Restaurants

Many food trucks face an uncertain future as Boston begins to reopen

"I’ve said it from the very beginning: We’re made for this," said Dianne Cambriello, who helps run Daddy's Bonetown Burgers.

Moyzilla
The Moyzilla food truck has not been out on the streets since mid-March. Moyzilla

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The last time the Daddy’s Bonetown Burgers food truck set up at its busiest spot in Copley Square was March 18. Dianne Cambriello, who runs the truck with her husband and chef/owner Rich Cambriello, told Boston.com that, on a normal day, the food truck might serve around 100 people at lunchtime, slinging fries and gargantuan burgers. That day, they served five.

After a slow winter, Boston’s food trucks usually begin to roll out in regular rotation in April, with multiple owners telling Boston.com that May is normally one of the industry’s busiest months. But like the restaurants, bars, and other food establishments that have suffered amid the coronavirus pandemic, food trucks, which depend on heavy foot traffic in populated areas, have seen their businesses sputter to a halt. 

“The timing of this is terrible because we’re very seasonal,” Dianne said. “We personally operate all year round, but obviously January through March, we’re not doing much business. Seventy percent of our revenue comes from the busy months ahead of us. May is pretty much a loss [now]. The whole thing is just so crazy.”

While food trucks, like restaurants, were deemed an essential business in March by Gov. Charlie Baker, the emptying out of downtown Boston as companies shifted to a work-from-home model left many trucks without a steady stream of customers. Popular food truck locations like the Rose Kennedy Greenway, Dewey Square, and Copley Square are no longer filled with office workers grabbing lunch. In addition, their usual spring and summer catering gigs — weddings, bar mitzvahs, catered business lunches, and festivals — have either been canceled or postponed. 

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“We were supposed to be at Boston Calling [this past weekend],” said Jonathan Moy, who launched Moyzilla, which serves Asian comfort food, in 2014. “It was a somber reminder of how things have changed.”

As part of the state’s four-phase reopening plan, Gov. Baker announced that office buildings in Boston will be allowed to reopen at 25 percent capacity on June 1, though Mayor Marty Walsh’s office is considering a lower number. Yet David Harnik, chef and owner at The Dining Car and former president of the Boston Food Truck Alliance, doesn’t know if that number is enough to move the needle, saying that “25 percent of people coming back is still going to require a different model and social distancing.”

Instead, Harnik is doing what restaurant owners have done: pivoting, both in concept and location. 

“If we go into the kitchen and produce our full menu like we would for a May day, all that food starts to deteriorate,” he said. “If it doesn’t sell, it’s all a loss. That’s where our idea came to prepare beautiful meals that someone could take away.”

Customers can now order from a selection of ready-to-eat meals that feature The Dining Car’s globally inspired fare, like Dominican carnitas with yellow rice, pollo a la brasa, or a meatball sub, all available to order at the truck or online with a pick-up time.

“Our whole marketing [strategy] is based around being at the right place at the right time,” Harnick said. “Now, with people being dispersed throughout the Greater Boston Area, how does anyone even know [we’re here]? How do we distinguish ourselves in the marketplace?”

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To that end, Harnik said he has been pursuing apartment and condo complexes where he can operate. Last week, The Dining Car set up shop at the Baker’s Chocolate Factory apartments in Dorchester. Daddy’s Bonetown Burgers has also expanded its schedule to include apartment complexes, in addition to regular stints at Night Shift Brewing in Everett and outside the truck’s Malden commissary, plus a Monday night pop-up at Simcha in Sharon. Cambriello said that they had started making and selling doughnuts right before COVID-19 hit; now, boozy doughnuts are part of their regular menu and have been a successful component in generating additional revenue. 

Other owners decided not to resume service for the time being. Moy, who pulled all four of Moyzilla’s trucks off the streets and temporarily closed the company’s Seaport location in mid-March, said it has been hard to “hit the button” and consider meal delivery kits. Manpower is low after the company made the difficult decision to lay off over 20 of its employees, and their commissary is based in Brockton, making it challenging to launch delivery within Boston.

“I think our plan is to maybe wait until mid-June to take the truck out,” Moy said. “When we do start, it’ll be just my wife and I on the truck, testing the waters. I think food trucks as we know it — at least for the remainder of this year — are not going to be business as usual. There’s not going to be huge lines outside of South Station on the Greenway. It’s going to be ordering ahead, online ordering, no-contact pickup.”

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When trucks do trickle back out, they’ll likely face many of the same challenges that restaurants do in terms of uneasy customers and a tepid economy. But food trucks may also be better suited for a faster recovery, in that their outdoor lines are already conducive to social distancing, and that contact between the customer and the server is fairly limited.

“We’re held to very high standards, sanitation-wise, anyway, so that’s not a big change for us,” Cambriello said. “And maintaining space between customers is not as difficult as it is in an enclosed place.”

Cambriello hopes to take Daddy’s Bonetown Burgers into the city in June to see whether foot traffic has improved. She is optimistic that, despite losing her busiest month and not knowing when larger catered events might return, food trucks will be able to rely on their flexibility to weather the pandemic. 

I’ve said it from the very beginning: We’re made for this,” she said.

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