The Portland Phoenix

Portland food trucks: The recipe for restaurant survival?

Food trucks parked outside Maine Medical Center in Portland's West End on Dec. 10. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

Just over a year ago, Cameron Gardner and his brother Dylan opened their Monument Square Mediterranean restaurant, Nura, with no inkling of what was to come.

They had owned and operated their Falafel Mafia food truck for three years, specializing in Middle Eastern cuisine and finding success serving lunch to Portland’s office workers.

Nura had only been open three months when the coronavirus pandemic dramatically altered their plans.

“It was great, things were picking up, we were getting in the flow, and then all of a sudden we saw the news,” Gardner said last week. “We saw it coming weeks ahead (and) we were like, ‘oh God if that comes over here it’s going to be really bad.’”

Cameron Gardner speaks to a customer at the Falafel Mafia food truck in Portland’s West End on Dec. 10. Gardner returned to the food truck business after the coronavirus pandemic took the legs out from under his restaurant startup, Nura. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

While they will never know what a “normal summer” full of tourists would have done for Nura’s first year in business, the owners have returned to their roots with Falafel Mafia, “just driving around town selling where (they) can,” Gardner said.

Falafel Mafia and Portland’s other food trucks have taken a hit like businesses in almost all other industries this year. But with more flexibility and a business model that already incorporates social distancing, they have also been able to cook up more opportunities.

“Food trucks are really built for what’s going on,” Joshua Dionne, owner of Korean-Mexican fusion truck Tacos Del Seoul, said last week. “It’s the whole culture: takeout.” 

Falafel Mafia typically runs on a seasonal schedule from April-November, but the truck’s last two days parking on the Western Promenade were last week, where it sat in between two other mobile eateries, an unlikely Maine sight in mid-December.

Food trucks have been steadily gaining national popularity, and with restaurants trying to come up with ways to offer outdoor dining year-round, it seems likely the trend could continue.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the thousands of food trucks operating in the U.S. nearly doubled from 2013-2018, with California leading the way. 

Dionne, like several other food truck owners in Portland, said he found solace parking and serving customers on the Eastern Promenade. He said corporate catering opportunities had been Taco Del Seoul’s weekday “bread and butter” before the pandemic and were among the first gigs to be canceled last spring. 

Next to go were most weddings, followed by concerts at Thompson’s Point and other food truck events that are usually summer staples. Dionne said the cancellations left food truck owners “scrambling to find places to go.” In the fall, trucks lost out on state fairs and got less business than usual parking at local breweries. 

Customers wait for orders at the Salt Box Cafe food truck on Congress Street in Portland on Dec. 10. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

The Eastern Promenade was a good solution, since it’s an area where the city already allowed licensed food trucks to park. It also has a lot of space for customers to spread out.

Still, with a dozen or more trucks at the East End park this summer, Dionne said he was nervous at first about maintaining a safe social distance. But the prom allowed people to eat safely with their quarantine companions, and Dionne said everyone he encountered was cooperative about wearing masks. 

“(The Eastern Promenade) was good because typically when you get a good amount of food trucks together it brings people out, but this year was different because you didn’t really want that,” he said. 

Mr. Tuna owner Jordan Rubin said he went to the Eastern Promenade every day in May to “scope the scene,” even though he had sold there in the past. When he saw the success Dionne and the owners of Eighty 8 Donuts were having, and that “half the city” was hanging out there each day, he decided to join in.

Success was immediate, and Mr. Tuna was soon parking on the prom seven days a week, nine hours a day, rain or shine.

Every food truck owner interviewed agreed that because different trucks serve very specific niche menu items, there is less competition compared to the traditional restaurant industry.

Rubin also hopped on a trend that several food trucks across the country have turned to during the pandemic, according to the National Retail Federation: taking Mr. Tuna to the suburbs. 

Initially, he purchased a second truck with the intention to sell food in Scarborough, but when that didn’t work out, he moved it to Brunswick’s Town Mall, where other Midcoast food trucks are known to park during the spring and summer.

Jordan Cust prepares a crab cake croissant in the Salt Box Cafe food truck. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

The move helped him make up for some of the events he lost this year, and he said financially it ended up being an “overall good summer.”

The food truck’s success was especially important at that time since it was Mr. Tuna’s only source of income; its brick-and-mortar restaurant in Monument Square’s Public Market House was closed until recently.

The Public Market House location has now reopened for curbside pickup via online or phone orders, or delivery via the CarHop app.

Both Gardner and Rubin said they have now garaged their trucks for the winter, in favor of takeout and delivery sales through their restaurants.

In addition to it being harder to get customers to come out in the colder months, Rubin said, other obstacles in the winter are moving the truck in the snow and food freezing in the vehicle amid cold temperatures. He plans to return to serving on the Eastern Promenade when the weather gets warmer.

Tacos Del Seoul typically runs through the winter, and Dionne said he plans to do that this year after his usual break for the holidays.

Rubin said offering delivery through CarHop has been especially helpful for customers who do not want to leave their homes at all.

Randy Smith, owner of poutine truck Pinky D’s, which also operates The Poutine Factory restaurant at Auburn brewery Side By Each Brewing, echoed that sentiment.

Smith said having a food truck during the pandemic has been good because “you get the feeling people don’t want to come inside” restaurants at all right now despite precautions.

The tip jar at the Falafel Mafia food truck. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

“You can almost feel people’s anxiety,” he said. “There’s just a weird feeling.”

His food truck business is down $250,000 compared to a normal year due to the loss of events, but he has been able to recover some of it by serving offices as a socially distant alternative to holiday parties.

He also parked on the Eastern Promenade several times this year.

Smith said it’s important for food truck operators to find their niche. He teaches a food truck course through Lewiston Adult Education, which focuses mostly on how to secure a license and purchase the right vehicle. 

He does not teach about food in the course, because he said it’s “irrelevant.”

“We try teaching people you can’t be a roving diner and do 30 different things; you don’t have the space,” he said. “Do what you do and be really good at it and people will come for that.”

During the pandemic, Smith said he thinks part of the reason people go to restaurants has inevitably been lost: “To get away from reality for a couple of hours.” 

Still, he thinks the food industry will remain a “standard” no matter what shifts are happening in society.

“It’s always been the go-to thing, comfort food,” he said. “They may not go to the movies, they may not build houses, they may not go on vacation, but people are always going to eat.”

The interface of FoodTrux, the Portland-based food truck tracking app that provides users with the whereabouts of food trucks in the area. The app also launched in Denver and San Francisco. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)

How to track the trucks

On a beautiful day in April 2019, Matthew Noone was driving around Portland with his son struggling to find food trucks.

He was “baffled,” he said, that he could not find a food truck tracking app that catered to Portland’s food scene.

But from that moment an idea was born.

Noone is now the chief executive of FoodTrux, a GPS-enabled food truck tracking app that launched earlier this year in Maine, Denver, and San Francisco.

The FoodTrux business model requires food truck owners to pay a monthly fee to be featured on the app, where they can upload menus, photos, and scheduled locations weeks in advance. App users can find a food truck in real time, and follow their favorite vendors.

Noone’s plan is to launch FoodTrux in more than 12 communities across the country next year, and eventually evolve the app into a social media platform. 

Although he launched the app this summer, Noone said the pandemic “threw a major wrench” into his development plans. The app also hit snags in Maine, he said, because there has “never been an attempt” at a similar technology on a local scale.

Noone offers food truck owners a 60-day free trial and said his goal is to offer the technology to Maine food truck owners “for free forever,” contingent on the company’s future success elsewhere.

Noone said while some trucks like Falafel Mafia loyally plugged in their location when they were out and about this summer, the app’s success has been frustrated because other owners have not taken advantage of it.

Josh Dionne, owner of Korean-Mexican fusion truck Tacos Del Seoul, said he thinks the app is a “pretty good” idea, but with the summer timing of its launch, the responsibility for local truck owners to plug in their locations consistently was “a lot to deal with” this year.

He thinks it will have more luck next year after truck owners have some time this winter to upload their menus to the platform.

FoodTrux this year merged with the Maine Food Truck Tracker website. Its founder, Nate O’Leary, is also the founder of the blog Portland Old Port, which has more than 40,000 followers on Instagram.

Noone said O’Leary thought FoodTrux was “lightyears ahead” of Maine Food Truck Tracker, so it made sense to join forces and direct his followers to FoodTrux. O’Leary is now a minority equity partner in FoodTrux.

Food Truck Movement is another food truck tracking app for Portland, but its social media has not been updated since July, and its founders did not respond to inquiries.

FoodTrux is available for a free download from the Apple app store and Google Play. Consumers interested in tracking food trucks should download the blue app, and truck owners should use the orange app.

Noone said he is hopeful he and O’Leary can point to the app’s success in Portland while expanding to larger cities, including Miami and Dallas-Fort Worth, in the future.

“(We’ll say) look what we did in one of the top foodie cities in the country,” he said. “We’ve got 40,000 followers.”

— Elizabeth Clemente

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