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N.J. food trucks are pushed to the brink. ‘Half the trucks will survive,’ says one insider.

NJ.com logo NJ.com 6/5/2020 By Peter Genovese, nj.com
a man wearing a hat and sunglasses posing for the camera: John Yarusi, owner, Johnny's Pork Roll truck © Peter Genovese I NJ Advance Media for NJ.com/nj.com/TNS John Yarusi, owner, Johnny's Pork Roll truck

"Scary.'' "A huge hit.'' “In survival mode.'' ”I can only pray for a quick recovery.'' '

The words N.J. food truck owners use to describe business the past three months tell it all.

"We are experiencing a decrease in sales (of) more than 50%,'' said Dean Hodecker, owner, with his wife Emily, of the Good Food = Good Mood food truck.

"All the events we had scheduled for March, April, May and going into June were cancelled or postponed,'' explained Marcus Crawford, owner of the Bro-Ritos food truck.

"We’ve been struggling to scare up any business at all,'' said Josh Sacks of Oink and Moo BBQ. "Hopefully we can salvage the season but the large gatherings are probably going to have to wait until next year.''

a bus that is parked on the side of a road: The Cheezen food truck © Peter Genovese I NJ Advance Media for NJ.com/nj.com/TNS The Cheezen food truck

"Right now my only main stream of income is the refunds I am getting from (event) coordinators who are honorable that have canceled events,'' adds Francine Alfano-DeCasien, owner of Top Shelf Mobile Cuisine.

a close up of a sandwich sitting on top of a table: The Mac Burger, a thick patty with tomato, bacon, good roll and fried mac n cheese, from the Good Food = Good Mood truck © Peter Genovese I NJ Advance Media for NJ.com/nj.com/TNS The Mac Burger, a thick patty with tomato, bacon, good roll and fried mac n cheese, from the Good Food = Good Mood truck

Most food trucks depend heavily on fairs, festivals, weddings, graduation parties and other special events for their income. With the coronavirus lockdown, social distancing rules still in place and mass events prohibited, the traditional sources of food truck revenue have gone out the window.

One food truck, CheezeN, has already gone out of business. Others are expected to follow. John Cohl, former editor-in-chief of Mobile Home News and former consultant to Jersey-based food trucks, estimates that 50% of N.J. food trucks will not last the year. There are about 300 food trucks operating in New Jersey.

‘'It’s really grim,'’ Cohl explained. "A lot of these trucks don’t have cash squirreled away. My guess is that about half the trucks in New Jersey will survive. By next spring, I’d be surprised if 50% of the trucks now in business will still be owned by the same owner. I’d be shocked.''

A total of 31 food truck owners were contacted by NJ Advance Media. Their comments were unrelievedly grim. All of them hope that fairs, festivals and catered events will return eventually but none are counting on it.

"Business has taken a huge hit,'' said Crawford, of Bro-Ritos. "Our truck didn’t move for nearly a month and a half which really hurt because March/April start the season for us.'' The truck has not been idle; it has partnered with Omega Psi Phi fraternity and Assemblyman Benjie E. Wimberly to serve 150 meals a week in Paterson. Crawford recently opened a storefront in Hackensack, but said business "has not been great'' with people staying at home.

a man cooking in a kitchen preparing food: Marcus Crawford, foreground, owner of the Bro-Ritos food truck © Peter Genovese I NJ Advance Media for NJ.com/nj.com/TNS Marcus Crawford, foreground, owner of the Bro-Ritos food truck

"This has been a very strange and tough year,'' said Marc Viscomi, owner of the Fired Up Flatbread truck. "We had many events, both public and catered, canceled. My bread and butter spots have been shut down until further notice. On top of that, maintaining the truck and equipment as well as my insurance has been quite stressful.''

Scott Cullen, of the Fork in the Road truck, said business has been "pretty slim .. . we lost a bunch of weddings and summer functions.''

Cynthia Soto, owner of the Empanada Lady food truck, said she was "not really expecting anything else this summer unless promoters get on it fast. With so many trucks out of work, I’m sure it’s going to be a battle to get in any event, competition is going to be tight. We are just hoping the fall will make up for lost income.''

The Empanada Lady is one of the better-positioned food trucks. Soto owns a storefront, also called the Empanada Lady, in Verona. And her truck can be found at farmers markets in Denville, River Vale, Wayne and Chatham, with three or four others pending.

Another one is the Empanada Guy, run by Carlos Serrano. Only one of his four trucks, in Woodbridge, is operating, but Serrano is doing a brisk business in shipping frozen empanadas around the country. He also owns a Freehold restaurant that was curbside-only until Tuesday; Serrano is now allowing customers — masked, of course — inside the restaurant to pick up orders.

"I’m blessed my business has multiple streams of income,'' said Serrano, one of the founding members of the New Jersey Food Truck Association. But even he is taking hits in business. Of the 70 restaurants that buy his empanadas, only a half dozen are ordering at this time. "I’m losing $20-30,000 a month just for that,'' he said. Of his five accounts on the Seaside and Point Pleasant Beach boardwalks, not one has ordered empanadas for the summer season.

Most food trucks depend heavily on the dozens of fair and festivals around the state in the spring and summer. All so far have been cancelled or postponed, including the Jersey Shore Food Truck Festival at Monmouth Park, a three-day event over the Memorial Day weekend.

"Everything as you know has been cancelled so we are basically doing pop-ups in various towns,'' said George Miller, owner of the Five Sisters food truck (the five sisters are his daughters). ''Nothing really substantial but a little of something is better than nothing.

Hodecker said the closures and restrictions forced he and his wife to be "creative.'' They introduced online ordering and curbside pickup. Even if fairs and festivals return soon, it may be a mixed blessing. "Food truck lines can get fairly long at busy events, imagine the same line with six-foot social distancing,'' he noted.

Kevin Rushing, owner of The Real Deal BBQ truck in Clinton Township (one of the few food trucks to have a fixed location) has a different challenge — he can’t get enough food. "It has been very hard to get meat because of the shortages,'' he explained. "We shop at the restaurant supply stores, and they are very often out of meat. When they do have the meat, they limit you to one case per visit. We had to cut our normal business hours because we can’t get enough food.''

Tacos Al Carbon in Hammonton is another truck with a fixed spot. But owner Dominga “Mingui'' Garcia closed down for a month. ”Numbers of infected in our area were multiplying by the day and we wanted to do our part to flatten the curve,'' she said. "However, we also knew this would not be sustainable if we wanted to continue to put food on our table.''

The truck, in business 22 years, re-opened, with new restrictions. The takeout window was covered with a plastic shield. Salsas are now pre-packed instead of being available self-serve. Prices had to be raised because of food shortages.

Luigi Beltran, owner of Luigi’s Ice Cream truck, plus stores in Metuchen, Red Bank and Summit, shut down his entire business in mid-March. "It’s safe to say our summer food truck revenues will take a huge hit since most of that money comes from food truck events and private events.''

To stay afloat, several food truck owners have re-invented themselves. Michael Peacock, owner of the Flying Pie Guy truck, has not taken his truck out since late March. His recently launched e-commerce site, where you can buy his Australian-style meat and vegetable pies, "has kept us going but nothing like the truck as far as volume goes. I feel lucky to have the option; not many truckers do.''

a truck is parked on the side of a building: Mary's Mobile Diner food truck © Peter Genovese I NJ Advance Media for NJ.com/nj.com/TNS Mary's Mobile Diner food truck

Rafael Vargis, owner of the Rockaway-based Zoelly’s Empanadas, has started "Celebration Packages'' — he takes his truck to houses to celebrate birthdays, graduations, even postponed weddings. "This got popular quickly and word spread and we had people asking if we’d go all the way to Princeton and places in New York,'' he said.

Beltran, of Luigi’s Ice Cream, is now doing "birthday parades.'' His truck rolls into a neighborhood, and customers order ice cream without leaving their cars. "It’s been a big hit and helpful to our business,'' he said.

For John Gentile and Jared Gearin, all the bright ideas in the world could not save their CheezeN food truck, which made my list of the state’s best grilled sandwiches. They closed their truck and Keyport storefront for good last week.

"Business has dropped; private catering took a plunge,'' Gentile said. "We can’t operate with no gatherings, no events. How much more bleeding can you take?''

The Freezy Freeze truck, which makes ice cream using liquid nitrogen, is shut down. "I didn’t have much choice,'' said owner Andrew Deming. ''All of my corporate events and festivals have been cancelled. The Red Bank farmers market (where Freezy Freeze was a familiar sight) is drive-through only.''

Jeff Jimenez, owner of the Cupcake Carnivale truck, made a bold move — he recently opened a storefront, in Moorestown. But keeping the truck going has been a stiff challenge. With fairs and festivals off-limits, he started offering no-contact delivery, and orders came in from Morris County all the way down to Gloucester County.

John Yarusi of Johnny’s Pork Roll is one of the more colorful and upbeat food truck owners. But even he admits: “It sucks for all the trucks in New Jersey right now. We depend on all those weddings and backyard parties — it’s all gone. I know there will be a ton of food trucks for sale in the coming months.''

Cohl, the former food truck consultant, agrees. He’s received calls from nine food truck owners interested in selling their trucks, and expects more.

"I’ve been offered several trucks already,'' said Serrano, the Empanada Guy.

Food trucks can be an expensive proposition. The average purchase price is about $45,000, according to Cohl. Add another $10,000 for repairs, equipment, getting the truck to code, etc. Tolls and gasoline can cost several hundred dollars a day. Festival/fair fees are another expense. For example, it costs more than $1,000 for a spot at the three-day Jersey Shore Food Truck Festival.

"It’s a lot harder than it looks,'' Cohl said. "Too many people got into this business because it looks easy on the Food Network.''

The coronavirus’ economic toll has taught food truck owners, and restaurant owners in general, a painful lesson: Take nothing for granted.

"Half these trucks will be gone by the end of the year unless they all move to Florida or Myrtle Beach where there’s six months of summer,'' Cohl said. "I don’t see it.''

"It is really quite humbling,'' said Miller of the Five Sisters food truck. "Through the years we have grown to take what we have for granted. Never would have I thought something to this extent could happen. I believed even in the worst of times people still have to eat and we would be ok.''

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Peter Genovese may be reached at email@njadvancemedia.com.

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