When PORC food truck hit the streets on Tuesday, co-owner Josh Saltzman gave his crew specific instructions: Don’t to go anywhere near a government building. L’Enfant Plaza, normally one of the most popular food truck destinations, has become a lunchtime ghost town amid the government shutdown. Instead, PORC headed to Franklin Park. But that wasn’t much better. PORC did about half of the business it normally does, ultimately losing money for the day.
So the PORC team decided to shut down the truck for the duration of the shutdown. “The point of any business is to make money,” Saltzman says. “If you’re approaching your break even or dipping below it, it’s not worth sending the truck out and working your ass off not to make money.”
Saltzman and his partners at least have a restaurant, Kangaroo Boxing Club, to fall back on. Other food trucks—many of which are already making slim margins—are struggling to tough it out, and some are also cutting back their time on the roads.
Sweetbites owner Sandra Panetta has spent nearly every Wednesday of the last three years selling cupcakes and cookies at L’Enfant Plaza. She estimates government workers make up about 75 percent of her customers. But this Wednesday, she knew she couldn’t take the chance. Instead, she opted for Franklin Park. By the end of the day, Panetta made a profit of no more than $100. She was just happy she didn’t get a parking ticket—a constant threat for food trucks. “If I had gotten tickets yesterday, I would have made nothing,” she says.
That’s not easy for a single mom with two teenage kids. Panetta says the truck is her sole source of income, and she’s already been struggling to feed her family.
Normally, Panetta operates her truck four days a week plus a private event or deliveries on another day. But yesterday, in light of the government shutdown, Panetta decided not to take her truck out. She figures if she can concentrate her business on a few days this week and get her regulars to come out, she can at least still make some money without the added expenses and production costs of a full week.
If the shutdown continues into next week? Or longer? “Well, I’ll have to call my mortgage company because my mortgage is due on the 15th…That will probably be the first step,” Panetta says. “I’ll call my family and ask for help. They’re just outraged by all this. And I’ll be behind in bills.”
Back in Franklin Park, there were 21 trucks—more than average—yesterday. Many operators that regularly flock to government-centric areas like L’Enfant Plaza, Federal Triangle, Navy Yard, and NoMa are largely avoiding those areas, which means more fierce competition in other hotspots. A handful of operators at Franklin Park—Rocklands Barbeque and Grilling Company, Far East Taco Grille, BurGorilla, and What the Pho?—said their business is down anywhere from 30 to 50 percent this week.
The DC-Maryland-Virginia Food Truck Association’s Che Ruddell-Tabisola says he’s also heard of food truck sales down as much as 40 percent. That includes his own truck, BBQ Bus, which he and co-owner/husband Tadd Ruddell-Tabisola decided not to take out on the road yesterday for fear of losing money.
Rob Estep, who owns BurGorilla and What the Pho?, says he brought his burger truck over to Navy Yard Wednesday, but nobody was really around. “We started setting up, and I noticed that there were hardly any cars parked on the street, which normally you can’t find parking over there at all.” So, he decided to leave and head for 12th and G streets NW. But the only parking he could find was an illegal spot, and the cops quickly chased off the truck. With part of the day already lost, Estep made one last stop at 20th and L streets NW. “If we didn’t get parking, our plan was just to go home,” he says. “So we would have lost a day because of all of this government shutdown.” (What the Pho? did normal business over at Farragut Square Wednesday—”that truck has been out for a while and is really popular, so it always does well,” Estep says.)
Cleaning up at the end of lunch in Franklin Park yesterday, Estep notes it was an unusually slow day with an unusually high number of trucks. “I don’t know if there’s less people here, but with more trucks we’re down about 30 percent in sales on both trucks today,” he says.
Sweetbites’ Panetta fears that if the shutdown goes on too long, it could force many food trucks, especially some of the newer ones without established followings, out of business. She’s determined not to be one of them.
“I’m a fighter,” Panetta says. “I’ve been on the street since day one, and I’ve really fought the fight like nobody else has. And I will never give up.”
Photo via PORC truck