It’s a semi-cruel twist of fate that on the two days the District of Columbia suspended parking enforcement laws, Washington’s fleet of food trucks was totally absent from city streets, one more victim of Hurricane Sandy’s wrath. Think of all the tickets the vendors could have avoided.
But as Mike Lenard, owner of the TaKorean food truck, said to All We Can Eat, “There’s no one out at work, so there’s no one to serve.” It was true that because the federal and District governments had closed all offices on Monday and Tuesday, many other businesses followed suit, including a number of brick-and-mortar restaurants.
Parking may have been free, but there was only a small handful of workaholics taking advantage of the District’s generosity. Food trucks were not among them.
“To my knowledge, nobody is on the road today,” Che Ruddell-Tabisola, executive director of the DC Food Trucks Association and co-owner of the BBQ Bus. Nor were they on the streets Monday, when the entire town was afraid to step outside, lest someone get crushed by a hurricane-borne house, like the Wicked Witch of the East.
By Ruddell-Tabisola’s rough calculation, those two lost days translate into about 5,000 lost meals — and that’s just for the 50-plus members of the food truck association. There are perhaps another 90-plus trucks that also roam District streets, meaning more than 10,000 meals could have been lost each day for vendors. That’s a lot of lost revenue. Lenard figures he lost about $1,000 in profit over Monday and Tuesday, which doesn’t include the hundreds of dollars lost in unused produce.
“We’ve got product that we obviously need to sell,” says Doug Povich, co-owner of Red Hook Lobster Pound D.C. truck. “If we don’t have a good sales day tomorrow, we’re going to be out of a significant amount of money.”
Povich says Red Hook buys several hundred pounds of lobster meat two to three times a week; none of the meat includes whole live lobsters like the kind you might purchase from a local fishmonger. Red Hook’s is expensive, processed lobster meat with a relatively short shelf life. The lobster truck cut back on its order late last week “in anticipation that there might be a problem” when Hurricane Sandy hit the area, the owner says.
But Red Hook still has “a few hundred pounds that we need to go through this week,” Povich adds. He didn’t want to get into specific details on revenues or sales figures, but he notes that Red Hook would need to serve 150 people a day on each of its two trucks to break even this week. That’s easier said then done as the weather turns cooler and trucks start scouting new locations in Washington, worried that the proposed vending regulations will eventually forced them to create new markets.
Some trucks, however, specifically budget for rain days, say Povich and Lenard. The TaKorean truck, for example, bases its monthly budget on 17 actual working days. The math is simple, says Lenard. TaKorean figures that, discounting weekends, there are about 20 days a month in which it can sell lunch to hungry downtown workers. Lenard budgets for three rain days every month.
“Everything extra is great,” Lenard says. “But that helps me manage the expenses.” The two lunches that he’s lost to Hurricane Sandy, Lenard says, are the only rain days he’s experienced in October. There’s only a small chance of rain for tomorrow.
A few trucks took advantage of the time off. Some teams prepped for the week. Others, like the Fojol Bros. fleet, used the time to tighten their operations. “We focused a little bit on training today, as a way to keep people active,” says Fojol owner Justin Vitarello.