For Jordan Rubin, summer usually means taking his popular mobile sushi bar, Mr. Tuna, to craft breweries, where customers can enjoy his spicy tuna and salmon toro rolls with a cold beer. So far, during this summer of the pandemic, he’s visited one brewery, twice.

Business during the pandemic has been “a struggle,” Rubin said, and is “definitely worse” than in previous summers. Mr. Tuna’s indoor operation at the Public Market House in Portland’s Monument Square is temporarily closed. All of the festivals and other events on his summer schedule were canceled. So Rubin sets up every day from 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Portland’s Eastern Promenade, where increased competition abounds this year, with more food trucks vying for both parking spots and hungry customers who have not yet been lured away by the re-opening of restaurants.

“I feel like every week there’s a new food truck there,” Rubin said. “I think there were eight or nine of them a couple of weeks ago. It’s getting harder to find parking. Everybody’s got to show up early now to be sure they save their spot. It’s not easy.”

But when it comes to food trucks and how they’re faring during these unusual times, that’s not the whole story. The story is, well, all over the map. Business has fluctuated for food trucks. They saw better bottom lines in the spring, when restaurants were closed, followed by downturns when restaurants re-opened their doors. Losses from canceled events have, at least in some cases, been somewhat offset by more customers looking for safer spaces to spend their money. And a few of the trucks owners who set up at Congdon’s After Dark, a popular food truck park in Wells, say they have had record sales on some nights, and are seeing a lot of new customers.

Emma Ouellette works the beverage truck at Congdon’s After Dark food truck park in late July. This summer is Ouellette’s fourth summer working at Congdon’s. “It has still been busy,” she said. “I think people just feel safer outside.”

“For us personally, business is up,” said Hoss Coddens, who owns the food trailer Hoss and Mary’s with his wife, Deena “Mary” Askew. “We start off with a line every night, and it goes on for the entire night.”

Hoss and Mary’s limits itself to the food truck park in the summer – it normally does not do events, and in the winter it moves to the Saco Industrial Park – but Coddens said business has nevertheless doubled over last summer. “There are not many choices, and people just prefer to be outside,” he said.

He said they did notice a slowdown for about a week after restaurants re-opened to indoor dining, but then business bounced back.

Adam Leech, whose family runs Congdon’s, says most of the trucks who park there have felt a downturn in business on some level – especially the lack of Massachusetts visitors – but many have reported no overall decline in sales and some are showing slightly better numbers. When the park opened June 4, he said, “people were just looking to get outside.”

“Initially we saw a great burst (of business) because we were the only thing open, and ready to go and familiar,” he said.

He also speculates the trucks benefit from having lower overhead and smaller staffs than restaurants.

The park, which is open from 4 to 8 p.m. every day, has been reconfigured. Originally, the food trucks parked in a circle, facing inward, with picnic tables clustered in the center. Now the trucks face outward, and the 50-plus picnic tables have been scattered over the property, even taking over some of the parking area. Masks are required, and both the Leeches and the food trucks are policing the crowd to be sure they comply.

Leech says the number of trucks in the park has declined from more than 30 to about 18. Some dropped out to focus on one spot or to concentrate on brick-and-mortar restaurants; some decided not to do business at all this summer. Unlike the trucks on the Eastern Prom, which are facing more competition, the trucks at the park are facing less, one reason they have “been doing really well,” Leech said.

“There were a lot of people, especially early on, who said they felt safer and more comfortable because they could control their environment and spread out,” he said.

A customer perspective

Mike Nicholas, who lives in Saco and works in Portland, said he and his wife are eating at food trucks more often this summer, but not because they feel unsafe dining in a restaurant. “After being cooped up inside for all those months,” he said, “it’s just nice to be outside.”

Nicholas and his wife often meet friends at the park for dinner.

“They seem busier than ever,” he said, “and I think a big part of that is because a lot of the restaurants are either still very limited for hours or they’re just not open at all. The food truck park is easy because, especially if you have a family, there are so many options. You can try a few things. They have a beer garden tent there. They have things for kids to do. It’s just a great all-in-one spot.”

In a usual summer, Nicholas goes to the food truck spot on Spring Street in Portland for lunch. But food trucks have been scarce there this year. Nicholas speculates it’s because with workers in surrounding office buildings working from home, there are fewer customers. This year, he’s been frequenting the Eastern Prom instead. Mr. Tuna has become a favorite.

Nicholas has noticed more food truck traffic there. “It does seem busier than usual,” he said.

A customer picks up food at the Mr. Tuna mobile sushi bar on the Eastern Prom in Portland in mid-July. The truck has become a favorite of Mike Nicholas, a Saco resident who works in Portland. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

As of July 21, Portland had issued 36 food truck licenses, and 17 were pending approval, for a total of 53 trucks, according to city records. Last year, the city had 45 licensed food trucks.

Leap of faith

A handful of existing businesses have opted to start trucks this year, partly to shore up their bottom lines. At least one new truck could be considered a leap of faith.

Steffi Amondi left her job in finance the last week in February to open a small take-out restaurant serving bowls filled with healthful ingredients cooked in a wok. But just before she signed a lease, Amondi said, “everything crumbled.” The Monday after she left her job, the stock market tanked, COVID-19 was a thing, “and I thought, ‘What have I done?’”

On March 18, Amondi put the lease on hold and tried to regroup. Soon after, she was sitting on the Eastern Prom one day when she saw the Cousins Maine Lobster truck and realized her restaurant would work in a food truck format.

By the time Amondi launched her truck, called Actual Foods, on July 24, she had a new attitude, calling it “a perfect opportunity in a perfect storm.” Now she is cooking for all those people who need to lose their “pandemic pounds,” and she doesn’t have to worry about her brand-new restaurant going under before it even gets started.

“I feel like the luckiest girl in the world,” she said. “I would not be able to survive this at all. I’m not grateful for COVID, I’m grateful for having not rushed into it the way I was going to.”

The pandemic has also birthed new food trucks from existing businesses. Evo opened a food truck on the Portland waterfront earlier this summer called Evo X, with picnic tables and a full-service bar.

People stand in line to order or wait for their food at a safe distance from one another at Congdon’s After Dark food truck park in late July. Signs reminding customers a face mask is required and asking them to social distance are placed throughout the park. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Bard, a popular Portland coffee shop, recently bought an old shave ice trailer and placed it at Four Points Marina to sell coffee to help save the jobs of its nine employees and keep the business afloat, according to owner Bob Garver. (Bard, on Middle Street, has been closed since March 18, but the shop has been selling through take-out windows overlooking Tommy’s Park.)

“We’re probably doing better than most at our existing location,” Garver said. “I would say that our goal, frankly, is to get back to normal so we can sustain all of our staff members.”

Garver said he and his wife had planned to open a new coffee shop at the Four Points development. That has been put on hold until at least 2022, he said, “but we can begin to build community down there with the new coffee truck.” It will also give them a way to test new products and envision what coffee shops will look like after the pandemic. The truck is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.

A truck of one’s own

Fans of Mast Landing Brewing Co. in Westbrook will soon be able to buy lunch or dinner from the brewery’s own food trailer. (If the final inspection goes through, the brewery hoped to launch the truck this weekend Parker Olen, owner and vice president of brand strategy for the brewery, said it’s a practical move, since Westbrook is not exactly a hot bed of food trucks and the pandemic put a stop to plans for building an indoor kitchen.

Usually, breweries schedule a variety of food trucks to stop by.

“It’s proven that when you have food at a brewery or tasting room, more people are going to come,” Olen said. “They’re going to stay longer, and they’ll have a couple more pours.”

But Westbrook proved to be too far out of the way for some trucks, and scheduling them became a hassle, Olen said. The brewery had hoped to open its own indoor kitchen by fall, but when the pandemic hit, those plans changed. The brewery pivoted to packaging and distributing more beer throughout the country; tasting room sales were “not even a fraction of what we were getting prior to the pandemic” because seating capacity has been cut by more than half, Olen said. It’s remained open only “as a thank you to the people who are supporting us.”

Olen said he hopes the food trailer will attract more customers to come by and grab food and beer to go.

“You’re getting the exact same result as with your kitchen,” Olen said, “but it gives us a little more flexibility because we don’t know what tomorrow or six months or a year looks like, in a lot of ways.”

In the winter, the trailer will be brought indoors, setting up inside a bay that has good ventilation.

“Right now we’re hoping to break even, and look toward next summer to be in a better spot,” Olen said.

So are we all.


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