Tampa-Area Food Trucks Continue To Feel The Ripple Effects Of The Coronavirus Pandemic
With most places reopening and people are out and about again, it’s easy to think that the food industry — and specifically food trucks — will go back to their usual ways with no harm. This may not be the case.
Rene Valenzuela knows the food truck business.
Before opening Rene’s Mexican Kitchen in Tampa in 2018, Valenzuela was the founder of Taco Bus, a food truck that took the appearance of a school bus and drew national acclaim with Guy Fieri featuring it on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.
The Taco Bus first opened in 1996 in Seminole Heights.
As the bus started to gain in popularity, other destinations opened up. There are currently 13 Taco Bus locations across Florida, including Tampa, Sarasota and Brandon.
However, Valenzuela decided to leave the company he founded by selling his stake to another investor.
Then in 2018, he was badly burned in a kitchen fire, putting his idea for his latest venture on hold.
“I took the whole of 2018 to recuperate,” Valenzuela told Robin Sussingham of The Zest Podcast. “I was in the hospital for a few months; I almost died. You know, people tell me ‘Oh, that was close. That was not ‘close.’ I knocked on the door. I touched the door of death. And I refused to go in.”
Instead, he moved forward with his plan to open Rene’s Mexican Kitchen — two years before businesses nationwide would grind to a halt as the coronavirus pandemic took hold.
Unlike other businesses that were forced to shut down as revenues dried up with stay-at-home orders in place and restaurants forced to keep diners out, Valenzuela was able to keep Rene’s Mexican Kitchen in operation.
He did not want to close shop, he said, because he knew food trucks were a good place for people to get to-go orders.
This helped Valenzuela remain in business and attract even more customers.
“None of the problems we have are related to people wanting to go out,” he said. “We’re doing really good as far as sales and people. We are for people who foodie tacos and that kind of food experience.”
Bruce Frechette faced a different challenge.
Frechette is the owner of The Hot Donut Company in downtown Tampa. His morning food truck serves coffee, bagels, sandwiches, smoothies and, of course, donuts.
Frechette’s food truck is surrounded by many office buildings, making it easier for people to get a cup of coffee or a quick breakfast just before heading to work.
The Hot Donut Company also remained open during the pandemic. But Frechette admitted that his usual customers are no longer coming into the office and are working from home instead.
“I’ve had customers who came every day for years and then I haven’t seen some of them since then,” said Frechette. “I can write out a list of how many customers I haven’t seen in a year or plus. But of course, now with a remote aspect of working, people have become quite fond of that, which I understand.”
This wasn’t the case for Maggie Loflin and her food truck, Maggie on the Move.
Loflin's food truck is located in St. Pete, but she goes to events anywhere in the Tampa area.
She serves Mediterranean food such as chicken souvlaki, Greek salad and spanikopita.
When the pandemic first started to take its course, Maggie decided to keep her business open.
She said the key to maintaining steady business was invitations from greater Tampa Bay homeowners associations.
“The HOAs in different neighborhoods around the whole Tampa Bay area started bringing food trucks into their developments at night because so many people were working from home. They were shut in,” she said. “So instead of mom or dad having to cook every night, they would bring the food trucks in.”
Both Loflin and Valenzuela knew that once restaurants reopened, the problem wouldn't be attracting customers to their food trucks.
Instead, new problems evolved within this facet of the food industry.
Contending With Rising Food Costs, And Lost Employees
As more restaurants began to reopen, employees were still at home and refused to go to work. They were worried about contracting COVID-19.
This created a shortage of workers for restaurants and led owners to find new employees.
As a result, restaurants — or other businesses — would entice employees with a higher rate of pay and a signing bonus after they worked at the business for a month or so to replace those former workers who did not return.
This impacted Valenzuela’s own business, as some restaurants poached a couple of his cooks.
“Everybody’s grabbing each other’s employees and they’re [restaurants] desperate,” he said. “For my tiny business, I thought I was OK. But now they came and poached two out of my three employees who were cooks. At first, I was feeling good because I paid them well, I treated them really good. But they came and took them.”
Valenzuela said it was nothing personal between him and his cooks, and that he treats all his employees with respect, and as if they were family.
But it was a tough pill to swallow. He admits the competition between restaurants and food trucks for employees is part of the industry now.
“The situation is so clear that they’re taking people with no skill levels, they just need to get the job done,” he said.
Frechette and Loflin, both said they do not need to worry about having an employee leaving them for another job.
Frechette independently runs his business while Loflin has two workers who she says are loyal.
The increased costs for food items and equipment, however, presents a different challenge.
Despite his business remaining steady throughout the pandemic, Frechette did notice a bump in certain supply prices.
Everybody’s grabbing each other’s employees and they’re [restaurants] desperate. For my tiny business, I thought I was OK. But now they came and poached two out of my three employees who were cooks. At first, I was feeling good because I paid them well, I treated them really good. But they came and took them.Rene Valenzuela
When restaurants pivoted to to-go orders during the start of the pandemic, they ordered lots of plastic containers, cups and lids. This led to a shortage of these products, and due to supply and demand, resulted in price increases.
“I had price increases on my cups and lids,” said Frechette. “Stuff like that has been pretty significant.”
As more people cooked at home, certain meats -- such as chicken and beef -- came at a premium, forcing those prices up as well.
Valenzuela and Loflin, too, experienced increased food costs, primarily for the meats they use for their food trucks.
“I used to buy a 40-pound case of chicken thighs for $38,” said Valenzuela. “I’m talking just a few months ago. Then, all of a sudden the price went up to $42, then $46, then $48, then $58, then $68, then $78, and then $88. Then the same thing that happened to chicken also happened to beef, happened to oil and it happened to cheese.”
Loflin experienced a similar situation.
“Chicken is through the roof, absolutely through the roof,” she said. “Another thing that went through the roof was fryer oil for our french fries. It was normally $19 and it went up to $40. We’ve had to adjust our prices, which we don’t like to have to pass on to the customers. But, in order for us to stay in business, we need to be able to cover our own costs.”
It is unclear whether these costs have topped out or if they will continue to increase.
“At the end of the day, we’re all in the same boat and this is happening in the industry,” Valenzuela said.
Although Frechette said the increase in plastic cups and lids shouldn’t affect him too much, he said he hopes to see his usual customers return to the food truck - but understands some of them probably won't.
“Some people like coming to the office and some don’t,” he said. “There are some benefits like no commuting. It is what it is, and I understand that.”
Even if some of them don’t return anytime soon, there is plenty of foot traffic near his work area to keep his business running.
Where To Go From Here?
Both Valenzuela and Frechette will keep certain protocols in place even if COVID-19 cases begin to decrease.
Valenzuela confirmed that his food truck will only accept contactless payment to prevent the spread of the virus. Also, employees who are feeling ill will need to show a negative COVID-19 test before returning to work.
“We’re doing contactless payment instead of cash, which is really weird for food trucks,” he said. “Back in the 90s, there were no credit cards allowed at food trucks and now it’s the other way around. Another thing we have installed is that if we have an employee who has the flu or is not feeling OK, they can’t come back if they don’t have a COVID-19 test done.”
Frechette has clear and plastic covers around his food truck so he is not directly face-to-face with his customers. This is something he implemented before COVID-19 but said is even more relevant now.
“My business is designed where my physical contact with people is pretty limited,” he said. “It has always been like that, nothing has changed.”
Loflin’s food truck takes cash but said most of her sales are from credit cards. Also, she made sure that she and her employees will be more aware of how they interact with customers.
“I think we’re more cautious the way we handle things and the way we interact with other people,” she said. “We’re more aware of our safety, being sanitary and protecting ourselves.”