Charlotte's Food Trucks Find New Ways To Survive In COVID-19 Pandemic
A worker sweats as he slices up meat inside the Halal Gryo Man food truck in uptown Charlotte on a recent Thursday. It's almost noon — a.k.a the lunch hour — but no one's in line, and foot traffic is light.
Manager Jay Wolde says ever since the office workers in all the nearby towers went home last March, sales have been way down.
"I mean, we're losing — day shift alone — $200 to $300 a day," he said.
The only thing keeping the food truck afloat is DoorDash and Uber Eats. Halal Gyro Man does get businesses on the weekends from the bar crowds, but even then, the lines aren't as long as they used to be.
"Our line used to be all the way down," Wolde said, pointing to the end of the block, "now ... on a Saturday night, it goes out to probably there."
He gestured to a "no parking" sign about 100 feet away. That's not even half what it used to be, he said.
Wolde says they've thought about moving out of uptown, but they're trying to wait the pandemic out.
"These locations are hard to come by, so I don't want to let go of this spot," he said.
Halal Gyro Man has a permit for this corner at Fifth and Tryon streets , and if it leaves, Wolde says other trucks are waiting to snatch up the spot.
Right now, food trucks need a zoning and operating permit to serve customers in Mecklenburg County. The Charlotte Observer reports there are more than 200 food trucks here.
The Charlotte food truck scene got a boost in 2017 when the city relaxed rules making it easier to get a permit, allowed food trucks to stay open later and drive on neighborhood streets.
That's turned out to be a lifeline for the owners of the What the Fries food truck.
Before the pandemic, What the Fries did a lot of business outside office buildings around town. When the office workers went home, co-owners Jamie Barnes and Gregory Williams followed them. They drove not just around Charlotte, but out to the suburbs and surrounding towns — places like Concord and Clover and Fort Mill in South Carolina.
"The neighborhoods is what kind of took us over the top," Barnes said.
"I mean, you name it man, pretty much we were on that side of town," Williams added.
Business ended up doubling. Some of What the Fries' best days happened early in the pandemic as restaurants shut down and people spent more time outdoors. Now, Barnes and Williams consider neighborhoods just as important as breweries and food truck festivals, which remain a backbone for the industry.
At a recent Food Truck Friday event at Cabarrus Brewing Co., a six-piece bluegrass band played as families and couples ambled about a parking lot and lined up for food trucks selling tacos, seafood and doughnuts.
There were eight food trucks parked at the brewery. Just three hours into the event, one of the trucks was already sold out and had closed down its windows.
Holding a beer in one hand and a plate of doughnuts in the other was one of the brewery's owners, Steve Steinbacher. He said the brewery scaled back its Food Truck Fridays during the pandemic.
"We dropped down from having anywhere from eight to 10 trucks really to just four to six, to try and lessen the crowds, and it worked to some extent," he said.
Starting last month, Cabarrus Brewing Co. let more trucks in, and the crowds followed.
Parked in one corner was the Sandra Lee's Country Kitchen food truck, owned by Willie Walters. The truck was serving up fried chicken, mac and cheese and other Southern comfort food.
Walters said he's happy the crowds are coming back because events like the brewery's Food Truck Friday are big money-makers.
"This is like triple your normal day," he said with a laugh.
Walters has been in the food truck business for about a year. He used his stimulus money to get started last August, and he said he's feeling optimistic about the next few months, especially with some of the breweries and events coming back.
"We're actually booked all the way up through about December," he said. "Different neighborhoods, breweries. So actually, we sitting pretty good, as long as the weather holds up. If the weather don't bother us, we going to be good."
Of course, that remains the biggest variable in all this. Even if the pandemic clears up — a rainy day is still a rainy day.