ANDERSON — When the coronavirus pandemic began shuttering restaurants, bars and other similar establishments in late March, Greg Vanatta packed up his food truck and headed for several different residential neighborhoods around Madison County.
“You’d go into a neighborhood at lunchtime, dinnertime, whichever, seven days a week, and sell with no problem,” Vanatta said. “You need to go where the people actually are, which is in the neighborhoods.”
Vanatta, who owns Pork Paradise, a food trailer offering breaded tenderloin sandwiches, nachos and other mealtime staples, and several other local food truck operators have capitalized on some unique circumstances during the pandemic. With traditional sit-down restaurants dealing with social distancing requirements and occupancy restrictions, the mobile food service industry has flourished, extending a trend in recent years that has seen the number of businesses nearly double nationwide.
Food truck sales volume has accelerated even more rapidly, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. According to the agency’s 2017 Economic Census report, sales from food trucks rose 79% between 2012 and 2017, increasing from $660.5 million to more than $1.2 billion.
The key to the industry’s exponential growth, many experts say, is that food trucks by nature offer built-in operational flexibility. Instead of attracting customers to one fixed location, food truck operators can go where those customers are.
“Adaptability is key,” said Terry Truitt, CEO of the Flagship Enterprise Center. “Alongside that is the question of whether a small business is building itself in a way that allows it to be flexible. You have to be able to change quickly without much notice.”
As the pandemic progressed through April and May and lockdown orders became more stringent, some local food truck operators began preparing for those circumstances to inevitably change. Now, with rescheduled events and festivals coming back on the calendar, and with many families returning to a semblance of normalcy with hybrid or in-person classes at schools, the customer base is shifting again.
“The first part of this year, (neighborhood sales) made up for the money that you weren’t getting from festivals and the other normal things,” said Rich Leisure, who owns Little Moos On The Go, a dessert truck based in Alexandria. “But as the year progresses, in the last month or so, the pendulum is swinging the other way.”
Private catering events have also aided local food trucks this year as employers seek new ways to boost morale and express gratitude to their workers in the midst of the pandemic’s difficult circumstances.
“People are calling us every day wanting us to come,” said Eric Robinson, who co-owns Daddio’s, a food trailer specializing in smoked and grilled entrees. “Without a doubt the biggest increase in our business has been employee appreciation lunches. Those bookings are crazy now. It’s been a big advantage for us.”
Vanatta said that while his overall sales volume has remained roughly the same as each of his previous three years owning his truck, he’s noticed that revenue is coming from different sources this year.
“(The neighborhoods) have slowed down quite a bit,” he said. “At the same time, we’ve been able to start having some events – farmers markets, produce stands, things like that. Those are the places people are going to now for entertainment.”