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Swizzler set up shop in Logan Circle for the first time on Tuesday.
Gabe Hiatt/Eater DC

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As Office Parks and Bars Sit Empty, D.C. Food Trucks Search for New Gathering Places

Mobile kitchens are rolling out to new neighborhoods while coronavirus keeps customers at home

Tierney Plumb is the editor of Eater DC, covering all things food and drink around the nation's capital.

Before the novel coronavirus pandemic drove people into their homes, the teal-painted CaliBurger DC truck spent weekends serving West Coast-style burgers and fries at the outdoor Wunder Garten in NoMa. When D.C. ordered a dine-in ban to curb the spread of COVID-19, the truck saw the beer garden that supplied most of its customers empty out. Uprooted from its anchor location, CaliBurger tried parking a short walk away on First Street NE, but the neighborhood didn’t bite. Sales averaged a measly $400 a day over a nine-hour period, an 80 percent drop from a typical weekend.

“I had barely enough to pay labor only and nothing else, including food costs,” owner Vic Aulakh says.

Now he’s desperately researching other neighborhoods with the hope of finding a place to feed people on the street, despite pleas from government officials for people to isolate in their homes. It’s a scary new reality for D.C. restaurants restricted to takeout and delivery while the virus spreads. The kitchens-on-wheels were all takeaway stops to begin with, but they’ve had to ditch longtime locations and reliable routes as bars and office complexes have become deserted.

“Sadly without those, the trucks are very much forced to try out new locations and areas,” says Alex Cooper, managing director of the DMV Food Truck Association. A sobering survey of members polled over the weekend showed 82 percent reporting slower sales. The same percentage of respondents canceled three or more days of curbside vending, up from 39 percent from the previous week.

The Swizzler burger truck, a popular curbside destination for nostalgic American food, stayed off the road entirely last week, using the down time to regroup. Co-founder Jesse Konig tells Eater that he paid all employees in full for the week off.

The truck returned to the streets Tuesday with a new strategy. Parking on P Street NW in the Logan Circle neighborhood, the burger truck set up near two businesses that are still booming: a CVS pharmacy and a Whole Foods with customers lined up outside the sliding front doors.

Konig says business was slow on the first day there, but the customers they did get were “extremely excited.” The company is working on setting up an order-ahead system so people can plan to get their smashburger fix around grocery runs.

While operating in residential zones is technically restricted, food trucks can avail themselves of two-hour parking areas like anyone else.

“[We’re] paying the meter and hoping for the best, as long as it’s a legal parking space and you’re not encroaching on patios of restaurants,” Konig said.

Starting as a business for spiral-cut hot dogs, Swizzler has added a burger business and secured a location for its first standalone store, in Navy Yard. Now that there’s no two-hour lunch rush, Swizzler has expanded hours to include dinner, operating from noon to 7 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays. Formerly, the truck made the numbers work by hitting the road from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. in truck-friendly areas like Farragut North, Metro Center, and L’Enfant Plaza.

“We are adapting to changing times the best we can — people need happiness now, too, with a fun food truck experience,” Konig says.

Swizzler will continue to gauge new locations, soliciting input from customers on social media to see where it should go next.

”We are looking at apartment buildings and hospitals — places people are isolated and secluded to raise morale,” Konig says.

The black-and-white Astro Doughnuts and Fried Chicken truck has also begun experimenting with a Logan Circle residency. On Tuesday, it parked directly next to Swizzler, putting out a bottle of hand sanitizer on display next to its doughnuts. To help those in need, Astro is also making daily deliveries to area hospitals and restaurant relief center Hook Hall Helps. For every $500 it raises for the charitable effort, Astro will donate an additional $100 of food.

The Astro Doughnuts & Fried Chicken truck offers pumps of hand sanitizer to prospective customers in Logan Circle
The Astro Doughnuts & Fried Chicken truck offers pumps of hand sanitizer to prospective customers in Logan Circle
Gabe Hiatt/Eater D.C.

Like Swizzler and Astro, the PhoWheels DC truck has left its typical territory in favor of other gathering places. The Vietnamese street food truck — typically found around the National Institutes of Health, IT buildings, and L’Enfant Plaza — is now making pit stops outside Twinbrook Station and Silver Spring apartment complexes, as well as the K-Mart parking lot in Annandale right by food hall The Block.

“We had to just literally shift everything to a new strategy and start back to square one,” co-owner Tuan Vo says. “We wanted to stay away from the city.”

Vo is longtime friends with the owner of Germantown’s popular Cedar Wine & Beer, and he plans to park there for the second time in a week. As an incentive for parents, kids under 12 get a free chicken pho through March 27. Customers can order online while they wait in line (spaced six feet apart). Vo reports business has been “excellent,” considering the challenges the service industry is facing.

“I can’t complain. I just had a baby and bought a house. People are losing their jobs,” Vo says.

While food trucks look to corral new customers outside in high-traffic areas, they’ve lost another huge chunk of business due to cancelled events and catering gigs.

Zack Graybill, the founder of four DC Slices pizza trucks, expected to serve some 7,000 orders at the Rock N Roll Marathon. Losing national draws like the Cannabis Festival and Police Week is a tremendous blow.

“Even at its best, vending is a season-to-season endeavor,” Graybill says. “Many trucks survive month to month, if not week to week.”

According to the food truck association survey, 66 percent of members have laid off staff, an increase of 33 percent from last week. And 87 percent have decreased staff hours because of the impact of the coronavirus outbreak. Last week DC Slices cut down its normal location count by half. It’s staying off the road until Thursday and is considering posting up outside of military facilities to find customers that are still working.

“We have some employees desperate for cash. They didn’t save up any money and are concerned about rent coming up,” Graybill says.

Graybill added delivery last Wednesday in attempt to drum up some business. DC Slices employees will make drop-offs in their own cars. Although third-party apps take commissions that could hurt many trucks, Graybill activated his UberEats account, too. It’s showing “higher than normal” requests — one to three pies a day — he says.

“We viewed this as an opportunity to give it a shot — I’m not a doomsdayer or put your head-in-the-sand type person,” Graybill says. “It’s the only way to get through it.”

BBQ Bus, which is already on five delivery apps, has kept its truck off the road and focused on its home base in Brightwood, with a takeout counter that’s outfitted with two smokers. That’s been crucial for the business, but co-founder Che Ruddell-Tabisola says he’s still had to furlough employees for the first time, cutting two from a 12-person staff. He’s noticed more orders of ribs coming in during morning hours, theorizing that teleworkers are seeing all hours of the day bleed together while they’re stuck at home.

BBQ Bus is “moving a lot” of its family “PACS” (pork, angus, chicken, and sides) that feed two to six, says Ruddell-Tabisola.
Che Ruddell-Tabisola/BBQ Bus

Last year BBQ Bus catered 14 weddings. The truck was expected to feed thousands of first responders and their families over four days at Police Week in May.

“They love barbecue,” Che Ruddell-Tabisola says. “We’ll be back next year.”

Despite 79 percent of food trucks reporting a cancelled catering order last week, some trucks are actually seeing a seasonal uptick in orders.

As a mobile restaurant, Capital Crab can legally serve customers craving a taste of seafood. Starting last Friday — a perfect 80-degree day for his business model — founder Tim Walsh rebooted his seasonal venture, taking the truck that had been parked behind a new restaurant in Chevy Chase out to deliver orders to small groups. Blue crab season starts in April, but Walsh is already serving Gulf shrimp, corn on the cob, and oysters.

“It’s crab lovers and repeat business of people we’ve catered to over the past four years,” Walsh says. “They say, ‘Get to my house. I want to be the first on the list.’ People still want to have a sense of normalcy.”

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