Temple Sewell, owner of Ventura-county based Shrimp Vs. Chef food truck, has had to get creative to survive the pandemic. After more than a full year since the original coronavirus restrictions took hold, he credits his customers with keeping his business afloat.
“Before the pandemic – and I’m probably guilty of it as well – I think we just took everything for granted that it was there and it was always going to be there,” Sewell said.
When Shrimp Vs. Chef first opened in May 2015, Sewell and his lone employee made rounds in Ventura, Los Angeles and Santa Barbara counties, parking at movie studios and street festivals to serve food. The truck, featuring a menu of tacos and burritos, grew in popularity and was featured in 2016 on the Food Network’s show “Food Truck Nation,” earning the former stockbroker a reputation for his delicious food.
With the pandemic, however, Sewell was forced to take six weeks off and let go of his support staff. The events he’d previously catered were no longer happening and breweries, where he’d occasionally park, were closed. Now running the truck alone, he had to find new places to park his truck and try to drum up business. Thankfully, he found a new home.
The owners of Wendy’s Fuel, a gas station in Newbury Park, allowed Sewell to park in their lot after the second wave of restrictions hit in December. They’d noticed Sewell filling his propane tanks at their station for several weeks and offered their space to see if customers would buy lunch while filling up with gas.
“I was thinking, ‘I got to figure out a way to make this work.’ And it has been great. I mean, my sales are up 45 to 48 percent,” Sewell said.
The first day, Sewell had intended to stay for a lunch rush – 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. – but was so busy in the gas station parking lot he stayed until 7:30 that evening.“I take credit for some of it, but my customers have been great. I think our businesses in general, especially the mom-and-pop places, or the small businesses, once the pandemic hit people realized, ‘Hey, we need to support these people,’” he said.Truck closuresMatt Geller, co-founder and chief executive of Southern California Mobile Food Vendors Association and founding president of the National Food Truck Association, said of the several hundred food trucks he has worked with in the L.A. area, nearly 55 percent have stopped operating since the pandemic. While he said he expects some will reopen, most won’t.
“Quite a few of them had relied so much on lunches for offices and events, but had not spent time building their brand, creating a brand that was recognizable. They relied on organizers to book them at locations and so a lot of them just went out of business,” Geller said. “The trucks that had spent more time developing their brand kind of pivoted and went into neighborhoods, reached out to (homeowners associations) and apartment buildings.”While food trucks were permitted to continue operations amidst coronavirus closures with increased sanitation and masking requirements similar to brick-and mortar restaurants, their businesses were uniquely impacted by the sudden lack of events. Food trucks, suddenly without concert venues or large gatherings with people waiting outside, had to find new places to find hungry customers. For ranchero-style trucks, this meant rotating through multiple construction sites and garages for lunch shifts while gourmet trucks parked near apartment buildings in hopes there might be a dinner rush.
Food trucks were hit especially hard during the pandemic, according to Geller, because, while the businesses were eligible for PPP loans and other federal aid, many trucks are family operations that don’t have a formal payroll or they operate “under the table” so they couldn’t provide the necessary documentations to receive grants and stay afloat.
“Everybody’s just holding their breath trying to get through this,” Geller said.
Moms at parkShrimp Vs. Chef’s Sewell wasn’t the only food truck owner and operator who found the community rallying to support his business. Paul Blair, owner of Apollo’s Coffee Truck based primarily in L.A. County, found his steadiest customer base in the pandemic has come from social media posts made by members of his customer base.
“I started going to a park in Thousand Oaks, Dos Vientos Park, and a mom’s group would post on Facebook that I was there, and they would come over and help support the truck,” Blair said.
Before the parenting group began patronizing weekly visits from Blair’s truck, he was taking on part-time security jobs and background acting gigs to make ends meet – in contrast to pre-pandemic, when he could rely on his truck’s income. Between the cost of supplies, insurance and fees paid to a commissary in Northridge to park his truck and empty its water tanks, Blair was concerned he would have to close his doors. During the summer months, he drove over two hours to Ontario for what little business he could find at a UPS facility.
Now, between the business at the park and catering events at Fox Studios since filming has picked up again, Blair is more confident the truck will survive. He worries about other operators, though, having seen several small trucks shutter their doors over the course of the pandemic.
“It was hard enough before the pandemic,” Blair said. “I make enough money just to get by, but people are in survival mode.” For now, the owners of the trucks still managing to make ends meet are grateful to be in business. And Sewell sees it as an opportunity to build his brand for the future.“I think history is going to look favorably upon the people that didn’t complain, that they rolled up their sleeves and said, ‘We’ve got to make an adjustment. We’ll have to figure it out,’” he said. “And I think people in the long run will be very appreciative of those that helped them get through the pandemic. You know, people recognize me as maybe part of their normal routine. And so, hopefully, if I was able to help them get through what we are all trying to get through, they’ll look favorably upon me in the long run.”