If you think you’ve been seeing more food trucks on the streets of San Antonio, you’re correct. As restrictions on restaurant capacity due to COVID-19 protocols hobbled brick-and-mortar food establishments, their owners are turning to what Cruising Kitchens President and CEO Cameron Davies terms “mobile assets” to keep their businesses alive until things return to normal.
“Through this, people have realized that mobile assets are maybe where it’s at,” Davies said. “With restaurants never knowing what level they’re able to operate at, with a food truck you can operate full tilt.”
Though San Antonians have seen more and more food trucks on city streets during the pandemic, the rising popularity of mobile food service is not an entirely new thing. The original Boardwalk on Bulverde Food Park, started by Davies in 2011, was almost too popular, he said.
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“It was the first food park local to San Antonio,” Davies said. “It got to a point where it was just controlling too much of our time.”
But Davies recognized an opportunity. He closed his original Treats on Streets dessert-focused food truck, and opened a 64,000-square-foot fabrication facility to outfit custom food trucks, trailers, and mobile kitchens for a growing roster of clients.
As busy as can be
Pablo Felix, owner of Smashin Crab seafood restaurants, understood early on that his plans would have to change. Business was booming, with a third local location set to open in Alamo Ranch, and a franchise opening in Nashville.
“We were hitting record-breaking numbers,” he said, “really excited about the way 2020 started.”
The pandemic put construction on the new location on hold, and 50 employees were laid off. But even before applying for and receiving a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan, Felix had decided opening a food truck would be a smart way to continue the business without onerous pandemic regulations.
Smashin Crab approached Cruising Kitchens, and within two weeks, its new truck was ready to roll.
“They were like, ‘We need your help,’” Davies said. “So we built them a truck in two weeks, and they were able to bring their people back.”
The move proved wise, and immediate results offered enough incentive that Felix decided the truck would remain a permanent part of the business, even after the third location eventually opens.
Felix did not provide sales figures, but Davies said of Smashin Crab’s first month in operation, “I don’t know another food truck that does $240,000 in one month, especially during a pandemic.”
U.S. Census data show average annual sales per food truck as $226,291. Davies puts that figure closer to $290,000 for a mom-and-pop food truck operation but said the business model makes economic sense. Comparison with sales figures for brick-and-mortar restaurants depends on size, with the National Restaurant Association calculating annual sales at $60,000 per employee.
Food trucks can be operated by minimal staff, usually a cashier and cook, but roles can be blended and expanded as necessary. Overhead costs generally run less than for restaurants, with primary expenses being electricity, gas, and fuel to run a generator, but space for inventory is a trade-off.
Felix confirmed that sales were so brisk that the company ordered a refrigerated truck to accompany the food truck, to be able to restock after serving an estimated 1,000 patrons per day. Smashin Crab also placed an order for a second food truck with Cruising Kitchens.
But Felix might have to wait.
“We are about as busy as we could be right now,” Davies said, building new trucks for Whataburger, Raising Cane’s, and an order of 91 mobile kitchen trailers for one national company. “Every major brand is like, ‘Hey, wait a second, if Whataburger is finally doing it, we better jump on board too. … It’s just been a marathon.”
Stainless steel appliances and finishes are standard in all Cruising Kitchens’ outfitted trucks. They also include plumbing, electrical, gas lines for the grill and burners, generator, air conditioning, vent hood, exterior wrap for branding the vehicle, and new tires. A fully outfitted Cruising Kitchens truck on a new chassis with new fixtures will run about $250,000, but a similar setup can be put on a used chassis for half the cost, Davies said. Many clients end up paying an average of $200,000, but Davies noted he’s built trucks that cost as much as $1.5 million for larger clients.
A fleet of foot response
Chef Johnny Hernandez of Grupo La Gloria said he had his eyes on the food truck idea from the beginning of the pandemic.
“We didn’t know what the end was or when things would settle down,” he said. “I was always thinking that pickup and delivery was something essential.”
La Gloria food trucks began rolling out one month into the pandemic, and Hernandez now has a fleet of three food-oriented trucks and four La Gloria Margarita Trucks.
Like other food truck operations, La Gloria approaches or is approached by home owner associations (HOA) throughout the county, and arranges to park in a neighborhood at certain times, or in the case of La Gloria’s trucks, to deliver food, snacks, and mixed drink favorites to certain areas.
Hernandez acted quickly to obtain all necessary permits with the idea that food trucks might be the smart move to keep his businesses afloat. He explained that the process is somewhat complicated by needing separate new permits for each truck, a vending permit for sales and another permit for commissary, or operating the kitchen. Additional permits are required for delivery of alcohol for each truck – formerly illegal but temporarily permitted under Gov. Greg Abbott’s emergency declaration guiding pandemic business operations.
One complication is that food truck operators must acquire permits from each municipality they seek to serve, Felix said. For example, his San Antonio permits do not apply to Cibolo, Schertz, Live Oak, or Boerne, he said, and each truck must go through health and fire inspections from each city.
“And each truck has to be licensed,” Felix said, so a fleet of seven trucks such as La Gloria’s must seek multiple permits for each vehicle.
Asked whether the licensing process is onerous, Hernandez said, “I think it’s very fair to say that the current requirements for food and beverage are not really designed for someone who owns a brick and mortar restaurant who is trying to survive the pandemic by mobilizing a food truck.”
La Gloria was only able to acquire permits to deliver alcohol because it is tied to operating a permitted brick-and-mortar establishment, though the permits do not transfer from restaurants to food trucks and new permits must be acquired.
Nevertheless, Felix said the benefits of operating outweigh the permitting costs, which Davies put at between $300 to $1,500 per truck, and that cities have been helpful. “There are some hurdles we have to go through,” he said, “but every city has been pretty good during this time. They understand the need for us to be able to have this food truck on the road.”
The main reason food trucks have delivered for the restaurant business during the pandemic is a matter of expediency, Hernandez said. “Definitely there’s a convenience factor that drives delivery, and will continue to drive delivery forever now,” he said, citing the entry into the business by large companies such as H-E-B and Circle K, who are building new departments to handle pandemic-specific business.
“They’ve seen it, and I’ve seen it as an opportunity to introduce this type of purchasing to a very broad audience that maybe would have never considered it in the past,” he said.
Census data reports that food truck business nearly doubled nationwide from 2013 to 2018, the most recent year statistics were available. While California led the nation with 753 mobile food establishments in 2018, Texas was second with 549.
Austin and Houston lead the way with a combined 190 trucks, but “I see that there are a lot of other companies showing up here in San Antonio,” Felix said, “and I think it’s great because I’d love for San Antonio to be on the map along with … those other cities.”
Back to the future
Still, some restaurateurs are bucking the trend. Chef Kris Martinez shut down his Rocker Dogz gourmet hot dog cart four years ago but held a grand opening Sept. 12 for his new brick-and-mortar location on South Roosevelt Avenue.
Orlando Aguirre, owner of the Chilaquil food truck formerly stationed at the Broadway News lot, said business was good after the first month of the shutdown, but he decided to follow his initial dream of opening a stationary location in the recently re-opened Pearl Bottling Department food hall.
“We always wanted to be at the Pearl,” Aguirre said.
Because of the shared space of the food hall, the environment is similar to a gathering of food trucks, he said, with views of chefs cooking and a lively atmosphere. The main advantage, he said, is more space for storage.
“That’s a big issue” with food trucks, he said. “If we sell out, we sell out. … Moving into a brick-and-mortar is going to help us to serve for longer hours, serve more customers, and also give a better experience.”
Franky Eureste closed his South Roosevelt Street bar, Franky Diablo’s, with a Facebook announcement on Aug. 5, writing: “We had a great run, but times are just different and can’t keep up with the constant change of things needed to operate as a bar.”
A vinyl sign soon went up on the chain link fence across the street advertising for food truck operators whose trucks Eureste would like to host on the open lot. Restrictions currently limit the number of trucks to two, though he hopes the city will relax regulations to allow for more, creating at least a mini version of Davies’ original food park.
Just down the road from the former location of Boardwalk on Bulverde, a new business called Food Truck Garage is advertising for food trucks to park in its large open lot, promising music along with a variety of food.
The San Antonio Food Truck Association might have a harder time keeping up with all the new businesses popping up, including a new Spurs Street Eats food truck opening Oct. 3, but the association’s website remains a useful resource in locating trucks.
And the Census Bureau reports that the food truck industry is only growing and expanding its reach. “This industry has gained a foothold in counties that never before had food trucks,” its website reports.
The only issue is that the many HOAs eager for a food truck to visit their neighborhood might have to wait a while. Felix reports a three-month backlog on requests for the Smashin Crab truck.
“It’s a great problem to have,” he said.