May 24, 2022 - Food and Drink

D.C.'s food truck fix

PhoWheels food truck.

Photo: Paige Hopkins/Axios

Throughout the pandemic, restaurant owners have turned to food trucks for survival by literally meeting diners where they are: working and eating at home. 

What’s happening: You might’ve noticed a steady stream of restaurants-on-wheels stopping by your neighborhood these last two years. Most local food trucks have left downtown streets behind and have migrated to residential areas instead. 

Meanwhile, the fleet of trucks in the District has expanded — to 198 as of last month.

  • According to the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, which monitors the industry, that was a 21.5% increase from April 2020.

Why it matters: The pandemic has been absolutely brutal for restaurants, and even with more diners out and about, the industry still faces a raft of headwinds. But food trucks are helping some business owners stay afloat, all while bringing dinner to our doorsteps.   

What they’re saying: PhoWheels owner Tuan Vo says his truck is bringing in more revenue now than before the pandemic. He’s also seen an increase in private bookings for weddings, festivals, and birthday parties. 

  • Vo says that pre-pandemic, the truck would usually be booked only one or two months in advance, but he’s currently booked on most Fridays and Saturdays until November.

Pepe, a food truck by José Andrés, has shifted to focusing on private and community events during the pandemic. Sous chef José Rivera emailed Axios that the truck is "incredibly busy" and is open now more than it was before the pandemic.

Yes, but: The food truck fix hasn’t endured for everyone. The mobile businesses are expensive to maintain and tough to staff because at least one employee has to be certified to drive the truck. 

Astro Doughnuts & Fried Chicken owner Elliot Spaisman says the early days of the pandemic were lucrative for his truck: “It was wild those first couple months.” But revenue slowed as the pandemic continued.

  • He shuttered the truck last fall due to staffing issues and pricey repairs. 

Similarly, Roaming Roster cut its fleet of four food trucks to two. 

  • On the flip side, it has opened six new brick-and-mortar locations and now all but one of its restaurants are mainly in residential areas. 

What we’re watching: As the pandemic goes on and work-from-home lifestyles adjust, the food truck scene may further evolve as restaurant owners continue searching for ways to attract customers.

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