Now that Puerto Rico residents are learning to live with the “new normal” under the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and Gov. Wanda Vázquez reduced business and citizen restrictions with Executive Order 2020-066, food truck establishments are seeing a glimmer of hope amid what has been an uncertain time to stay afloat.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, food trucks are a growing market—the number of food truck establishments in the U.S. mainland is at least 5,970 today, nearly double the 3,281 registered in 2013. Stateside, social distancing requirements and orders to close had a detrimental effect on the restaurant industry, the Census Bureau reported, “but not all foodservice businesses were affected equally: Food Trucks or Mobile Food Services by their very nature have more flexibility to continue to operate.”
While that analysis may ring true for the mainland, Puerto Rico food trucks have been affected by a series of restrictions enforced since the beginning of the pandemic in mid-March, including lockdowns, curfews and strict social distancing protocols, among others.
THE WEEKLY JOURNAL spoke with three food truck business owners from different part of the island to discuss the ramifications of COVID-19 measures on this sector, and how they have reinvented themselves to ensure their and their employees’ livelihoods.
Jeffrey Rodríguez owns Taquería 2315, a family-owned business dedicated to selling street Mexican food such as tacos, burritos, taco salads, nachos and even made-to-order root vegetable chips. Originally, he would sell his products from the truck, stationed at a food truck complex in Manatí. Since the pandemic, however, that complex has remained closed and he has resorted to cooking the menu items from his own kitchen and selling them via delivery, for which he hired two new employees. Although he tried to settle in Bayamón, he said that the process to obtain the proper permits is “frozen.”
José González owns two food trucks, The Meatball Company and Pa’l Pita, both of which are stationed at the Miramar Food Truck Park in San Juan. However, he is only operating Pa’l Pita at the moment after he offered to lend his truck for The Meatball Company to the owner of Blue Fin, originally settled in Aguadilla.
“The first month of the shutdown was difficult because we were closed and they didn’t allow people to enter the park, so we could only do carry out,” he said. Pa’l Pita is specialized in Greek and Arabic food, such as gyros, hummus and falafel.
Jorge Muñoz, owner of Plátano Loco in Rincón—dedicated to plantain-fueled dishes, including burritos and hamburgers—has managed to remain open, but reduced tourism caused by restrictions and uncertainty has “significantly” affected his business.
“Our business is aimed at tourists, so they may know about our culture and ingredients, but it is also aimed at Puerto Ricans because we Puerto Ricans love plantains. Since we have both clienteles, the impact has been significant, but we have managed to resist amid the chaos,” Muñoz stated.
All of these food trucks had to close for several weeks as they analyzed the situation and enacted the proper protocols and business strategies. Despite suffering losses, the businesses were able to retain their employees, although in the case of González, because he is not operating The Meatball Company, he transferred his employees from that food truck to Pa’l Pita, but now all staff members are working at about 30 percent of their usual hours.
The interviewees concurred that they have noticed a resurgence in customer interest, particularly throughout the past weeks, all of them pinning it down to people losing their fear of going out and learning to live with the virus. They also noted that, unlike closed restaurants, food trucks are at a lower risk of being a focal point for contagion because they are open-spaced establishments.
In addition, they said that customers who visit food trucks can feel safe because have a clear view of the kitchen and their protocols, contrary to several restaurants that were closed over the summer for sanitation and health code violations.
Moreover, González noted that food trucks are not allowed to sell alcohol, so they avoid what the governor describes as “agglomerations” otherwise seen in bars and alcohol-centered businesses.
Despite being optimistic about the future, Muñoz said that ensuring stability for this sector cannot be accomplished if the restrictions are continuously modified. “The hardest blunder for businesses, including ours, is that constant change—that every two, three weeks we have to make a change and we have to make the adjustments for those two weeks and see what other adjustments we have to do in the next weeks,” he stated.
Government Aid Crucial
All business owners interviewed agreed that receiving government-issued financial aid was critical to sustain their businesses amid the economic crisis propelled by the pandemic—in an already weakened economy.
González, for instance, obtained the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) forgivable loan offered by the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) for Pa’l Pita. This, he said, allowed him to retain his workers.
Meanwhile, Muñoz received both the PPP and the $1,500 fund provided by the state government for small and midsize businesses as part of the economic stimulus announced on March 23, 2020, by the governor, at the beginning of the pandemic in Puerto Rico.
“We took advantage of the incentive that the state government gave, the $1,500 at the beginning, to then start operating; and we also took advantage of the SBA loan, the PPP, which is for payroll, for those first eight weeks of operation—as we did not know how the business was going to flow because of the situation. We took on that loan to use it for payroll and we used the other money for operations,” Muñoz said.
Although Rodríguez did not benefit from the SBA’s forgivable loan program, he did receive the $1,500 stimulus offered locally. While it helped allow him to stay in business, he affirmed that the Puerto Rico government should issue a second round of financial aid.
“I believe that back then it was enough to help one stay afoot, at least for me, in accordance with my business volume; I know that for other businesses it wasn’t enough… But I do believe that a lot of time has passed and there are still businesses that have not recovered and are trying to stay afloat, so I think there should be a second round,” he opined.
New Dining Options a Must
A recurring theme among the three business owners is the need to adopt new business models in order to survive the toll of COVID-19. With economic burdens affecting most people and a general fear among the populace of getting infected with COVID-19 by getting into close proximity with strangers, the interviewees acknowledged that they can no longer rely on the traditional business-customer dynamic in a food truck establishment.
Muñoz explained that for the time being, Plátano Loco is only performing pick-up services to avoid contact and make clients feel at ease. Contrarily, Rodríguez, because he is not operating the food truck per se, is selling his meals exclusively via delivery with his two new employees.
“When the pandemic began it was really difficult; there were barely any sales… Now, about three to four weeks ago, we are approaching our pre-virus sales, thanks to the delivery option. People have taken a liking to delivery and now they are ordering,” Rodríguez said.
González, for his part, is able to keep his food truck operating as per usual, but incorporated delivery through food courier services, such as Uber Eats, Dame Un Bite and Door Dash. He noted that other establishments stationed at the Miramar Food Truck Park also have Uva! and similar services. He stated that these platforms “basically saved our business.”
“At the beginning of the pandemic, people didn’t come because they didn’t dare leave their homes, but Uber Eats came and most of what we sold was through Uber Eats. Some [food trucks] did not have Uber Eats and they weren’t selling as a result,” González said.
Puerto Rico Lacking Data
While researching data about food trucks in Puerto Rico, it became clear that there are no statistics about how many of these establishments are registered. Jessica Morales, president of Gastronomía Urbana Móvil, also known as Food Truck PR—the only food truck organization registered at the P.R. Department of State—explained that the lack of reliable information stems from a discrepancy with the use of the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS).
“Those codes identify the establishment in the business register… they identify in which industry that business belongs. The NAICS code used in Puerto Rico is for vendors on wheels; the specific code for food trucks (NAICS 722-330) came into use two years ago,” she said. That is, an unquantifiable number of food trucks on the island use the same registration code as a variety of ambulatory businesses, such as hot dog carts. As such, Morales said that no government agency or private entity has precise information, making it impossible to track this sector—its numbers, growth and employment figures, among others.
According to Morales, while food trucks can change their code to the NAICS 722-330, it is not a requirement and many opt not to because “there are no laws or perceived benefits in changing it.” For these means, her organization has held meetings with a legislator from the western region of the island, with aims to passing legislation that would enforce proper classification to be able to track this economic sector.
Taquería 2315: (939) 228-9960. Wednesday to Saturday, 3:30 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.
Plátano Loco: (787) 868-4251. Thursday to Sunday, 12:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.
Pa'l Pita: (787) 222-2181. Wednesday to Sunday, 12:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.