Boston’s food trucks are looking toward the outdoor dining season with cautious optimism.
Warmer weather and COVID-19 vaccinations bring a renewed sense of hope to the industry — one that is typically reliant on downtown crowds and large events and was hit hard by the pandemic last year.
Thirty vendors participated virtually in the City’s 2021 Food Truck Lottery in March, according to a Thursday press release by the Mayor’s Office of Economic Development. Many are already planning their return to the streets.
Among them is The Dining Car, which has served diners for nearly 10 years, said David Harnik, chef and co-owner. Harnik said he plans to park the truck outside Massachusetts General Hospital as early as Monday.
“There certainly is a sense of hope,” Harnik said. “There is a sense that the tide is turning. We don’t think it’s going to be like a light switch going on, but we do have hope for the future.”
The truck shut down with the rest of the city last year. Although it has since had a limited return to customers — catering small, private events and setting up outside apartment complexes — Harnik said revenue declined significantly.
“It’s been very difficult,” he said. “It’s been orders of magnitude less revenue than we’ve had.”
In a typical year, The Dining Car may have up to 15 people on staff, Harnik said. This year, they have enough part-time work for three to four employees.
Harnik estimated that about 50% of revenue usually comes from private events, which fell dramatically during the pandemic — private events are currently capped by the City at 25 people outdoors and 10 indoors.
Baja Taco Truck saw a roughly 85% decrease in revenue compared to previous years, said owner Bryan Peugh. The truck paused street-side operations during the pandemic because “there’s no one in the city,” he said.
“Even when we didn’t have to shut down, it was much slower,” Peugh said. “But that said, people’s lives are more important than tacos, any day of the week.”
Recent revenue has come mostly from private events and companies booking the truck, Peugh said. Orange cones keep customers distanced in line and staff temperatures are screened daily.
He added that the truck aims to resume public vending around the end of April or beginning of May, rotating between the Greenway and Mass General.
“We’ve just got to dig in and see what happens,” Peugh said. “Hopefully it goes well. If it doesn’t, there’s next year.”
Jason Melmed, chef and owner of Papi’s Stuffed Sopapillas, said the past year was “a wait and see.”
“The opportunity definitely didn’t outweigh the risk,” Melmed said. “I didn’t want to put myself, my family or my employees at risk by going out, especially when you knew that everybody was staying at home.”
He added that certain costs — such as insurance, permitting and renting an off-site kitchen — have stayed fairly constant during the pandemic, even as revenues drop.
“I basically saved on cost of goods and wages,” Melmed said. “Everything else we still pretty much had to pay for.”
Still, Melmed said he was “tentatively optimistic” for the summer.
“Hopefully, when the weather’s warmer, everybody will be getting outside, and we’ll be having a good time at the truck serving people,” he said.
Christopher Leotsakos has been a chef in and around Boston for years. His first business venture, a food truck called Just Wingin’ It, was slated to begin serving customers in March 2020.
Permitting and inspections finished days before Gov. Charlie Baker issued the state’s first stay-at-home orders, Leotsakos said.
“COVID put a stop to the entire world,” he said. “It was such a big build up in anticipation.”
The truck held its first event in August — setting up at a brewery in Jamaica Plain — before continuing to take advantage of outdoor seating and beer gardens until temperatures began to drop in the fall, Leotsakos said.
“Street business was not great,” Leotsakos said. “We quickly learned that our business model should just be completely shifted to operating out of breweries and doing catering and pop-ups.”
But Leotsakos said the truck is back on the streets, and he hopes the 2021 season will be better than last year.
“I’m excited, I’m nervous,” Leotsakos said. “A lot of anxiety built up behind it. I’m like a ball of emotions right now.”