Chris Parks and Mario Camargo had come up with the perfect business model for these pandemic times: Their roving taco cart, Blake’s Grillery, would set up shop in the courtyard or sidewalk outside of various East Bay dive bars, slinging Mexican-barbecue fusion tacos to bar patrons — and, in turn, helping those bars, which needed to offer food in order stay open for outdoor drinking.
It was a business model tailor-made for this particular moment. And then it wasn’t.
The most recent stay-at-home order, issued last week by the health officers of five Bay Area counties and the city of Berkeley, sent shockwaves through the Bay Area food community. Its blanket prohibition on outdoor dining stymied restaurants that had spent thousands of dollars on tricked-out sidewalk tents and forced bars and breweries to close their doors entirely — until January 4, at the very earliest. And it’s those latter closures that have threatened the local food truck and pop-up ecosystem, in particular.
During the coronavirus crisis, bars and breweries have been one of the only places where many Bay Area food trucks and other street food vendors have been able to operate legally — especially with Off the Grid’s largest food truck events effectively shut down due to the prohibition against large gatherings. Where, then, are food trucks and pop-ups like Blake’s Grillery supposed to go?
The short answer is that many will try their best to continue their partnerships with bars and breweries — but on a takeout-only basis. According to Miguel Escobedo, chef-owner of the popular taco truck Al Pastor Papi, the one saving grace is that most breweries will still sell growlers and cans of beer to go as they did back in March, during the first shelter-in-place order.
Escobedo estimates that about 70 percent of his business comes from the days when his truck was stationed at a brewery — San Francisco’s Harmonic Brewing and Speakeasy Ales and Lagers, mainly. And he doesn’t see any way he’ll still be able to put up those kinds of sales when there’s no dine-in experience to offer, especially when many breweries are located in more isolated neighborhoods. It’s a lot to ask a customer to drive all the way to Bayview, for instance, just to pick up a couple of tacos and head right back home.
The key is going to be to stay nimble, Escobedo says — and to do whatever it takes to keep his staff employed, even if it means taking orders for family meals and driving them out to customers himself. “The beauty of the truck is we can move around,” he says.
Likewise, Good to Eat Dumplings, a Taiwanese dumpling pop-up embedded inside of Original Pattern Brewing in Oakland’s Jack London District, plans to continue selling food on a takeout-only basis, but co-owner Tony Tung expects she’ll only be able to do maybe 30 to 50 percent of her previous sales — not just because there won’t be outdoor dining anymore, she says, but because the stay-at-home order signals to customers that it really isn’t safe for them to leave their house at all. And she’s fine with that: “Of course we want to do what’s best for the community.” But that doesn’t change the enormous challenge that very small food businesses like hers are facing.
Having long avoided the third-party delivery apps, right now Tung says the one adaptation she’s looking to make is to find a way for Good to Eat to do in-house deliveries. “All we know is we cannot stop because if we stop, how about our staff? How about our customers?”
Ronnishia Johnson and Rheema Calloway also say that their vegan soul food catering business and food truck, the Vegan Hood Chefs, will continue to sell takeout at Speakeasy, as they’ve been doing since November. But they, too, expect business to drop precipitously. They’d been doing themed pop-ups with music — an R&B night, a ‘99/’00 night — that catered to people’s desire to be out in a crowd again (“socially distanced, of course,” Johnson says) and to have more of a dining experience.
Now, the duo says they plan to double down on their Sunday meal delivery service, which they might expand to other days of the week. They’ll focus on selling their sauces online. And they also plan to do more online cooking videos and community-oriented projects — all ways they can continue engaging their audience, even if they don’t translate directly to added income.
“It hasn’t been easy; it’s definitely been challenging,” Johnson says of the latest shutdown. “But it’s also taught us to be really creative around how we can diversify our platform.”
As for Blake’s Grillery, which is less of an established brand name, the prospect of another pivot now seems even more daunting — especially since it remains unclear how long the stay-at-home order will last. Parks says he and Camargo have also considered shifting to a takeout-only model — simply camping inside one of the shuttered bars and running their entire operation from there. But Parks wonders if it would even be even be a market for that. “If the to-go bar service isn’t busy, why do we think we’re going to be busy?”
“Then you’re just one of 1,000 taquerias in Oakland,” he says. “We lost what made us special.”
After factoring in the drop in demand for outdoor dining that will come, anyway, during the winter months, Parks says he’s not sure if Blake’s Grillery will even resume business once the restrictions are lifted: “You have the cold, the wind, the rain. Is that even a good business model to have? Is that good for our health to be out there in the rain?“
The past couple of days have been somber ones then, Park says, as the chefs packed up their commissary kitchen and went through the various stages of grief. “It wasn’t as bad as being at a funeral,” he says, “but it was pretty sullen.”