Arizona food trucks are open and getting creative due to coronavirus – The Arizona Republic

Maya Bartlett was getting ready to expand her business. Cory Mingo had just closed his brick and mortar restaurant to focus on his trucks. Chris Levandowski was ready for the busiest time of the year. Then all of those plans changed. 
While food trucks around Arizona are still able to operate during the coronavirus pandemic, canceled events and worries about the spread of COVID-19 have put a strain on the small business owners. Even while many understand the public safety concerns, food truck operators have still felt the ramifications of the health crisis in multifaceted ways. 
“A lot of us have been suffering due to social distancing,” said Via Childs, co-owner of Rhema Soul Cuisine. “This is how we make our money, through crowds. Trying to adjust around that has been really, really difficult.”
It started midway through March. When the MLB canceled spring training, which brings 15 teams to Arizona, food truck stops began drying up. 
“It was kind of surreal,” said Levandowski, who works at family-owned Cactus Corn.  
Other industries were making the same decision. Of the 14 events Cactus Corn was planning on attending the weekend of March 13, all but one were canceled or postponed. 
“I understand it’s more, it’s bigger than just Arizona,” he said. “But this is our time to shine.”
He estimated a good spring training game can bring in about $5,000. The company also operates a stand inside of Chase Field, and a weekend baseball game in the regular season can double that total. This time of year is so busy Cactus Corn usually pulls in seasonal employees for the gauntlet of games, concerts and conventions. 
“Everybody’s like, ‘Well, we’re going to postpone or reschedule these events,’” he said. “Deep down, I know that isn’t really feasible, because then we hit May and June, and then it’s like, ‘Who wants to go to a festival that normally would drop 50,000 people or something, and 75 degrees outside and then it’s 105 out?’ It’s just doesn’t happen. It can’t happen.”
But it’s not just events, games and festivals that are staples for food trucks. Mingo, who operates Mingo’s Louisiana Kitchen, estimates about 60% of his business comes from corporate lunches during the week. With companies switching to work from home, that revenue vanished, too. 
“This couldn’t have picked a worse time to happen,” Mingo said. “It’s our busy season. We literally have a couple more months before this before the summer hits. And we all know what happens during the summertime.”
Last week, Mingo had to close down one of his trucks, Screamin’ Hot Chicken, laying off all employees there. He hopes to be able to bring it back in the future, but recognizes the impact that decision has now. 
“There’s a lot of guilt on our part because a lot of employees, they had kids and you know, now we just couldn’t afford to pay them because there are no more stops to go around,” he said. 
Food truck operators already embrace creative procedures as part of the trade. Now, they’re exploring new ways to get to potential customers. 
Husband and wife Ron and Via Childs are starting to add delivery as an option for Rhema Soul Cuisine. Their plan is to wait until they get “significant orders” in the same geographical area so they can group deliveries together. With profits down, additional spending on gasoline can be another concern. 
Bartlett, owner of Maya’s Cajun Kitchen, began delivery this week as well. She said she’s fine doing one-off orders but does request a 24-hour notice for certain days of the week. 
Still, a quick change to delivery presents other challenges. Bartlett wanted to quickly get the word out about deliveries, but had some technological hoops to go through. 
“It took time to get a website up that didn’t look completely janky,” she said with a laugh. “Even though I’m not all that happy with it now.”
Cactus Corn plans to launch an e-commerce site this week, as well as wholesaling their products to local stores, Levandowski said. 
Mingo is seeing if there are apartment complexes that are interested in having a food truck come to them, as he tries to replace the income lost from corporate lunches. 
“We kind of had to change our base,” he said. 
If apartments are wary, he understands. He’s looking into other options as well. 
“Right now, we’re pretty much at the point to where we’re just trying to find the busy street corners and getting property owners’ permission to park on the busier intersections,” he said. 
While stops and schedules are in flux, the daily operating procedures within the trucks have remained fairly similar. 
Many food truck operators previously worked in traditional restaurants and were already accustomed to health code and food safety regulations. Even though food truck owners said they felt confident they were already in line with any safety measures, but some have added increased precautions.
In Mingo’s truck, every hour employees wipe down all surfaces, in addition to incremental cleaning during food prep. 
At busy stops, Rhema Soul Cuisine is announcing when orders are ready over a PA system, so that customers can wait in their car between ordering and when the food is ready, instead of congregating nearby.
Other precautions have come from outside.  
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Bartlett’s go-to stop is the Mesa Farmers Market. The market urged vendors to switch to preorders and to “grab and go” to minimize interaction time. Because of that, Bartlett had to adjust some of her menu items, as some work better prepackaged than others. 
“I’ve had to pretty much, not reinvent my menu, but change it up a bit,” she said. 
She’s also seen some effects from the supply chain on her business. Usually, she goes to One More Bite Bakery in Gilbert for bread for her po’boys. When the bakery ran into a flour shortage, Bartlett had to take the sandwiches off her menu for a week, before temporarily turning to the grocery store. As Maya’s Cajun Kitchen is a vegan food truck, she’s seen that vegan food options are still in decent supply. 
Through all this, food truck operators can also look to their network for support and suggestions. Bartlett is in a Facebook group, where different truck owners swap tips. It helps when there’s a lot to think about. On top of navigating ways to adapt her business, Bartlett is trying to make sure her kids, ages 6 and 12, stay on top of their schoolwork. 
There’s the exchange of ideas, but also a place to vent about fears and frustrations in a time of uncertainty. 
“From a community, speaking to other truckers, we all (are) struggling just to make ends meet,” Via Childs said.
Mingo hopes that when people are supporting local businesses, they don’t forget about food trucks. But some owners also think that as dine-in services at restaurants remain closed, soon, customers could flock back to mobile options. 
“Everybody’s not in the mood to cook,” Ron Childs said. “We’re starting to hear from people like, ‘OK, I’ve cooked for six days already. Enough is enough.’ “
He’s heard from parents who are adjusting to social distancing routines and starting to feel worn out from cooking two or three meals a day. Bartlett echoed that, adding that she’s seen memes and videos of kids asking for something different. She thinks that could soon lead to more orders from places like food trucks. 
“It’s coming. It’s coming really fast,” she said. “And so people are gonna want that different — they need that break up this monotony in the same routine and stuff like that.” 
Ron Childs just hopes people are deliberate. 
“If you’re rolling into Chick-Fil-A and Wendy’s and McDonald’s, I get it,” he said. “But at the same time, if you have your favorite food truck — I’m not saying just to go out — if you have your favorite food truck, try to support them as much as possible, however you can do it.”
Details: Cactus Corn, 602-561-7498, Maya’s Cajun Kitchen, Mingo’s Louisiana Kitchen, 480-865-4214, Rhema Soul Cuisine,
Reach the reporter at or 480-356-6407. Follow her on Twitter @kfitz134.
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