Mike Hargett, owner/operator of Detour Coffee Bar food truck. Photo: QCity Metro

There’s much talk on social media about supporting local restaurants. It’s heavily leaned toward food establishments with storefronts, which is understandable since restaurant staff sizes can range from a handful to a lot. I just hope that we don’t overshadow support for the food trucks.

Industry research counts 23,873 active food truck businesses in the U.S. With the latest stay-at-home orders limiting people to essential trips outdoors, it’s become more difficult for food trucks to reach customers. Charlotte brick-and-mortar eateries are taking an incredible blow to revenue. Food trucks are suffering just as much with multiple office buildings they once served now deserted due to employees working from home.

Warmer weather typically means a promising time of year for local food trucks that serve crowds at events like food truck Fridays and neighborhood festivals. But, the threat of COVID-19 has halted plans since several of Charlotte’s major spring and summer festivals have been postponed to later in the year.

Already set up for carryout service, food trucks depend on the almost-guaranteed daytime revenue from school events and corporate office traffic. Now with nonessential employees hunkering down at home, and public schools closed through May 15, food truck operators are sharing in the uncertainty about their businesses.

Detour Coffee Bar was off to a promising start before coronavirus wreaked havoc.

“We were fully booked for the spring and summer, from hosting events like Grandparents’ Day at Charlotte Latin [School] to teacher appreciation events, in addition to my weekly routine of visiting six business offices,” said owner Mike Hargett, who officially opened for business in September.

Mike Hargett prepares orders inside of his Detour Coffee Bar food truck. Photo: QCity Metro

The picture started to look different during the second week of March. Many of his scheduled events started getting canceled and several of his corporate partners won’t permit him to set up.

What The Fries owners Greg Williams and Jamie Barnes paint the same before-and-after picture. 

Williams said the business was starting to take off again, with a deep lineup of events and a strong lunch crowd. Almost instantly, the chefs went from working five to six days a week down to one or two days. 

“We were booked weeks in advance,” he said. “Now, we are sitting and waiting for the next opportunity.” 

Both owners agree they’ve seen at least a 50% decrease in sales. 

Losses don’t stop at revenue. The restrictions have also prevented some food trucks from opening their storefronts. 

Hip Hop Smoothies planned a March 28 grand opening for its physical store located at 249 Mt. Holly-Huntersville Road. Shamika Brooks, owner of the 2-year-old business, decided to postpone the grand opening to help keep the community safe. 

Still, a delayed store opening due to a pandemic doesn’t necessarily mean delayed bills. 

“Our leasing company has not provided any concessions at this time, and we are still responsible for the lease,” said Brooks, who signed her building lease in December. “We do have money in savings, and we have applied for a [Small Business Administration] disaster assistance loan, so we are hopeful.” 

Brooks decided to pause operations at the store and food truck for at least two weeks. She made the tough decision to lay off a recent hire. Like many owners in the service industry, she promised to rehire the employee once both businesses are back up and running.

Signs outside of Hip Hop Smoothies’ store on March 28 read, “We are closed until further notice due to coronavirus.” Photo: QCity Metro

Nearly 3.3 million workers recently applied for unemployment benefits — the most in American history. During a news conference on Friday, Gov. Roy Cooper said the first round of coronavirus unemployment benefits will be paid this week.

Moving beyond COVID-19

Each owner is looking to drum up sales by visiting neighborhoods and apartment complexes, but each needs permission from homeowners associations and property owners to park and serve. 

Unlike ice cream trucks, food trucks can’t freely drive through neighborhoods. According to Charlotte’s planning department, food trucks must be parked and at least 100 feet away from any home between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m.

Hargett says that he can serve essential workers such as healthcare staff and first responders. 

All of the owners believe that the coronavirus crisis will forever change the way their businesses operate, from contactless payment options to increased cleaning procedures. Both Detour Coffee Bar and Hip Hop Smoothies now use the Charlotte-based shopping app Cloosiv that allows customers to preorder menu items before pickup. 

Toast is the app of choice for What The Fries to provide secure preorder options with contactless payment. It speeds up the process and reduces the number of customers waiting in line, which helps in keeping the recommended six-feet distance.

New updates on the virus mean business situations can change daily. Following the food trucks’ social media accounts will give the most up-to-date information about location, hours and available menu items. Without a definitive end in sight, the kitchens-on-wheels will keep trucking along in the face of a new normal.

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Erique Berry looks forward to connecting with people through food and experiences. She's passionate about advocating for equity in education. When there's free time, she likes to cuddle up with a great...