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Food trucks seek diners as coronavirus pandemic shutters restaurants

Food trucks seek diners as coronavirus pandemic shutters restaurants

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People line up to order food from several food trucks during an event at the Jefferson Barracks Veterans Memorial Amphitheater, Monday, June 29, 2015. Photo by Roberto Rodriguez

On Tuesday, the food truck Go Gyro Go served 20 orders at a spot where it usually sells 100 to 150.

“There's just no one left,” owner Ken Hirsch said. “Everybody's working from home.”

In the coronavirus pandemic, food trucks are confronting a crisis different in nature, if not degree, from what brick-and-mortar restaurants are facing.

While restaurants are pivoting to delivery, curbside pick-up and takeout to compensate for lost dine-in revenue, food trucks are distancing-friendly walk-up windows in need of an audience.

Amy Santhuff-White of Sia's Italian Ice says the pandemic has struck just as food trucks are emerging from the slow winter season for spring events and customers eager to be outside before the weather turns hot.

“All the events started to get canceled,” she said.

Sia's also counted on wholesale business from a local university and school district, among others, to support the business during its lean months. Then the schools closed.

“It all just stopped overnight,” Santhuff-White said.

Matt Cobaugh, owner of the food truck Steamroller and president of the St. Louis Food Truck Association, noticed the convention and other event cancellations first.

Then the customer base at the usual food-truck haunts — Citygarden, Wells Fargo, near Barnes-Jewish Hospital and the Washington University School of Medicine, among others — suddenly dwindled.

“(Businesses near) most of those places have told the folks that have the ability to work from home to stay home,” Cobaugh said.

How are the trucks adapting?

Hirsch is building an online-ordering system for Go Gyro Go and the food trucks that share its commissary kitchen. Customers will be able to order and pay online and then pick up the food at the commissary.

“We don't even have to handle money,” Hirsch said.

Santhuff-White wonders about a small truck gathering in a park or neighborhood — something that would allow for social distance.

In the meantime, she is scheduled to deliver prepackaged food to the employees of a local nursing home who are, she says, "overwhelmed."

Cobaugh hopes to wait out the worst of it.

“This is certainly my first pandemic,” he said. “We're all just kind of trying to muddle our way through.”

Cobaugh doesn't face the restaurateur's added complication of paying rent on a brick-and-mortar location while earning less or no revenue.

“At the end of the day, though, (the truck) is my main source of income,” he said, “so something needs to happen – and whatever that is needs to happen sooner rather than later.”

 Read the list of area restaurants that are closing, switching to carryout or otherwise adjusting due to the coronavirus.

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