For two years, Lyle’s Crepes was a weekend business for Josh Posadny. He supported himself by working a number of different part-time gigs, throwing himself into his crepe-making passion project when he could. But when Ohio Governor Mike DeWine issued a stay-at-home order in March of 2020, Posadny suddenly found himself out of his regular jobs. Now, after a year working full-time on Lyle’s Crepes, his truck is open six days a week, and business is better than it has ever been.
“It was a massive year for us, 2020,” Posadny said. “I don’t like talking or bragging about it too much, because I know so many people lost businesses and experienced real struggle. Not to say that it was easy, but it was a very successful year.”
COVID-19 undoubtedly affected the food service industry—Restaraunt.org found the industry ended 2020 with $240 billion less in revenue than the Restaurant Association’s pre-pandemic forecasting—but food trucks did not all have the same experience. According to one study by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, the food truck industry still grew .4% in 2020—though that pales in comparison to the 20% the industry grew in 2019.
Elias Ajjar owns three locations of his restaurant, Poco Piatti, and was forced to temporarily close one in the early days of COVID-19. He moved his staff from that location to work full time on his food truck for Beirut Street Kitchen, parking in lots around Toledo and moving around to accommodate requests. Ajjar said there was a need to get creative as a restaurant owner unable to seat customers inside.
“The truck was the perfect solution for us during COVID-19,” Ajjar said. “It’s silly more restaurants didn’t take initiative to open trucks. We couldn’t just sit back and blame circumstances or the government for our difficulty. Why I think I made it and my restaurant is doing well now is because I got creative in getting my food out there––and our truck thrived.”
Food trucks that operate without restaraunt help did lose significant revenue from canceled fairs and festivals, and many stayed closed for the first few months of the pandemic. Still, trucks remained largely unaffected by the capacity limits and rent prices that caused problems for brick and mortar restaurants like Poco Piatti.
In Toledo, food trucks partnered with the community to make up for a loss in fairground opportunities. Posadny spent most of last year stationing Lyle’s Crepes outside of local breweries and coffee shops, selling crepes to hungry customers.
“Those sorts of opportunities didn’t really exist prior to the pandemic,” he said.
One of those partnerships was with Earnest Brew Works, a brewery and taproom founded in 2016. Earnest Brew Works has tried to cultivate relationships with food trucks to provide munching options for their customers, but according to owner Scot Yarnell, trucks often weren’t interested prior to COVID-19.
“In Toledo, it [a brewery] was such a new idea,” Yarnell said. “People didn’t really understand coming to a brewery.”
Interest in these sorts of partnerships expanded significantly during the pandemic. Prior to COVID-19, Yarnell struggled to book food trucks on a Friday or Saturday. For much of the pandemic, however, he booked up to three vendors a day. Though festivals and fairs have mostly returned, food trucks remain interested in booking with him.
Yarnell estimates that half of the visitors he sees parked in his lot never enter his establishment and instead only visit the food trucks.
“It doesn’t bother me,” he said. “We’re very focused on our community and I’m in large part providing this opportunity as a service.”
He wasn’t the only Ohioan working to help truck owners during COVID-19. Jes Renyolds, co-owner of Unvaulted Treasures, a gift store in Lucey, Ohio, did not frequent food trucks prior to the pandemic. Last March, Renyolds was scrolling through a Perrysburg Facebook group when she noticed a post from Rusty’s Road Trip asking for opportunities to sell their food given recent festival cancellations. She had only owned Unvaulted Treasures for a few months, but she wrote to Lucey’s mayor and asked to invite Rusty’s into an empty storefront next door to her business. In May, Renyolds hosted Rusty’s, and the truck quickly sold out. The next week, Unvaulted Treasures hosted another food truck and the event sold out again.
Reynolds was supposed to attend a fundraiser a week later. It was cancelled due to COVID-19, and she had an idea.
“I noticed that, all because of COVID, food trucks needed a place to park, we needed more foot traffic in our store and organizations were losing out on funding opportunities,” she said. “I wanted to solve three problems at once.”
Reynolds and her partner created a weekly food truck event called “Flock the Block.” Unvaulted Treasures partners hosts a food truck every Friday from May to October, the two choose a local cause and both donate a certain portion of their proceeds.
“We’ve raised $15,000 for different groups and organizations, we’ve exposed Lucey residents to new food and food trucks to new clientele, and we’ve grown our business in a time that was really scary and questionable,” Reynolds said. “I’m really proud of ‘Flock the Block’ and I’m really lucky to know these food truck owners.”
They are continuing the events this year.
In addition to restaurant and business partnerships, residents created opportunities for food trucks during the pandemic. Joshua Duce, owner of Duce’s Dawgs, attended several neighborhood events where locals organized trucks to line up and offer a variety of cuisines.
Social media groups served as a primary method of communication for trucks and community members throughout COVID-19. Given a lack of pedestrian traffic and the disappearance of the traditional lunch hour, trucks turned to Facebook to announce their locations, hours and specials.
Duce took it one step further. Early in the pandemic, he created a Facebook page called “Toledo to go,’” forming a space for Toledoans to post about their truck locations, restaurant hours and specials, and to chat about good Toledo food. The group has amassed thirty thousand members and is constantly updating. Duce then created a second Facebook page exclusively for Toledo Food Trucks.
“Things picked up after those pages,” he said. “Business was busier last year, because people recognized how much safer it felt going to a food truck.”
Though Duce recognizes creating the page and allowing for other restaurants and trucks to share their specials and locations was potentially detrimental to his own business, he said that wasn’t important to him.
“The more businesses here, the better. I think we saved a lot of restaurants by giving them a space to advertise themselves,” he said
In addition to saving existing restaurants, Duce thinks his pages helped new business owners work up the courage to take the leap and establish food trucks.
“There are maybe 20 new trucks and I think it’s growing,” he said. “There’s never been a better time to have a food truck in Toledo. We’re on pace to have our busiest season yet.”
Jeff McIntyre, owner of Manny’s Munchies, agrees. He was not as lucky as other truck owners during the pandemic; he and his wife shut down their truck for much of 2020. After establishing their truck in 2016, they focused primarily on working the festivals and fairs circuit on top of their full time jobs.
“We didn’t have those relationships with businesses built up already, so it was really difficult to maintain without fairs and festivals,” he said. “We didn’t see a big increase in business like a lot of other food trucks because we had to adjust and pivot our business model. Our trailer sat in the driveway.”
This year, however, Manny’s Munchies is busier than ever.
“We suddenly have the opportunity to partner with all of these breweries and businesses, which we never did before, and festivals and fairs are getting started again. People are clamoring to get out and do something, so we’re making more than we ever have at festivals and fairs, as well,” he said.
Though McIntyre said he “can’t believe how crazy the uptick” in food trucks is, he understands why Toledoans are investing in their dreams now. With technology updates like online ordering, budding opportunities for partnership and a community now more accustomed to enjoying food trucks, he says that they are on track to have their most successful season in history.
Yarnell at Earnest Brew Works observed the same trend.
“We’re practically booked up in terms of trucks. Toledo just needed a little kick. There’s nothing like a pandemic to do that,” he said.