Why well-connected suburbs are suddenly the best place to run a food truck

Kai Ryssdal and Maria Hollenhorst Jun 4, 2020
Heard on: Marketplace
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Office closures and canceled summer gatherings have forced many food truck operators to rethink their business models. Photo by Eric Baradat/AFP via Getty Images

Why well-connected suburbs are suddenly the best place to run a food truck

Kai Ryssdal and Maria Hollenhorst Jun 4, 2020
Office closures and canceled summer gatherings have forced many food truck operators to rethink their business models. Photo by Eric Baradat/AFP via Getty Images
HTML EMBED:
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Food trucks are one of the many industries that have been flipped upside down by the coronavirus crisis. As cities around the country started shutting down, many food truck operators had to rethink their business models.

Matt Geller is the founding president of the National Food Truck Association and runs an online platform called Best Food Trucks. He talked with Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal about what happened to food trucks when many of the nation’s offices went dark. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.  

Kai Ryssdal: You saw this happening kind of in real time as people started not patronizing food trucks, right? Tell me what you knew and when you knew it.

Matt Geller: We knew it pretty quickly because all of our lunches dried up. Food trucks traditionally have had lunches as their bread and butter. And within a week’s time, we saw every lunch just shut down. And so our job was to figure out what was next. We changed our app — we’ve updated our app six times in six weeks for more features, easier features, better features for the trucks. This traditionally lunchtime business turned into almost exclusively a nighttime, evening, go into a neighborhood, have people online order and then pick up their food.

Ryssdal: Interesting. Let me back you up for two seconds. Online ordering? Because traditionally my experience with a food truck is you walk up, you look at what they got, you hand over your six or eight bucks. That’s changing, I hear you saying?

Geller: Well you know, when we started online ordering two years ago with Best Food Trucks, food trucks were like, oh, that’ll ruin my business, I can’t have that. But when this happened, everything changed. [Now it’s] we need online ordering, we need it now. And then it was, we need online ordering, we need preordering. I want my customers to preorder 24 hours in advance. And then it was, I want them 48 hours in advance. So I mean, it has been a paradigm shift that came basically in one week.

Ryssdal: Yeah, I wonder if this is a little bit of false romanticism,  but doesn’t that kind of take a little bit of charm away from the food truck? Right? You happen to see one outside your office, you go out, you have whatever they’re offering, you know?

Geller: Yeah, I mean, I think the difference now, what we’re seeing in these communities, is that people are getting the text message when their food is ready, but they’re going a little bit early. They’re all just social-distanced around the truck. So I think we’re going to continue on with the evening shifts. They’re going to continue to grow, people are going to be excited about it and it’s going to be a replacement for the big summer events. And then, you were slowly going to see the lunch events creep back in as more and more people come back to work.

Ryssdal: Yeah, on that word “replacement.” For all of the hustle that these trucks are doing to get online and preorders and all of that — it’s not possible that they’ve been able to replace all the business that’s been lost, right?

Geller: It depends on the region. I would say that Los Angeles has had a very hard time. But places like Nashville, Austin, Tampa, they’re doing so much suburban business. A lot of them are doing more than they’ve ever done. For Nashville, we book locations, I’m out of trucks. I can’t — there’s no more locations to book until there’s more trucks open.

Ryssdal: So what is it about Nashville that’s making it work so well, whereas in L.A. or Chicago or whatever, maybe we’re not?

Geller: Well, traditionally you’d think more dense equals better. Now, the suburbs are so well connected in a lot of communities, unlike Los Angeles. I talked to one person from one area, and she runs the Facebook page for 400 homes. And when she says a food truck’s coming, everybody knows it. The truck goes there and they knock it out of the park. Food trucks are serving suburban communities that are very well connected, because they don’t have to do advertisements or social media, they just have to get ahold of the one person that runs the Facebook page, or the Nextdoor page or even a WhatsApp stream in some communities. You get to that one person, you get to everybody. And that’s much more of a suburban thing than a dense, city thing.

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