Landing a parking spot on 2nd Avenue S. in Minneapolis, the busiest stretch of the downtown business district, is usually a cutthroat endeavor for a food truck hoping to secure the most foot traffic on a warm spring day.
Thabt Mohamed would circle the area like a snail in his Pharaoh’s Gyros food truck, hesitant to stray too far from the block when the clock struck 9 a.m. If he parked too early, he’d face a hefty fine. If he rolled up too late, he’d be forced to settle for space along less desirable curbs.
Now, any food truck can take its pick of parking spaces downtown. Mohamed still waits every morning for the right moment to snag a spot, only it’s outside a different hot hub for food truck customers: a hospital.
With COVID-19 keeping most downtown Minneapolis workers at home, and festivals and large gatherings postponed or canceled, the 2020 food truck season is shaping up to be unlike any before.
The state’s restrictions on brick and mortar restaurants haven’t exactly touched food trucks — the original curbside pickup. Without seating or reason for guests to linger, they were already primed for social distance.
“If anybody is equipped for it, I’d say it’s them,” said Jess Jenkins, executive director of the Minnesota Food Truck Association.
But the ripple effects of the guidance to stay at home, paired with concerns by operators for themselves and their customers’ safety, are being felt.
“It’s hard,” said Mohamed, who played professional soccer in Egypt before going into the food business in the Twin Cities. “Business is slow.”
Parked outside the University of Minnesota Medical Center, Pharaoh’s Gyro’s gets about a third of the orders it would downtown. But the steady stream of masked hospital staffers, many wearing scrubs, is enough to make ends meet, he said.
Arif Mohamed, who operates Nashville Coop hot chicken trucks, has also added hospitals to his lunch rotation. He’ll alternate between the U of M Medical Center and Abbott Northwestern Hospital.
“The hospital is still busy,” he said. “People eat.”
The rest of the time, he parks in residential areas around the Twin Cities for dinner service. “Downtown lunch is gone now,” he said. “More people are staying home, so it makes sense to go to neighborhoods.”
Hospitals aren’t the only places where food trucks are finding customers in the coronavirus era. Farmers markets are still a popular spot, as are breweries, which had the clearance to sell beer to-go, even while taprooms were closed.
But the biggest surprise of the 2020 food truck season might be big-box stores. Deemed essential businesses, their parking lots have become some of the busiest crossroads for Minnesotans in the past couple of months.
Robert Luniewski, who operates the Woodbury-based iPierogi truck, worked out a deal with Menards to lease a space in their lot in Hudson, Wis. He pieces out a living by stationing there and at metro Costcos, the St. Paul farmers market and in his own neighborhood.
But does his new lineup make up for the loss of downtown Minneapolis, where he often parked last year? “Not even close,” he said.
He’s also reeling from the cancellation of the Minnesota State Fair, where iPierogi had a booth in the Food Building.
“I don’t even count on being successful this year,” Luniewski said. “Just to survive this year, that’s my goal.”
Jenkins, of the Food Truck Association, says many food truck operators still haven’t decided whether to brave these new conditions and take their trucks out at all this year. A survey sent to the association’s 130 members found that only half were up and running or thinking of starting in the summer.
“They’re all waiting to see what’s going to happen,” she said.
Those who have come out of the winter food truck hibernation period are embracing new measures to ensure that their staff and customers stay healthy.
Whole Soul, a soul food truck, is planning on driving deliveries all over the Twin Cities from its Burnsville home base, said co-owner Lavender Johnson.
“We wanted to transition more to delivery, versus having a bunch of people standing outside the truck at once,” Johnson said.
Five days a week, Chef Shack is parking its taco truck outside its Bay City, Wis., dining room, which remains closed. It’s an expansion of hours for the seasonal restaurant, which is normally open only on weekends. Also new this year: It is accepting preorders online. (Another Chef Shack truck, famed for mini-doughnuts, is parking at the Mill City Farmers Market for the 14th year.)
“I think with everyone, it’s just a matter of being able to continually pivot,” said Chef Shack co-owner Lisa Carlson.
In a sweltering food truck, cooking with a mask on can be a challenge. (So can hearing masked customers’ orders.) But owners are doing their best to incorporate personal protective equipment into already-stringent food truck hygiene.
Kurb Side Food Co., also known as the Tin Fish To-Go-Go, is taking social distancing to the next level. Co-owners Sheff and Athena Priest tinkered with their vintage truck to add a robotic arm that sends food to customers standing 6 feet from the window. A chip reader on the end of the arm takes credit card payments.
Sheff Priest describes it as resembling “a drive-through bank teller, where you shove the drawer out.”
If a customer wants to pay in cash, Priest will use a long-reach grabber to take the money and put it through a hole in the counter, right into a cardboard box, where it’ll sit for days until it’s safe to touch. They’re also accepting Venmo for the first time.
In neighborhoods where they park once or twice a week for dinner, they set up removable road speed bumps 6 feet apart, to indicate where customers should stand in line.
“We really enjoy doing it like this,” Athena Priest said. “It keeps people away from the counter. It’s safer for everybody.”
Incidentally, the company is named for the model of 1950s truck they retrofitted — and not for the new way restaurants have been doing business amid the pandemic. But like curbside pickup, Kurb Side’s innovations are likely here to stay.
Most important, their customers welcome them.
“One of the things we’ve found is that people are so pent up in their homes and tired of their own cooking that folks who would have been glad to see us are more glad,” Sheff Priest said. “It’s actually been a really fun spring in the food truck world.”
Find a food truck:
Check each food truck's social media to find out where they are parking for the day.
Pharaoh's Gyros: @PharaohsGyros
Nashville Coop: @NashvilleCoop
Whole Soul: @wholesoul_mn
Chef Shack: @chefshack1
Kurb Side Catering / Tin Fish To-Go-Go: @kurbsidecatering
Sandy's Grill & Italian Ice: facebook.com/EATATSANDYS
Additionally, the Minnesota Food Truck Association maintains a list of active food trucks with their social media handles: mnfoodtruckassociation.org/trucks