 400 people. 
Of course, the restrictions laid out by public health and emergency services at the Region of Waterloo make sense, and operators are adhering to them. 

Slow and steady 

I visited SWAT food truck Wednesday night at Parkminster United Church, and operations were smooth and distanced. 
Brad Schmuck of Schmuck Truck will be out three times in the next week or so. He says that they are prepared. 
"We'll have cones out for distancing and different spots for order and pickup. We will also have some barriers, and we've switched to single-serve packaging," Schmuck said, adding that there will also be hand sanitizer for customers. 
The kitchen crew is family living in the same house, so Schmuck is not concerned with distancing in a tight food-truck kitchen.

Cost though is another matter, according to Schmuck. "We've done some food deliveries to homes, but I had to spend close to $500 on clam-shell take-out containers that I normally wouldn't spend. It adds up." 
As for menus, operators are focusing on the favourites as the season starts: Fo'Cheezy for grilled cheese, Schmuck Truck for arancini balls and poutine, Jashan-e-Dawat for butter chicken.  

Some trucks are holding off

While there is optimism, some operators are watching and keeping their trucks dark for the time being.  
Alex Fegaras operates Cibo Streetery, and he is playing wait-and-see. 
"I'm holding off opening for the season right now. Or at least until the restrictions let up a little more," Fegaras said. 

The Breakfast Blues and Barbecues truck has a brick-and-mortar restaurant of the same name on Victoria Street; they are delaying opening.  
"We hope to be out next month," said owner Dulce Baptista. "We are still trying to renew our licenses because with the cities closing, everything got put on hold. 

"Also, we feel that we are fortunate to have the restaurant for now. Most trucks are husband-and-wife teams, and the truck is all they have. They need to get out there sooner and stay in the game somehow." 
At Café du Monde Creperie food truck, owner Nadia Dragusanu is staying closed to observe if "people will even want to come out" and awaiting point-of-sale equipment that will ensure they can maintain two-metres physical distancing while processing payments.  
"Because operating is an expense, we can't afford to open and not break even. There's lots to consider before we dive in, and the last thing we want is to rush to reopen without fully understanding how to keep ourselves and our customers safe," according to Dragusanu. 

Now up to customers

The situation is fluid for operators with these variables. They are being cautious, even when it comes to the weather.

Food trucks, like restaurant patios, rely on the weather. Ironically, good weather could drive large crowds. But ultimately, it's up to customers to uphold their end of the food truck contract and follow the procedures to help these businesses survive. 
"We will communicate with customers about distancing," Schmuck said during this first week. "Come out but observe the rules."  
The loosely formed association of seven trucks, KW Food Trucks, has released their schedule to May 22 (subject to change). 
The venues are Parkminster United Church in Waterloo and St. Luke's United and Cedar Hill United churches in Cambridge with one truck per location between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. 
Harry's Food Truck will also be open at LP Landscape Plus Property on Line 86, while their mobile unit, Hangry Harry's, will be at St. Jacob's Country Gardens on New Jerusalem Road, Elmira, Saturday to Monday.