Crowded venues, eased restrictions and booming business for Connecticut food trucks
Business is booming for Connecticut food trucks
Jonathan Gibbons, owner Friborga Milford-based food truck that sells specialty fries, burgers and hot dogs, said it routinely turns people away.
Laura Christie, owner of Christie Caters in Fairfield County, said she has seen an increase in demand for her food truck, Farm to Truck, compared to her restaurant business.
“I think people notice that they can get a better deal and still feed a lot of people,” Christie said.
Christie said she found her truck, which specializes in locally grown foods, was particularly popular with young weddings. She said they found they could have a good experience and pay about half of what they would otherwise spend.
“Promising young couples now, they totally get it,” she said.
Diana Hall, one of the owners of melt mobile, which sells specialty sandwiches, said its business has grown 25% over the past two years. She attributed it to a greater desire – spurred by the pandemic – to hold outdoor events and a backlog of gatherings that have been postponed for two years.
Hall said the events she has organized have gone from more casual get-togethers to formal affairs like weddings, bar mitzvahs and even memorial services for loved ones who died during the pandemic.
Gibbons agreed that the pandemic has helped make food trucks mainstream over the past two years. He said people have moved from large event halls to smaller backyard parties.
“I think people, even if they’re having a 4th of July party at their house, would rather just pay someone to come and have it and then pack up and leave than stand in front of a grill for two and a half hours. .half hours, three hours, while everyone is having a good time,” Gibbons said.
Kathy and Mike McGovern, owners of Baked and Sauced, which provides desserts and drinks for private events like weddings, said the pandemic shift from indoor parties to outdoor events has remained.
“As the offices are starting to bring people back on a sort of limited basis or gradually…it always seems to be a bit more comfortable having these types of events outside,” said Mike McGovern.
And both Gibbons and Hall said they saw a shift from the more traditional role of having idle trucks on street corners to making scheduled appearances for parties, corporate offices and schools. The old model, Gibbons said, was too hit and miss.
“These customers who want us to just come to an office park or corporate campus and sell food and have the employees buy their own food for lunch or something, they guarantee us a certain amount sales,” Gibbons said. “I don’t have to worry about whether we’re going to have a bad turnout or not.”
Cities open their doors
According US Census Bureau data, the number of food trucks across the country had been steadily increasing even before the pandemic. From 2013 to 2019, the number of food trucks increased from 3,281 to 7,192. According to census bureau data, there were 66 food trucks in Connecticut in 2019, the most recent year for which data exists. .
And there’s reason to think those numbers have continued to rise, especially in the wake of a pandemic that closed restaurants and event venues and encouraged more gatherings in outdoor spaces.
Cities and towns in Connecticut have recently done more to attract food trucks. In September 2020, West Hartford open Gastro Park, an outdoor venue with rotating food trucks. East Hartford is preparing to create a similar food truck park on unused land in the West End of the city. And last month East Hartford placed a prescription to facilitate the installation of food trucks in town.
Connor Martin, chief of staff in the office of the mayor of East Hartford, told CT Examiner that making it easier for food trucks to operate in the city came from a desire to support small businesses and the need to meet the increased demand for take away food. meals that started during COVID.
A new ordinance in East Hartford allows food trucks to operate in city parks and buildings during events and allows food trucks on public roads in the business district, where there are few restaurants. He said the trucks will provide more variety for workers looking for places to have lunch.
“We will have take-out, we will have seated tables, we will have fast food, you can order at home. We want to provide all of these different options to enhance the dining experience for East Hartford residents,” Martin said.
But Tate Norden, the founder of GastroPark in West Hartford, said food trucks in Connecticut are still hampered by zoning regulations that make it difficult to move trucks from town to town. Norden said a bill recently passed by the legislature will establish a pilot program for trucks to apply for a permit that will allow them to sell food in a number of cities across the state that opt into the program.
“It is time and cost prohibitive in many cases for a food truck operator to obtain a permit in each municipality where he is going to work, especially if he is not entirely sure whether it is a place that he wants to go regularly,” Norden explained. “Our goal is to facilitate that process so that there’s always oversight, that there’s always quality control from a health perspective , but it allows food trucks to be able to move from district to district in a more streamlined way.”
Norden said he hopes the new legislation will make it easier to attract a wider variety of trucks from further afield to come to GastroPark. He added that a fixed vending area like GastroPark also helps business owners by reducing gas expenses.
The fleet usually has between two and four rotating trucks, offering everything from tacos to pad thai to pizza. And, of course, there’s Norden’s own truck – a vintage 1959 Chevy Viking farm truck that they rebuilt into a mobile wood-fired grill.
“I would say seven or eight out of 10 times you go and order food from a food truck, the owner of that food truck is there to make it or is involved in the process of creating food. So there’s a lot of pride in ownership,” he said. “You are supporting a locally owned and operated business where the owner physically gets their hands dirty and oversees the business.”
“Crazy” prices and a shift towards casual
Although the same price increases and labor shortages that affect all businesses have not spared these mobile providers, those who spoke to CT Examiner said they have found ways to keep operating.
Hall said that while rising food and gas prices are hurting his bottom line, business is good, mostly because food truck profit margins are already quite high compared to a restaurant. While food trucks often need to rent kitchen space to cook, owners avoid another major restaurant cost — paying rent on storefronts.
For Hall, work is a bigger issue.
“I have to pay so much money to everyone. Nobody wants to work,” Hall said. “My 72-year-old mother had to work with me many times, because I was so desperate.”
Over the past two years, she says, she has increased the hourly wage from $17 or $18 an hour to between $21 and $23 an hour. She also added a tip.
Gibbons said he had enough workers, but had to raise some of his travel prices and the cost of his dining packages to meet gas and food costs. Christie said she was also dealing with “crazy” prices and it was unclear what the costs would be a year from now.
The McGoverns, however, said they weren’t hit by gas prices – mostly because they were staying closer to their home base in Norwalk.
This does not mean, however, that there is a shortage of business. Kathy said she and Mike took care of the huge backlog of postponed weddings during the Covid years. Places are reserved and charge more, they said, paving the way for food trucks.
Plus, it’s a more comfortable way to host a party.
“I think a lot of people realize how much fun it is. [It’s] nice to just [do] something in your backyard or… at the beach or something and just bring a bunch of food trucks to your wedding or something. [It’s] much more relaxed. And the guests seem to like it more,” said Kathy McGovern.
Norden agreed. He said food trucks give people more freedom to grab a bite and leave or linger for hours without having to worry about the traditional restaurant schedule of ordering, waiting and leaving to make room for the next one. customer.
“A lot of people want a place where they can come hang out quickly because they have to get to work…or somewhere [where] they and their friends can hang out for hours,” he said. “The GastroPark or food truck experience will never replace the seated dining experience, but I think more and more people want and are looking for these non-traditional dining experiences that allow them to choose their own adventure.”