Food Trucks Should Have Been Stars of Pandemic-Era Dining, But It’s Complicated | Wine Enthusiast
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Food Trucks Should Have Been Stars of Pandemic-Era Dining, But It’s Complicated

Between mid-March and April of last year, Kelly Morales sold 1,880 pint jars, plus 860 quart jars, of craft beer from Beehive Taphouse, the mobile bar that anchors her food cart pod in Salem, Oregon.

When the novel coronavirus pandemic struck, Morales expected guests to flock elsewhere to fill their growlers. But as local brick-and-mortar beer bars closed and breweries had fewer outlets for their kegs, “we became the new cool place in town,” says Morales, whose Beehive Station pod hosts 13 food vendors.

Visitors traveled from Washington State to the Beehive just to buy Mac & Jack’s African Amber, a red ale available on draught. On a recent cold, wet January afternoon, guests drank beer while huddled (as socially distant as possible) under a heated tent; smaller groups shared umbrellas.

“We were set up for the whole pandemic mess with outdoor space and low overhead,” says Morales. “My numbers are beyond what they were this time last year. It’s unbelievable.”

With their inherent flexibility and open-air service, food trucks and mobile bars should have been break away stars of pandemic-era dining and drinking. But Morales’ success wasn’t universal.

The Beehive Taphouse in Salem, Oregon
The Beehive Taphouse in Salem, Oregon / Photo courtesy of Beehive Taphouse

Because of a patchwork of state and local laws, flatlined foot traffic, a decimated events industry and a whole host of other factors, many vendors are struggling.

A third or more of L.A.’s “nouveau” food trucks (think Kogi BBQ, rather than old-school lonchera) have shuttered, according to Matt Geller, founder of the National Food Truck Association. Others sit idle, waiting for office workers and catering gigs to return.

The intersection of businesses on wheels and booze is complicated. In most states, trucks and mobile bar operations can only pull permits for private events, or they sell booze through a festival’s catering license. Such licenses are comparably easy to pull in New England and nearly impossible to acquire in Alabama, according to Corbin O’Reilly, cofounder of Tap Truck USA, an outfit that retrofits vintage vehicles with draught lines.

Beehive Tapcart's beer to-go
Beehive Tapcart’s beer to-go / Photo courtesy of Beehive Tapcart

Oregon is one of the few states in the country that issues year-round beer, wine and liquor licenses to food trucks. The catch: Oregon trucks must have a permanent address and can only sell booze from a single static location.

During Covid, many states relaxed laws regulating alcohol sales and to-go cocktails from restaurants, but mobile businesses didn’t get a similar lift.

“I’ve seen rumblings in some jurisdictions, maybe pushing for trucks to be able to serve beer and wine, but I don’t want to name them and jinx it,” says Geller.

In states like California, trucks could partner with bars and breweries to help them meet new requirements to serve food with alcohol. In New York, no dice. Bars could only sell food made on premise, in their own kitchens, as of July 2020.

April Williams of À La Cart in Orlando, Florida
April Williams of À La Cart in Orlando, Florida / Photo by Austin Burke

The food and drink pod

The ambiguity of April Williams’ business model at À La Cart in Orlando likely prevented Florida authorities from shutting it down, as they did other bars in the state. À La Cart is an Oregon-inspired food truck pod anchored by an airy, brick-and-mortar tap room.

“No one in Florida knows what to do with us. Are we a restaurant or a bar? My bar doesn’t serve food, but it’s part of a collective,” says co-owner Williams.

As long as À La Cart continued to host a food truck, it could sell beer, wine and cider to go. Early on, four of its five trucks went dark out of concern for worker safety, but they slowly returned over the summer, along with outdoor seating.

An empty courtyard at À La Cart
An empty courtyard at À La Cart / Photo courtesy Austin Burke

“We had to do to-go only for such a long time. Growlers kept us alive,” says Williams. “We’ve always had them, but it’s funny how many people didn’t think it was an option to fill up here. Growlers and cans now make up 20-25% of our business.”

Still, business is not booming. A large swath of À La Cart’s clientele has not yet returned. Williams is reluctant to bring back popular movie nights and beer dinners for fear of overcrowding.

“We’re in Florida,” she says, referring to the state’s relaxed social distancing regulations.

Leigh Davison outside her food truck
Leigh Davison outside her food truck / Photo courtesy of Lucky Bird

Partnering with breweries

John Ou is also limping through the pandemic. Before March of 2020, the owner of L.A.-based The Fix on Wheels burger truck had six steady revenue streams; company lunches, catering, events and festivals, schools, residential dinners and breweries. Only the last two remain.

California breweries have long been required to serve food with beer sales. But many breweries skirted the law by allowing guests to bring in their own food or call in an order. That practice was outlawed during Covid. Now, Ou says, trucks have more leverage.

“Every brewery is oversubscribed in terms of truck demand, and if a truck runs out of food, you have to shut down the brewery,” he says.

Still, his sales largely depend on individual breweries, how many seats they have and their service policies. If Ou books at one of L.A.’s three busier breweries, he can make $1,500–$2,000 in four hours, plus tips for staff. At smaller breweries he might take home $500 a shift.

In Denver, Leigh Davison’s two-year-old fried chicken sandwich concept, Lucky Bird, started the year with a new food hall stall and a calendar full of festivals for her truck. But 11 months into the pandemic, 90% of Lucky Bird’s sales are brewery-adjacent.

Davison currently serves her signature Spicy Bird sandwich and Buffalo Blue Tenders at four breweries: 4 Noses, Cannonball Creek, Golden City and Living the Dream. She’ll be added to the roster at New Terrain in the spring.

“Winter here is already slow. Now breweries have limited seating, and it’s not as busy,” she says. “Pre pandemic, I had lines 30 people deep. Your adrenaline is pumping. But people don’t line up now.”

Booze Pops truck
Photo courtesy of Booze Pops

The frozen loophole

Woody Norris did have lines this summer, as he tells it, forming at every third mailbox in the suburbs of Charleston, South Carolina.

In 2016, Norris discovered a loophole in the state’s liquor laws: if alcohol is frozen, it’s considered a food product and can be legally sold from a truck. Since then, his Booze Pops business has grown to a nine truck fleet, selling frozen cocktails and wine, Jell-O shots and virgin ice cream for the kids.

When the pandemic hit, Norris’ sales jumped 75%, and he was able to hire out-of-work restaurant staff to man his trucks and expand to new neighborhoods.

“Soccer moms were going crazy inside with their kids,” says Norris, an army veteran and father, who’s also sober. “We’d get calls, and I’d tell ’em, ‘I’m on my way Mrs. Jones. Calm down.’”

Norris continues to sell from his downtown Charleston outposts on King and Anson Streets. “My people downtown are making a killing. It’s bartending without having to make drinks,” he says.

Kate Bolton, owner of Silver Julep
Kate Bolton, owner of Silver Julep / Photo courtesy of Silver Julep

Mobile bars adapt

Norris occupies a singular, somewhat wonky place in the mobile booze world that’s dominated by trucks and trailers designed to serve drinks at events and festivals.

Since Ben Scorah and Mark Wiseberg launched their Road Soda airstream bar nearly a decade ago, the duo has worked the festival circuit eight months a year. They have partnered with brands to make 10,000 or so craft cocktails at events like Coachella, SXSW and Lollapalooza.

Last March, they were on their way to The Après in Aspen, Colorado when word of the pandemic reached them. Their two trucks have been parked ever since, one in southern California and another in upstate New York.

With deep industry connections and their own commercial kitchen, Scorah and Wiseberg quickly adapted.

At first, they made wellness shots of ginger, lemon and turmeric for healthcare workers. They then developed ready-to-drink cocktail mixers for their partners. Working with liquor brands, Scorah batches and sends cocktail kits for influencer marketing, bar staff trainings, product launches and virtual events.

“It’s keeping me busy,” says Scorah. “We launched a whole new company and learned to deal with the supply chain, different bottles and keeping everything shelf stable. I’m shipping 30 boxes a day from FedEx. For the last six months, it has felt like I’m running a fully operational factory”

People have approached Scorah about bringing Road Soda to smaller events, but it’s expensive to move the trailers. Plus, Scorah says California has uniformly denied event permits. “I don’t know when big events will happen again, but our business model is different from other mobile bar operations. We rely on alcohol companies to support us, and their corporate responsibility is bigger than ours,” he says.

“They don’t want the liability of underwriting a festival during a pandemic. Hopefully, at some point, brands want to spend money on events again.”

Kate Bolton is less concerned about the return of events. Bolton launched Silver Julep, a 23-foot airstream cocktail trailer, in 2018. Based in Portland, Oregon, she focused on weddings and corporate events for companies like Nike, Adidas and Intel. She also quickly pivoted to making craft cocktail mixers.

Bolton sells about 100 bottles a week from her airstream, which now operates like a storefront for her mixers and goods from other local producers. She also hosts virtual classes from the trailer, such as Holiday Syrup and the Art of Building a Drink for the Junior League and a French 75 class for the Campaign for Equal Justice. Bolton supplies a few Portland distilleries with mixers to help boost their direct-to-consumer sales.

Instead of making hundreds of drinks for a bridal party or a corporate sales team she’ll never meet again, Bolton’s new model has allowed her to build a real community.

“I’m focusing on the local market, and the fact that the mixers are non-alcoholic has worked to my advantage,” she says. “Families stop by, pick up a mixer and then come back the next week to tell me that they were able to have a happy hour with their family, mixing with soda for the kids and something stronger for the adults. It’s a bright spot in hard times.”

Bolton, who’s a mom herself, has enjoyed the change and plans to make it permanent. Upon reflection, she realized that she doesn’t get much gratification out of events with their long-lead sales and frenzied execution. “It would have never happened without Covid,” says Bolton. “When you’re running a business, you don’t stop to ask whether I enjoy it or not. This was totally unexpected.”

The unexpected is the industry’s new norm. “There’s so much that’s unforeseen,” says Morales. “Will people recognize we stuck in here when others were forced to close? Will people continue to support us when things open back up. I don’t know.”

Geller says that trucks need continued support from diners and regulators. “I hope we realize as a society, that alcohol isn’t the devil,” he says. “There are five food trucks parked in Marina del Rey every night, and I would love to see a beer trailer pull up. Something like that would help food trucks get back on their feet.”

“Just streamlining the process so trucks can serve alcohol without going to the city to pull a permit. If you could just fill out online form, and boom, bring a keg to an event on private property, that would be huge. But we’re a long way off.”