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For at least three months of the year, Doug Povich knows his Red Hook Lobster Pound food trucks are going to lose money. He sends them out anyway.
Povich says he’s lucky to make it halfway to his break-even point from December through mid-March. He’s only able to make it through with reserves from the busy spring and summer season, plus catering gigs and other revenue streams like UberEats. (Yes, mobile vendors sometimes rely on other mobile vendors to deliver food.)
It’s no secret that food truck sales drop along with temperatures, but February can be one of the most brutal months. Some trucks close for the season. Others like Red Hook Lobster Pound suck it up, knowing they’ll lose money. Those with low food or operating costs are able to stay open and make some profit. And nearly everyone is looking for other revenue streams that sometimes have little to do with the truck itself.
“By and large, people are happy to break even,” says Povich, the chairman of the DMV Food Truck Association.
Sloppy Mama’s Barbeque owner Joe Neuman began tracking the correlation between weather and sales last year and ultimately decided that it’s not worth going out when the temperature drops below 40 degrees. On a recent 42-degree day with 15-mph winds, Neuman let his staff decide if they needed the hours. “They were like, ‘No, don’t worry about it,’” Neuman says. “Because they don’t like going out either and doing nothing, just sitting on the truck freezing their asses off.”
While a burger truck, which grills to order, can save the patties for another day, Sloppy Mama’s food doesn’t keep well. So while Neuman might be able to repurpose some brisket in the baked beans, any unsold meat is more likely to be a lost expense.
Right now, Neuman says Sloppy Mama’s is losing money, “but not that much.” “If we were sending the truck out every day, we’d be losing more money,” he says.
Some cuisines fare better than others in the winter because of their seasonal appeal. Ice cream, obviously, doesn’t sell so well, and many of the frozen treat vehicles hibernate for the winter. Ball or Nothing owner Rob Miller says he’s also seen taco trucks particularly struggle, but his meatballs are more suited for sweater (or parka) weather. He manages to turn a profit, but his winter sales are about 30 to 50 percent lower than his peak summer sales.
Miller has also found people at certain locations seem to be more adverse to venturing out in bad weather than others. “State Department, for example, if the weather’s not good, that place is useless,” he says. “Franklin [Square] will come out for anything. I love them.”
Meanwhile, BBQ Bus co-owner Che Ruddell-Tabisola, the executive director of the DMV Food Truck Association, says he’s breaking even. He says his truck does 75 percent of its volume between May and October, when there are tons of festivals and the truck is out seven days a week. “By the time you get to February or March, your cash flow, you can’t wait for that first spring day,” he says. He also uses the slower months to plan for the year ahead and start booking events and festivals.
Winter is also physically tough on trucks. On very cold nights, Ruddell-Tabisola has to put a space heater next to the hot water heater so the pipes don’t freeze and crack. He doesn’t want to make such repairs when the cash flow is already tight.
La Tingeria owner David Pena says his engine blew out right before the December holidays, but he doesn’t plan to get his Mexican food truck up and running again until mid-March. “We already know the winter’s pretty slow, so why fix the engine right now?” Pena says. “We’re about to fix it in the upcoming months, so we can be back during the spring.”
Plus, Pena worries that the cold and snow will only cause further problems for the truck. In the past, he says he’s had trouble getting his propane to work properly in below freezing temperatures.
Instead, Pena is focusing on catering, as he’s done for the past two winters when he also suspended the truck’s operations. He says he manages to make some money in the winter from special events. Recently, for example, he ran a Super Bowl promotion offering 40 tamales for $60.
Last February, only 145 trucks registered for parking with the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs—the lowest number in any part of 2015. During the summer, at least 200 trucks registered each month, peaking at 223 in September.
Mobile vendors who stick it out in the winter do so in large part to hold onto and support their employees.
Povich says some of his employees have been with him since he launched Red Hook Lobster Pound almost six years ago. The turnover rate in the food truck industry is bad enough, so many operators don’t want to lose reliable people who know their businesses.
Povich has done the math on whether it would be better to just give the staff a three-month paid vacation or to “limp through” the winter with catering and holiday parties. “We’ve just decided it’s better to keep the name of the brand out there and keep it open.”
Plus, going out, even if it’s not profitable, can breed future business. “The food truck is a rolling billboard,” Sloppy Mama’s Neuman says. “I send the truck out, we get catering jobs.”
Neuman says it also maintains a loyal customer base. Sloppy Mama’s served a measly 18 people in Tysons Corner the other day. But Neuman says they’re all regulars who eat at his truck every time he’s there. “Obviously, you want to make money, but when my wife and I started the business, it wasn’t, ‘OK how much money can we make?’ It was ‘How many people can can we make happy?’”
Neuman has also found an alternate revenue stream through pop-ups. He’s done a series of collaboration menus at Brookland’s Finest. Now, he’s popping up Mondays at Dupont Circle German beer garden Sauf Haus. His next move is a permanent menu takeover at Solly’s Tavern beginning in March. (Still, he’ll continue to operate the truck.)
And it’s not just restaurants or bars where food truck operators are showing up. Flik Hospitality Group, a subsidiary of Compass Group USA which manages food services for office buildings and other venues, recently began partnering with food trucks to serve Greensboro Station Cafe, a cafeteria on the ground floor of the SAIC Tower in Tysons Corner. Different food truck operators, including Red Hook Lobster Pound and Ooh DaT Chicken, rotate through the kitchen three days a week. “The jury is still out on how successful it will be, but I thought it was an interesting move,” Povich says.
Even with the alternate revenue streams, everyone is still vying for the top spots in the monthly D.C. parking lottery in the winter. Povich says Farragut Square brings out the most business, followed by Metro Center. He also does well on a private lot that the DMV Food Truck Association manages in Tysons Corner.
Ultimately, Povich says his goal is to open a brick-and-mortar spot for Red Hook Lobster Pound.
“I think that’s everybody’s goal once they’ve been in this food truck business a while,” he says. “I know everybody says the restaurant business is hard, but this is crazy hard.”
Povich has been looking for locations for three years and may finally be coming close. He says the restaurant would help level out his cash flow and better allow his employees to work through the off-season.
“That’s what keeps me going during the winter,” he says. “It’s worth losing all the money if I can pull this thing off.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery