Pandemic Brings Pace Bumps to LA’s Meals Truck Scene
After The Fix on Wheels lost all of its catering business — and 50% of its revenue — because of the pandemic, owner John Ou switched to a dinner-only model this summer.
Ou, a former Wall Street bond trader, started regularly bringing his food truck to breweries in Santa Monica, Torrance and downtown.
Although the new strategy didn’t quite deliver pre-Covid returns, the move did help to keep The Fix on Wheels on the road.
Ou’s gourmet burger business took another hit on Nov. 25 when Los Angeles County ordered all restaurants and breweries to close for outdoor dining, diminishing the truck’s partnerships with breweries, which would have made up the bulk of the truck’s business in coming weeks.
That change forced Ou to scramble to once again find fresh ways to reach new and existing customers.
For now, The Fix on Wheels spends weekends in a parking lot attached to the Bel-Air Association office, where Beverly Hills and Bel Air residents are picking up Ou’s gourmet burgers, like a Korean-inspired one topped with kimchi and mushrooms.
“I approached a lot of communities, but Bel Air was the easiest,” Ou said. “The residents here have been receptive and supportive of the truck, probably because they know I live here. They have been fantastic.”
Ou considers himself lucky. More than half of the gourmet food trucks he knows in LA are out of business.
A rough ride
The pandemic was already pounding the local food truck industry. Now, with the latest safer-at-home orders, food truck owners and workers could be in for an even tougher ride in coming weeks.
“It was a nail in the coffin when they closed outdoor dining,” Ou said of the recent restrictions imposed in LA County. But The Fix on Wheels truck, he added, will remain in business.
Los Angeles is the hub of the food truck industry with 2,700 vendors. But a halt on events, concerts and festivals, along with the fact that many of the city’s office workers have shifted to remote work, have all taken a toll.
“Of the trucks I work with, 40% are out of business,” said Matt Geller, chief executive of the Culver City-based National Food Truck Association. “Some tried to get PPP loans and couldn’t get them. There’s no help from the city, and a lot of these guys feel like they are on their own.”
Food trucks were once big draws across Los Angeles, including in Westside commercial districts, with regular weekly events on Main Street in Santa Monica and monthly First Friday affairs on Abbot Kinney in Venice among other recurring stops.
But with those festivities and countless others on hiatus, food truck owners say they are now plying their trade primarily in residential communities, from Marina del Rey to Studio City, in an effort to stay afloat.
Ram Mann owned and operated the Swami’s Sandwiches food truck, serving Burbank, Venice and Santa Monica, for five years before deciding to close permanently because of the pandemic.
“We are in the process of dissolving Swami’s Sandwiches right now. We waited a while with the hopes that things would turn around, but with cases continuing to rise the future seems treacherous,” he said.
Hurt by bookers
Mann put part of the blame on the high costs that booking agencies charge. These middlemen, which are used nationwide, coordinate with cities and festivals to book trucks for certain spots. Some bookers charge higher fees for more in-demand areas.
Trucks have the freedom to book spots on their own, and usually do this by contacting office buildings or festivals and concert venues. But agencies can be a reliable option for both trucks and for venues that need trucks since the clientele and spots are set, and venues don’t have to worry about trucks canceling or failing to show up, according to NFTA’s Geller.
Booking agencies include Roaming Hunger, which works nationwide, and Book That Truck, which is based in Beverly Hills.
Often, Mann said, certain locations don’t deliver the kind of dollars bookers say they will, and truck owners end up losing money.
“I found if I wasn’t selling at least $500 at a location, I was losing money,” he said.
With the added cost of commissaries, permits and parking, truck owners can find it hard to keep up financially, pandemic or not.
“It’s an American dream, taking home-cooking and putting it on four wheels,” Mann said. “But the reality is you work 12, 16 hours a day, and it’s a pretty tough life.”
“It’s really hard to run a food truck here,” he said. “We have a lot of third-party bookers who charge upfront fees ranging from 15 to 20 percent of our sales. It’s a nightmare.”
According to Ou, monthly fixed costs for a food truck range from $4,000 to $5,000, a figure that includes parking, leasing, and basic maintenance. That figure doesn’t include labor and food costs.
“You would imagine, at least on paper, that food trucks would be the perfect solution for the pandemic, but it hasn’t been as easy as people might think,” he said. “It’s really difficult because a lot of people are running out of money. There hasn’t been a stimulus. We’ve seen the financial strain in people to come out.”
But not all food truck owners are facing bad news. Some have been able to make adjustments to keep their businesses afloat.
Prior to the pandemic, Triple Threat Truck owner Omayra Dakis said her food truck was on track for a strong year.
The Triple Threat Truck, which specializes in Puerto Rican fare, was often drawing lines of 200 or more customers at its regular stops in the South Bay and Culver City, Dakis said.
When business screeched to a halt in March because of Covid-19, Dakis shut down for two weeks to change-up operations, including adopting a system where customers could preorder and pay without cash.
Dakis’ customers proved to be a loyal bunch, even if there weren’t as many as the Triple Threat Truck was attracting before the pandemic arrived.
“We noticed we have fewer sales, fewer customers, but more tips and more visits,” said Dakis, who has also expanded her truck’s territory into Murrieta, Rancho Cucamonga and Orange County.
Before Covid, the Triple Threat Truck’s average ticket price was $20, according to Dakis. Now customers spend about $30 to $35 per order.
“We have a distinct cuisine and culture. Our food is hard to find. We were able to build a great brand and loyal customers — they are our holy grail,” Dakis said. “That’s one thing that is better than anything money can buy, when you have that loyalty and support during these dark times when people don’t have extra money to throw around.”