Summer came to what seemed an abrupt close, then an onset of Indian Summer in the West. Food truck and food cart operators’ greatest concern for the season had been dealing with sweltering heat inside their mobile kitchens. Now, with a winter-like Autumn in full effect for much of North America, mobile chefs are battening down the hatches in preparation for some much cooler weather. On the heels of Hurricane Sandy, it’s painfully obvious that weather conditions can dramatically impact a mobile chef’s ability to operate.
In most cities in the Southwest, there isn’t much more to prepare for than a few more cloudy days and a slightly higher chance of rain. Other areas aren’t so fortunate. Where, in states like California, operating a food truck is a year-round business, for mobile chefs in many other states, it’s a very seasonal occupation.
In Washington, D.C., some food truck operators budget for anticipated rainy days, and reduce operating hours at the beginning of Fall, then plan for complete closure by Winter. But without a cash reserve, it’s virtually impossible to be prepared for the devastating effects of something like a hurricane. It’s not every day that a hurricane – or Super Storm – rips through a city, and tears it limb from limb, but in many parts of North America, street food vendors have no choice but to prepare for the impact of changing weather conditions in the Fall and Winter.
In Oregon, for example, food cart operators scale back their resources and overhead – they switch to a skeleton crew, reduce operating hours, and sometimes close entirely until March. And, in Eastern states, the majority of food trucks and food carts are scarce until Summer. I recently spoke with two food truck operators in Portland, Oregon about operating a food cart through changing weather conditions.
Jane Hayes, who operates the London Pasty Co. in Portland, opened her traditional British pasties mobile bistro in May, 2010 during the peak of the operating season. The London Pasty Co. was the first cart to take up residence at the then new, Cartlandia food pod.
Jane recalls vividly the unexpected twists and turns the Fall and Winter seasons brought on. “I didn’t know what to expect at all during that first Winter. Food Carts Portland was really helpful and supportive. They sent out email blasts, worked with vendors, and promoted vendors’ promotions and specials,” she said.
According to Jane, most food cart operators in Portland plan ahead, and adjust for the season.
“Some people close for the season, and won’t reopen until March. Some will work in kitchens at restaurants, then you have others who work events. January and February are challenging months. March through September is the food cart season. But now, it’s starting to get very wet out here. We’ll focus more on catering events until we’re through the holidays, then I switch the hours around a little bit – just close for part of the day.”
Jane won’t be closing her popular cart during the cold, wet season. The Cartlandia food pod boasts a heated building for those diners who brave the weather, and she’s got a few tricks up her sleeve. She not only adjusts operating hours, Jane introduces seasonal specials to her menu. She’s considering Thanksgiving pasties, Scotch Eggs, and Christmas combo meals to traverse the season.
Bo Kwon, who owns Koi Fusion, serving a funky fusion of Korean BBQ and fresh Mexican flavors, started his business in 2009 with a mobile food truck that had previously operated as a Mexican taco truck. Not only did Bo purchase a ready-to-roll food truck, the deal included the truck’s chef, the owner’s mother who had been cooking on the truck since it first took to the streets of the street food capital of the country. Bo consulted with his friend, Roy Choi, Chief Chef at Kogi BBQ in Los Angeles, and concocted his own twist on Korean / Mexican fusion.
Bo now operates three food trucks, three food carts, and two shopping mall kiosk stands under the Koi Fusion brand. “The first year was a learning experience, but I inherited a mom who knew what to expect,” Bo said, speaking of the first winter on the road. Now, having been through two winter seasons, Bo is aptly prepared for his third. “You’re lucky if you break even in the Winter. You make your money during the Summer, here in Portland,” he said. Like Jane, Bo doesn’t plan to close any of his locations during the season.
“We try not to ever close down,” Bo said. “We pay close attention to payroll, and I’ll get more involved at the locations.” He slightly scales back staff, increases marketing and advertising, and shifts to a focus on “out-of-cart revenue,” offering specials for office parties with free delivery, and in-house catering, providing a fully functional taco bar at office engagements.
To any mobile chefs, perhaps experiencing their first Winter, Jane and Bo have some advice to offer.
Jane says, adjust your hours, post them and stick to the schedule, no matter what. Communicate your hours with your customers, and offer specials to get yourself through the season. Think about catering events and parties, and talk to other cart and blog owners.
Bo suggests that food cart and food truck owners maintain a cash reserve, and not to plan for a 12-month operation – rather, take a six-month planning approach. And, multiple locations are key.