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LA's Food Trucks Try Not To Lose Their Lunch During The Pandemic

Customers order from a taco truck in Los Angeles on July 1, 2020. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
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The pandemic has killed lunch. Nobody is mourning that death more than Los Angeles County's 2,700 or so permitted food trucks, which park outside office buildings, construction sites, business districts and anywhere people gather in large numbers during the middle of the day. With many people working at home -- or not working at all -- since March, food trucks have lost most of their lunch hour trade.

While some operators have shut down their trucks as they wait out the coronavirus pandemic, others have tried new approaches to make up for their lunchtime losses.

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John Ou, owner of The Fix on Wheels, reached out to homeowners' associations so he could use neighborhood Facebook groups and NextDoor to plug his burger truck's dinner schedule.

"We had to figure out a way to pivot and change our business plan. I did that by focusing on feeding residential neighborhoods. We'd never really done that before or it had taken up such a small part of our business," Ou says.

When he's not working private events, he now parks his truck everywhere from Santa Monica to Santa Clarita, seven days per week, usually for lunch and dinner.

"Trucks are parking anywhere, even in neighborhoods, that word can get out quickly and they can serve a lot of people," says Matt Geller of the Southern California Mobile Food Vendors Association. "It's a good alternative to delivery and people are tired of eating their own food."

The pivot presents new challenges. Figuring out how to serve food safely in the middle of the pandemic has been the most significant one. At the start of the COVID-19 quarantine, food trucks were waiting on instructions from L.A. County's Department of Public Health, similar to the guidelines they issued for sit-down restaurants.

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"At the beginning of the pandemic, we had to figure out how to give confidence to our customers that everything was safe even though we weren't certain exactly how transmissible COVID was," Ou says.

Anthony Suggs says foot traffic at his comfort food truck, Antidote Eats, which he typically parks in Hawthorne, Marina Del Rey, and Koreatown, has remained stable despite the pandemic. Still, he says people these days tend to keep their stops to a minimum, going directly to and from work or maybe running an errand then returning home.

"Right now, it's just the people's choice of being curious and spontaneous. In a moment like this, it's not really likely," Suggs says.

Food trucks also had to ensure cleanliness and adjust their marketing approach to attract consumers at their new location.

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When breweries were allowed to reopen in early October, food trucks received a much-needed boost. The health department's rules required breweries to serve food along with their hops and since many breweries don't have full kitchens, they partnered with food trucks. Ou and Suggs both took advantage of brewery partnerships as well as forging one of their own.

The Eureka Street Food truck. (REVOLT/Unsplash)

In April, Ou launched a crowdfunding campaign to feed first responders. A a former bonds trader on Wall Street, he has received donations from colleagues in his previous career. Over the course of the last six months, the initiative has raised more than $5,000, which Ou used to provide meals for firefighters, policemen and employees in UCLA Medical Center's emergency and intensive care units, among other facilities.

Building on this momentum, Ou and Suggs teamed up to create another crowdfunding campaign that distributes meals to individuals experiencing food insecurity throughout Los Angeles. Their fleets have used the $5,209 they've raised to give away free burgers, chips and water to patrons. Social services such as live scan fingerprinting, expungements and food pantry giveaways are also provided at these community events.

"It's just about people working together and helping each other out," Suggs says, "all the food trucks coming together to help other food trucks, whoever they feel needs to have a helping hand."

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Taco truck hats and fidget spinners are displayed during day two of the 2017 BET Experience Fanfest on June 25, 2017 in Los Angeles. (Randy Shropshire/Getty Images for BET)