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Boston Food Trucks Are Struggling to Cope With the COVID-19 Pandemic

Shuttered college campuses and vacant business districts mean no one’s flocking to food trucks right now

A yellow food truck is parked in front of a white building. The truck has “The Chicken & Rice Guys” printed on it in a black font, along with a chicken logo.
The Chicken & Rice Guys food trucks are all currently off the road
The Chicken & Rice Guys/Official Site

“All our food trucks are closed,” says Ian So, CEO of the Chicken & Rice Guys. “We tried operating them but literally had four orders in three hours. We have had some discussions about bringing them into the suburbs, but honestly, we are probably going to wait until after the peak.”

The popular Boston-based mini-chain operates two fast-casual restaurants and a fleet of food trucks serving halal food. Under normal circumstances, Chicken & Rice Guys trucks would be parked next to busy business districts and college campuses — they regularly post up near the Boston Public Library, the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, and Harvard University — poised to serve hungry workers and students. The lines were always long; business was always good.

But these are hardly normal circumstances. Food trucks are considered essential businesses and are allowed to operate during the current state of emergency. But strict social-distancing protocols — which have rightly been imposed to help flatten the curve of the spread of COVID-19 — have resulted in the temporary closings of colleges, universities, and other nonessential businesses. Once-popular outposts for food trucks — like the Harvard Science Center Plaza, or the Financial District — have turned into ghost towns.

It might seem like food trucks, which operate as strictly takeout businesses to begin with, would be better suited to endure the economic hardships of operating during a pandemic than businesses like bars and restaurants, which rely on sit-down service for the majority of revenue, but that’s not actually the case: Food trucks count on more than just walk-up lunch service to make ends meet. Most food trucks also have catering side hustles, and most also post up at local breweries on weekday nights or weekends for special events and pop-ups. But a statewide stay-at-home advisory, along with Gov. Charlie Baker’s emergency order that prohibits most gatherings of 10 or more people, means no private events. No private events means no catering orders. And no dine-in — or, in the case of breweries, drink-in — service means no parking at local breweries.

Indeed, the lack of business forced the Chicken & Rice Guys to furlough its entire food truck staff. It’s far from the only food truck business suffering.

“We shut down [our food truck] the second week of March,” said Merry Byam, who operates Stoked Pizza in Brookline with her husband, Toirm Miller, and co-owner Scott Riebling. “If we had continued to operate, we would have been doing so at a severe loss.”

Stoked Pizza’s sit-down restaurant in Brookline’s Washington Square remains open for takeout and delivery. The business was able to retain its food truck staff and give them hours in the restaurant’s kitchen. Unlike Stoked Pizza and the Chicken & Rice Guys — the latter’s Downtown Crossing restaurant remains open for takeout and delivery, albeit with shortened hours — not every Boston food truck has a brick-and-mortar restaurant business to fall back on.

“Basically, this situation has ground everything to almost a complete halt,” said Dianne Cambriello, who operates the Daddy’s Bonetown Burgers truck with her chef husband, Rich. The Cambriellos’ truck specializes in burgers and typically posts up in Watertown, Back Bay, the Seaport, and on the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway. “We haven’t been out for our regular lunch spots since March 18. We tried to stay out at the beginning of the outbreak, but business dropped by about 75 percent at that point. The only guidance or assistance we’ve had from the city is that we can serve, but need to make sure that people are social distancing.”

Cambriello told Eater that they had to furlough their one full-time employee. Like other food trucks, Bonetown’s catering business has suffered as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. The business relies on the city’s nascent but vibrant brewery scene for extra revenue. But because breweries — like bars and restaurants — can only offer takeout or delivery for now, there’s no demand for on-site food.

“We do a lot with local breweries, and that is all on hold for now as well,” said Cambriello.

Like bars and restaurants, the food trucks that do remain open have been forced to get scrappy and adapt their business models in order to survive. Daddy’s Bonetown Burgers is relying on a patchwork of regulars, infrequent walk-ups, and an online ordering system that allows for cashless transactions and proper social distancing. It recently began offering doughnuts — it’s hard to beat a food cart offering burgers and doughnuts — and grab-and-go meal kits, and Bonetown is also considering delivery.

“Everything has been fluid and is changing daily,” said Cambriello.

So, the Chicken & Rice Guys CEO, told Eater that the company has recently begun offering delivery and has been able to hire back some of its food truck staff as drivers. He said the team is using a combination of Google forms and paid advertising on Facebook and Instagram to get the word out.

“We do orders in $50 and $100 packs,” said So. “We go out as far as an hour away, and it’s actually been really fun seeing how happy the customers are. One customer’s wife said he was happier to get the food than he was when he had his child and his wedding. We have done almost 200 orders the last few weeks.”

It’s still unclear when things will return to normal — or some version of normal. Temporary salves like meals tax deferrals and small-business loans offered through the CARES act can help mitigate some of the economic pain food truck operators are feeling in the short term. But like bars and restaurants, food trucks will need the support of federal, state, and local legislatures in order to get to the other side of this pandemic.

For businesses that rely on busy college campuses and business districts to make ends meet, nothing will be certain until it’s safe for people to gather again.

COVID-19 Coverage on Eater [EBOS]